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Flaxman's Dante

John Flaxman (1755-1826) was of the English generation after Gibbon. He, too, discovered his ruling passion in Rome, arriving there in 1787 and receiving a commission in 1792 to illustrate all three books of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In 1793 the 109 drawings of “Flaxman’s Dante” had been engraved by Thomas Piroli in a private edition for Thomas Hope, who had commissioned them. They were first published in 1802 in a pirated French edition (Bentley 14, Irwin 94). Piroli’s engravings were first published in an English edition by Longman in 1807. The twenty-three prints from Dante’s Purgatory that Melville acquired were engraved for the 1833 Paris edition of Flaxman’s Œuvres Complet by Etienne Achille Réveil (1800-1851). Réveil's engravings are very similar to Piroli’s but they do differ in interesting ways; I do not know whether they follow the pirated French edition of 1802 or were more directly based on the standard Piroli edition.

Howard Schless, in the 1960 essay cited below, speculated that Melville may have acquired these prints when visiting Paris in 1849. He also treats Melville’s copies of prints from Flaxman’s Aeschylus and Dante projects as the “remains” of a larger holding, implying that Melville may well have owned the entire edition of Flaxmans’s Œuvres Complet. Schless indicates that he had consulted Melville’s granddaughter Eleanor Melville Metcalf about the Flaxman prints from Melville’s collection, but he does not mention the present location in 1960 of the Aeschylus and Dante prints about which he writes, which Mrs. Metcalf had donated to the Berkshire Athenaeum in 1952 (Schless 65-66). If, as Schless implies, Melville had once owned all of Flaxman’s Dante, that would add another 83 plates to the 23 we have from the Purgatory. (See my headnote to CAT 2-5 for a summary of the contents of Réveil's entire 1833 edition of Flaxman’s Œuvres Complet.)

Flaxman’s illustrations of Dante resemble those of Aeschylus and Homer, commenced soon after 1793, in being outline engravings. They differ in having little visual precedent upon which Flaxman could draw. Whereas Flaxman abstracted much of the visual vocabulary for his Aeschylus and Homer illustrations from Grecian vases he had studied in Rome, he had no comparable visual precedent for Dante, whose Divine Comedy had not been translated into English until 1785, shortly before he began his illustrations. Flaxman’s 109 drawings were the “first extensive set of illustrations to be issued to the Divine Comedy. . . .  [He] therefore had virtually no precedents on which he could fall back, and thus produced his most consistently original set of illustrations.” His sources included fourteenth-century Italian painting, English medieval ecclesiastical art, and the “common cloaks of the lower classes in Italy,” which “suggested the drapery for Virgil and Dante” (Irwin 94-98). Unlike those artists who published illustrations alongside the texts they illustrated, Flaxman produced his literary illustrations as free-standing publications, relying on his drawings alone to convey the narrative action. He followed his literary source closely for pictorial inspiration, but he referred to its words only in providing a title for each drawing and reproducing a short poetic fragment below the ledger line (Bentley 8; Irwin 102-3). “Flaxman’s Dante illustrations are even more airborne than his scenes from Homer and Aeschylus,” Robert Rosenblum has noted. “They locate the spectator most often in ethereal and infernal realms exempt from gravitational and perspectival laws that generally dominated post-medieval art” (Rosenblum, Transformations, 169).

