Skip to main content

The Marriage of Cecilia and Valerian

CAT 106 Francia Marriage of Cecliia and Valerian BA 284.jpg

CAT 106. Francesco Francia. The Marriage of Cecilia and Valerian. From the fresco in the Saint Cecilia Cycle in the Oratory of Saint Cecilia, San Giacomo Maggiore, Bologna, 1505-06. Nineteenth-century. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Melville’s copy of this colored print was difficult to identify because it contains no information as to artist, engraver, subject, publisher, or date. What you do see is an assemblage of figures witnessing a solemn exchange before soft green hills framed by high white arches. The event pictured is The Marriage of Cecilia and Valerian as painted by Francesco Francia (1450-1517) in the Oratorio of Saint Cecilia at the Church of San Giacomo Maggiore in Bologna in 1505-06. Francia completed this fresco immediately before his long-time patron Giovanni Bentivoglio was driven from Bologna by papal armies led by Pope Julius II himself. This was the first of ten frescoes illustrating the Legend of Saints Cecilia and Valerian in the successive compartments of the Oratorio. Each compartment was 9 feet wide by 9 feet high, so the human figures were nearly life-size. Francia also painted the last work in the series, the Burial of Cecilia; other works in the series were painted by students and associates of Francia (Roettgen 422). There are no organ pipes in any of the ten frescoes illustrating the legend of Saint Cecilia in the Bologna Oratorio; these were to be firmly established in Christian iconography in the Saint Cecilia in Ecstasy that Raphael painted one decade later for the chapel of another church in Bologna, San Giovanni in Monte. 

The original Oratorio building was occupied by Augustinian hermits of the Catholic faith in 1323 and renovated beginning in 1359. From 1478 until 1798 the structure served as a parish church. Giovanni Bentivoglio, who commissioned the Oratorio, was de facto ruler of the city from 1463 to 1506. The ten consecutive panels painted by Francia and his pictorial team followed the legend of Saint Cecilia as told in the Passio Sanctae Ceciliae, an early Christian document dating from fifth-century Rome (Stivani 3-5). Saint Cecilia in Francia’s Marriage fresco holds her head away from Valerian as he fits the ring on her finger, symbolic of the message she will soon deliver to him that she will remain chaste even after they have married.

After Cecilia was married to Valerian in the first panel of the Oratorio, Valerian was converted to Christianity in the second panel and baptized as a saint in the third before he and Cecilia were crowned by an angel bearing floral wreaths of martyrdom in the fourth panel. Valerian and his brother Tiburtius were beheaded by the Roman authorities in panel 5 and buried in panel 6. St. Cecilia was then tried in panel 7 and martyred by immersion in a cauldron of boiling water in panel 8, which, however, failed to immediately kill her. That enabled her to be seen distributing alms to the poor in panel 9 before being buried as a saint in panel 10. In the burial scene Francia surrounded Cecilia with a crowd similar in size to the one that witnesses her marriage in the lithograph collected by Melville. The converging hillsides in the background of the burial scene are not as steep as those in the marriage scene; the two slender trees rising above the slender, extended, converging fingers of Cecelia and Valerian at the center of the marriage scene had been replaced by nurturing Christian imagery high in the heavens (Stivani 9-19; Roettgen 424-45).

By the time Melville arrived in Bologna in 1857, little remained to be seen of the St. Cecilia Cycle Francesco Francia and his colleagues had painted 350 years earlier. The frescoes had themselves become victims of the vicissitudes of religious and cultural warfare. The invasion by Pope Julius in November 1506 resulted in the immediate exile of Bentivoglio, who died in a prison two later. The conquest of the city by the Papal powers led to many changes in the physical structure and pictorial content of the former Oratory during the next several centuries. Changes were more drastic after the invasion of Napoleon’s forces in 1798, when this site of religious devotion for more than four centuries dating back to the Augustinian hermits was “secularized and subsequently serve[d] many purposes, even as a barracks” (Roettgen, pp. 422-23, 454). By the time of Melville’s visit, the most recent edition of Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Central Italy (1853) indicated that the “Church of Sta Cecilia” once “celebrated” for its frescoes by Francia and others had been “ruined by the French” following the Napoleonic  invasion in 1798, although “it still exhibits many interesting fragments” (44-45). An editorial note to the chapter on Francesco Francia in the English translation of Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters that Melville acquired after returning from Italy indicated that the St. Cecelia frescoes were “fast going to ruin” (2:299). For a detailed account of the process by which Napoleon’s army plundered and defaced the artistic legacy of Italy following its invasion of the Papal States at Bologna in 1796, see Cynthia Saltzman’s Plunder (chapters 7-13).


On March 30, 1857, his one full day in Bologna, Melville does not appear to have seen whatever “fragments” might then have remained of Francia’s Marriage of Cecilia and Valerian. He did see Raphael’s Saint Cecelia, which then remained one of the glories of the city, as it still is today. Melville saw that painting in Bologna’s celebrated Picture Gallery, also known as the Reale Pinacoteca. In addition to mentioning Raphael’s Saint Cecelia in his journal, Melville listed titles of paintings by Guido Reni and Domenichino, two 17th-century Bolognese artists he was eventually to add to his print collection (NN J 116, 499; CAT 112, 113). In addition, perhaps during his Gallery visit, he drew check marks alongside Valery’s descriptions of thirteen individual paintings by Bolognese artists, ranging in time from a student of Francia through Guido and Domenichino, in the copy of Travels in Italy he had inscribed in Florence the week before. After checking all those names, he marked and underlined Valery’s tribute to Raphael’s Saint Cecilia as the most famous painting in the Gallery not by a painter from Bologna (Valery 239-41; Cowen 11:342-51; see CAT 108 and the introduction to Seventeenth-Century Italian Artists for more details on Melville’s markings).

After spending considerable time examining paintings in Bologna’s Picture Gallery, Melville walked through a “vast extent of sepulchral arches” (covered arched walkways) on his way to “the Campo Santo” (burial ground). He also climbed “arcade winding up the hill” for three miles to the celebrated University of Bologna and the Church of the Madonna San Luca. Neither during this afternoon walk nor his walk “under arcades” in the evening did he make any mention of entering the arcade that had once taken visitors directly into the Saint Cecilia Oratorio next to San Giacomo Maggiore (NN J 116, 499).

If so little was left in 1857 of the frescoes Francia and his colleagues had painted 350 years earlier, how did the lithograph acquired by Melville include such fully rendered and harmoniously colored figures? When, where, and by whom could such a lithograph have been created? The generous size of the print (20 x 18 inches), and its colored lithograph technique, would seem to indicate a date in the mid-nineteenth-century, either before or after Melville’s visit. Since the print itself contains no information as to the subject, artist, engraver, date, or place publication, one wonders what, if anything, Melville may have known about any of these things whenever or whenever he acquired the print. During my work on this project, I still have not been able to establish with certainly the name of the lithographer who created the work or its place or date of publication. Nor have I yet been able to discover the location of any other copy of this print besides the one that Melville owned. My suggestion in the Print Identification for this entry that Melville’s print may be “a lithograph after drawing by Giuseppe Guizzardi” comes from the only reference I have so far found to the print itself—in Melville’s copy of The Renaissance of Art in Italy, published in 1883 by Lucy Baxter under the pseudonym Leader Scott (Sealts no.451.1).