Schless’s 1960 essay on “Flaxman, Dante, and Melville’s Pierre” was the first extended essay to address the influence of visual art on Melville’s verbal art. Schless deftly shows how the entire structure of Melville’s Pierre pivots on a series of allusions, most of them explicit, to “Flaxman’s Dante” and “Dante’s Inferno.” One of the most overt occurs at the end of book 2, where Melville repeats the phrase “Flaxman’s Inferno” several times while also calling attention to Dante’s “Paolo and Francesca” and even to “Francesca’s daughter’s face,” the latter being “wafted on the sad dark wind, toward the observant Virgil and the blistered Florentine.” Melville’s use of “the blistered Florentine” for Dante as a companion of Virgil in the Divine Comedy shows the intimacy with which he felt the poem (NN P 42; Schless 68). That intimacy extended to Flaxman’s drawings to such a degree that Schless successfully argues that  “the graphic and literary versions . . . must both be considered when determining [Melville’s] use of Dante” (69). One striking example is the “physical description” of Isabel and Pierre in which “her head drooped against him” and “his whole form was bathed in the flowing glossiness of her imprisoned hair,” one of several passages that Schless brilliantly relates to Flaxman’s image of The Lovers Punished in illustration of canto 5 of the Inferno (NN P 112). Schless’s argument makes clear that Melville had seen, and internalized, prints from Flaxman’s Inferno, but I wish he had given more support for his inference that Melville had owned all of Flaxman’s Dante. I will necessarily center my commentary on the 23 illustrations of the Purgatorio that do survive from Melville’s collection.

When Schless wrote in 1960, he surmised that Melville had owned the 1847 edition of the Divine Comedy that was published in London by Bohn in the translation by Henry Francis Cary entitled The Vision: or Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, of Dante Alighieri (Schless 65n1). In the 1988 edition of Melville’s Reading, Merton Sealts confirmed that this in fact had been the edition that Melville had purchased in June 1848 (Sealts no. 147). In 1993 Lea Newman published a rich analysis of Melville’s markings and annotations in this particular volume, access then having been provided by its owner William Reese. Newman notes that the Inferno and the Paridise are the sections that Melville most thoroughly marked, though the Purgatory does contain some markings as well. She is primarily concerned with Mardi, the book Melville was writing when he acquired Cary’s Dante, but she also notes that Melville took this translation of Dante on his voyage to the Pacific in 1860 and was interested in Dante throughout the course of his career. Newman’s analysis of Mardi, like Schless’ analysis of Pierre, reveals Melville as an artist deeply steeped in Dante, often overtly, but just as often covertly, as she shows in her extended analysis of chapters 184-188 of Mardi. One small example is the title of chapter 185, “L’Ultima sera,” an Italian phrase which she shows is “taken directly from a footnote” to the first canto of the Cary Purgatory, explaining that the English phrase “the furthest gloom” derives from Dante’s “L’ultima sera” (Dante/Carey 179; Newman 317). Another example she gives of Melville’s intimate knowledge of Dante, via Carey’s 1847 text, is in her explanation of Dante’s seeming absence from the literary “worthies” with whom the narrator converses in the “Dreams” chapter of Mardi. When Melville writes that “blind Milton sings bass to my Petrarchs and Priors,” the latter term refers “unmistakably” to Dante, whom Cary in his biographical introduction identifies as “first of the Priors of Florence” (Newman 311-12). Dante’s apparent absence in the reference to “my Petrarchs and Priors” is in fact a presence whose force is intensified by the intimacy with which it is made.

In 2009 Dennis Berthold expanded our understanding of Dante’s cultural world as pictorially important to Melville in “Mardi’s Dantean Intertext,” chapter 2 of American Risorgimento. Berthold documents the degree to which Melville’s acquisition of Dante’s Divine Comedy gave him a “politically charged and aesthetically complex work that offered new insights into Italy, the Risorgimento, and America itself.” In addition to noting that Melville had marked and annotated a description of William Blake’s “Dante in the Empyrean, Drinking at the River of Light” in the copy of Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake that he acquired in 1870, Berthold indicates that “Melville returned to Cary’s Dante throughout his career, using it as a resource not only for his immediate writing projects, most obviously Mardi and Pierre, but as inspiration for his turn to poetry in the late 1850s and beyond.” By the end of his life, Melville had “marked” his copy of Cary’s edition of Dante “even more thoroughly than his set of Shakespeare.” In addition to its translation of the text itself, Cary’s Dante had an impressive “scholarly apparatus” which “integrates the Commedia into a larger European literary tradition,” providing Melville, in one volume, “a formula for literary greatness, for becoming a cosmopolitan writer whose influence extends across centuries and nationalities” (Berthold 66-71).