After praising Francia as exemplifying the “sweet expression of the pure Umbrian school,” Baxter, an art historian from England then living in Florence, regrets that “the frescoes” Francia had painted of the “Life of St. Cecelia” in Bologna “have unfortunately perished.” Her one consolation is that “a drawing of the St. Cecilia copied by Guizzardi has been lithographed” (171-72). Giuseppe Guizzardi (1779-1861) was “a painter, restorer, and engraver” in Bologna (Sauer 4:449; TB, 15:326; Nagler 2:1050). If the copy of The Marriage of Cecilia and Valerian acquired by Melville had been drawn or lithographed by Guizzardi, perhaps Melville acquired it while in Bologna four years before Guizzardi’s death. But even if that were true, what might have been the source of “the drawing after of the St. Cecilia copied by Guizzardi” (in Baxter’s formulation), given that so much of the original painting had been “ruined” by the invading French army while turning the Oratorio into a “barracks” early in the nineteenth century?

A possible answer to the latter question came a century later in the detailed history of the Saint Cecilia Oratorio in Steffi Roettgen’s Italian Frescoes: The Flowering of the Renaissance, 1470-1510, published in 1996. According to Roettgen, one of the earliest steps to preserve, in the hope of restoring, what was left of the frescoes in the former Oratorio had come in 1829, when Gaetano Canuti published his “outline engravings of all the frescoes” (454). Canuti’s outline engravings would seem to be the likely source of the “drawing the St. Cecelia copied by Guizzardi” before becoming the lithograph acquired by Melville. In 2004, Cristina Bersani co-curated an exhibition whose catalog reproduced the engraving of The Marriage of Cecilia and Valerian that Canuti had published in 1829. Her catalog entry indicted that Canuti had created his outline engraving with the intention of “salvaging” Francia’s fresco from the “progressive deterioration” by which it was “vanishing” (Bersani, pp. 33-35, rpr. 34). Today, copies of the print Melville acquired appear to be rare even in Bologna and its environs. In 2008, Bersani reported in an email to me that she had found no trace of the print Melville had acquired in the museums or art libraries of Central Italy (January 29, 2008).

Melville arrived in Bologna at the peak of a revival of interest in the paintings of Francesco Francia in England. The 1843 edition of Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Central Italy (that Melville had probably taken with him on the 1849 voyage of England and the Continent) had presented Francia as the “true founder” of the Bolognese school in painting but acknowledged that his works “have only lately been appreciated in England” (27; Sealts no. 375). Murray’s updated volume in 1853 had declared that Francia’s works “are now fully appreciated in England” (28). This change in the text of Murray’s handbook for Central Italy coincided in the early 1850s with the rise of the pre-Raphaelite movement in English painting led by Millais and the Rosettis and with the publication of the chapter on “Francesco Francia” in the carefully edited English translation of Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters that Melville acquired after is return from Italy (Sealts no. 534a).

The account of Francia’s early career in Melville’s copy of Vasari’s Lives, echoed in Murray’s Handbook, emphasized that Francesco Francia was a goldsmith who excelled in creating gems and coins long before he became a painter in either oil or fresco. Vasari declared that Francia in his metal work “executed everything that is beautiful, and which can be performed in that art, more perfectly than any other master had ever done.” Francia had especially enjoyed “cutting dies for medals.” This he continued to do for the rest of his life once Bentivoglio appointed him “Director of the Mint at Bologna.” After Pope Julius II invaded the city in 1507, Francia was also commissioned to design every coin featuring the “head of his Holiness” (Vasari 2: 295). After the loss of his patron Bentivoglio, and the completion of his frescoes for the Oratorio of Saint Cecilia, Francia extended his reach as a painter throughout the churches and courts of Central Italy, including those in Ferrara, Modena, Parma, and Lucca.

The beauty of Francia’s Marriage of Saint Cecilia is Pre-Raphaelite in a very specific sense. Francia painted it a full decade before Raphael executed the commission to paint his own Saint Cecilia for the Church of San Giovanni in Monte in Bologna. Raphael had sent the completed painting directly to Francia, inviting him to repair any blemishes before it was actually installed. In describing what ensued, Vasari gave credence to the rumor that Francia, upon unpacking the canvas, was so “astonished” when he saw its “superiority” to his own work that he “fell ill with his grief [and] in a very short time . . . died of its effects” (2:304). Francia did die one year later. Murray in 1853 repeated Vasari’s assertion that “the great painter died of mortification and surprise shortly after the Sta. Cecelia arrived in Bologna” (Vasari 2:304-05; Murray 1853, 32). But Vasari’s assertion is treated with caution in the editorial notes in Melville’s copy of the English translation of the Lives and it is dismissed outright by Lucy Baxter in the copy of The Renaissance of Art in Italy he acquired after its publication in 1883.

Baxter emphasized that Francia was already a great admirer of Raphael and his art long before his Saint Cecilia came to town, as seen both in a letter Raphael had written to Francia in 1508 and in Francia’s “laudatory sonnet” in praise of Raphael for which Baxter provides an English translation (172, 372). Murray in both is his 1843 and 1853 Handbooks for Central Italy had quoted an 1807 letter from Raphael saying that he “had seen no Madonnas better designed, more beautiful, or characterized by a greater appearance of devotion than those of Francia” (1843:27, 1853:28). Melville remained fascinated with the complex dynamics between highly accomplished yet competitive artists throughout his active life as a poet and a print collector, as indicted in the tension between “audacity—reverence” in “Art,” the poem he published in Timoleon the year he died (NN PP 280).

The first steps in the process of actually restoring what remained of the frescoes in the Saint Cecilia Oratorio to something resembling their original condition began in 1857, the year of Melville’s visit to Bologna. Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle, soon to be known to English-language readers as co-author of a comprehensive biography of Titian (see CAT 109), visited the Bologna Oratorio, took notes on what remained of its frescoes, and “conceive[d] of a plan for its restoration.” This led to restoration of the floor and entrance to the building in 1859. In 1874 this  was followed by a restoration of the building itself and removal of earlier “overpainting” by Luigi Cavenaghi “at the behest of the Italian prime minister.” Additional work on restoring the earlier structure and what remained of the frescoes continued during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries until finally, the mid-1960s, the “entire church” had been restored in commemoration of “the one-hundredth anniversary of the unification of Italy.” In this process, the “vanishing” frescoes had at long last been “restored by Ottorino Nonfarmale” (Roettgen 428, 454, pl. 229-238).

Roettgen in 1996 does lament that “it is now difficult to imagine the original splendor of the paintings and their wealth of figural details. Many of the elements executed in secco—the skies, the details of the background landscapes, buildings, flags, garments, etc.—have been irretrievably lost.” The paintings themselves were “now dominated by reds and white.” In every panel “the ground area has been damaged, probably by the installation of choir stalls along the walls after the church was secularized. The installation of an altar . . . caused large losses in the lower sections” of two of the scenes (454). The damages, losses, and distortions suffered by these frescoes over the centuries were striking confirmation of a truth Melville had absorbed when contemplating the art of ancient Greece: that verbal arts are less susceptible to physical erosion, theft, or destruction than are visual or tactile arts. In the words of Christopher Wordsworth in Melville’s copy of Greece: Pictorial, Descriptive, Historical, “while the colours of the Painter have faded, and the marble of the Sculptor is broken and banished to a distant land, the work of the Poet lives every where” (116).

Melville’s nineteenth-century lithograph of The Marriage of Cecelia and Valerian probably captures more of the original painting than what we see on the walls of the Oratorio today. Given Roettgen’s list of “irretrievable losses” from the restoration process, one wonders if the successive artisans who restored that fresco had access to their own copy of the color lithograph that Melville had preserved as part of his print collection until his death in 1891. Immediately below is the modern restoration of the fresco as it appears on the cover of the English translation of The Oratory of St. Cecilia published in Bologna in 2003 (fig. 1).

CAT 106 fig 1 Cover of Stivoni St. Cecilia Oratorio 2003 jpg.jpg

Figure 1. Reproduction of Francia’s Marriage of Cecelia and Valerian on cover of Eros Stivani, The Oratory of Saint Cecelia, published in Bologna in 2003.