The scholarship of Schless, Newman, and Berthold has clearly established the depth and intimacy with which Melville alludes to Dante in both Mardi (1849) and Pierre (1852).Whether or not Melville acquired “Flaxman’s Dante” when he was in Paris in 1849, Schless’s textual analysis clearly shows that Melville had visual access to Flaxman’s illustrations of Dante’s Inferno, as well as of his Paradise and Purgatorio, when writing Pierre in 1851-52. When Melville was in Florence in 1857, he visited the “tombs of Dante, M. Angelo, Alfieri, and Machaivelli” (NN J 114).  In Clarel in 1876 Melville refers to Dante, and Virgil as Dante's guide, when Derwent, being led down the cliffs of Mar Saba by the Lesbian, at first compares their descent to that of “Aeneas,” and then finally cries out with, “Dear Virgil, mine, you are so strong, / But I, thy Dante, am nigh dead” (NN C 3.25.43, 81-2). As Melville was following Virgil and Dante’s pictorial adventures through “Flaxman’s Dante,” he was absorbing Flaxman’s late eighteenth-century English response to Dante’s early fourteenth-century Florentine response to Virgil’s first-century Roman response to the Aeneian underworld and the founding of Rome as he imagined them.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was born and died in Florence. He wrote the Divine Comedy early in the fourteenth century—anticipating the humanistic spirit of the Italian Renaissance while writing in the Italian Medieval ages with the inspiration of Virgil’s pagan grace. Stylistically, the outline engravings of the first London edition of Flaxman’s Dante published by Longman in 1807 have much in common with the outline engravings in the Historic Gallery of Paintings and Portraits published in London in 1807-19. Each is an outgrowth of the same classicizing impulse that led Gibbon to publish the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire between 1776 and 1787 and Flaxman to pursue his own artistic studies in Rome from 1787 to 1794.

  • Sources cited in this section
  • Bentley, C. E., Jr. The Early Engravings of Flaxman’s Classical Designs. New York: New York Public Library, 1964.
  • Berthold, Dennis. American Risorgiamento: Herman Melville and the Cultural Politics of Italy. Columbus: Ohio State U P, 2009.
  • Bindman, David. “Flaxman, John.” Grove 11: 162-65.
  • Dante Alighieri. The Vision: or Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Tr. Henry Francis Cary. London: Bohn, 1847 (Sealts no. 147).
  • Flaxman, John. Compositions from the Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise of Dante. Engraved by Thomas Piroli from the Drawings in Possession of Thomas Hope, 1793. London: Longman, Hurst, Reese, and Orme, 1807.
  • --------.  Purgatoire du Dante, from Oeuvre Complet de Flaxman. Recueil de les compositions gravées au trait by Etienne Achille Réveil, vol. 11. Paris: Audot, and Brussels, Parichon, 1833.
  • Irwin, David. “The Divine Comedy and Modern Literature.” In John Flaxman, 1755-1826: Sculptor, Illustrator, Designer. New York: Rizzoli, 1979.  94-106.
  • Leyda, Jay. The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville, 1819-1891. 2 vol. New York: Gordian Press, 1965.
  • Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. “Melville’s Copy of Dante: Evidence of New Connections between the Commedia and Mardi.Studies in American Renaissance (1993): 305-38.
  • Robison, Andrew. Piranesi, Early Architectural Fantasies: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Etchings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
  • Rosenblum, Robert. Transformations in Late Eighteenth-Century Art. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967.
  • Schless, Howard H. “Flaxman, Dante, and Melville’s Pierre.” Bulletin of the New York Public Library 64 (1960): 65-82.