Comparison of the restored fresco on the cover of the 2003 booklet with Melville’s mid-nineteenth-century lithograph confirms Roettgen’s 1996 lament that the restored frescoes are “dominated by red and white.” This is particularly evident in the clothing of Cecilia, whose plum-colored dress has turned reddish. The soft plum, green, gold and blue clothing throughout the nineteenth-century lithograph has turned harsh and garish in the restored fresco. So has the sweet springtime growth on the slopes of the steep hill side. Also lacking in the restoration is that “Umbrian sweetness of the pure Umbrian school” that Baxter celebrated in Francia’s treatment of human figures and facial features. This, too, is much more evident in Melville’s lithograph than in the modern restoration (as is easily seen by activating the zoom feature for CAT 106 and figure 1 on the catalog level of this entry). Even the reproduction of Canuti’s 1829 outline drawing in Bersani’s 2004 exhibition catalog suggests more of inner life in Cecilia’s face as she extends her slender fingers to accept the Valerian’s ring than we see in reproductions of the restored fresco on the wall of the Oratorio (Bersani 34; Stivani, cover; Roettgen 231).

To my eye, the most conspicuous among the “wealth of figural details” that have been “irretrievably lost” in the process of restoration are seen on the far right side of Melville’s lithograph. The man in the turban on the right side of Francia’s restored fresco is missing the mouth and jawbone that are clearly present in the nineteenth-century lithograph. In the restoration, the young man standing behind the golden shoulder of the man with turban is entirely missing the facial features so clearly evident in Melville’s print. In addition, the soft green of the young man’s outer garment, the darker green stripes of his upper sleeve, and blue feather rising from his hat in Melville’s color lithograph have all turned white in the modern restoration, whose final indignity to the young man has been to coarsen the elegance of his stylish shoes and rob the ground on which he is standing of its springtime warmth and color. Such details as these make me wonder if all such losses were irretrievable. The situation reminds me of the visit I made during this century to an exhibition of late Turner seascapes for which the host museum had cleaned and restored the one such painting in its own collection by removing the varnish that had hardened and dirt that had accumulated over the years. The restored painting looked clean, yes, but somewhat naked out beyond the shoreline on the right. The restorer, who must have lacked access to Robert Carrick’s 1852 lithograph of this 1840s painting, had stripped away a cluster of boats on the right side with which Turner had balanced those on the left (Butlin and Joll, no. 387).

The arrival of Raphael’s Saint Cecilia in Bologna as the patron saint of music a decade after Francia had painted the fresco of her marriage to Valerian initiated a change in pictorial style nearly as sharp as the one in Catholic iconography. In the words of David Ekserdjian, “the apocryphal anecdote repeated by Vasari that Francia died on seeing Raphael’s St. Cecelia is emblematic of the change in taste that suddenly made his art—like that of Perugino—look old fashioned” (699). A similar change of taste at the end of the sixteenth century was to be initiated by Ludovico Carracci, Guido Reni, Domenichino and others in the second Bolognese school of painting.

For Melville’s allusions to Saint Cecilia in Clarel, see my discussion of Melville’s copy of the Saint Cecilia that Domenichino was thought to have painted a century after those by Francia and Raphael (CAT 111). For the black-and-white engraving of Raphael’s Saint Cecilia in the book about that painter that Melville acquired after its publication in 1880, see MBB 2.3 in the Melville Book Boxes on this site. For a reproduction in color of the original painting that Francesco Francia saw as soon as it arrived in Bologna in 1515-16, that Herman Melville saw during his visit to Bologna in 1857, and that remains one of the prize possessions of the Bologna Pinacoteca today, see figure 2 immediately below.

CAT 106 fig 2 Raphael St Cecilia Wiki commons.jpg

Fig. 2. Raphael. St. Cecilia, oil on canvas, 1515-16. Bologna Pinacoteca. Wikipedia Commons.