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Saints Catherine and Barbara and Mary Magdalene

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CAT 107. H. Merz after Sebastian del Piombo. Saints Catherine and Barbara and Mary Magdalene. Engraved for "Venetian Painters" in The Art-Journal, 1873, p. 124. London: Virtue & Co. E. Bart Chapin Jr. Family Collection.

Five years after Francesco Francia painted The Marriage of Cecilia and Valerian in the Saint Cecilia Oratorio in Bologna, Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547) painted the high altarpiece of San Giovanni Crisostomo in Venice. The engraving Melville owned of Saints Catherine and Barbara and Mary Magdalene reproduces a detail from this altarpiece. Magdalene is the saint in the center, with Catherine to the left and Barbara (who is now considered by some to be Saint Agnes or Lucia) to the right. Sebastiano’s three saints were engraved for reproduction in a series on “Venetian Painters” in the Art-Journal in London in 1873. His disposition of “the female figures” so as to “present simultaneously three different viewing angles of the faces” was considered a striking innovation in Venetian art (Lucco 332). Melville could have seen a beautiful precedent for it in his own print collection in the angles by which Francia presents the faces of Saint Cecilia and her two female companions in his Bologna painting. Turn Francia’s Cecilia slightly to the center and raise her downcast eyes to engage those of the viewer and you would have a composition quite similar to the one Sebastiano painted in Venice five years later (1510-11). This altarpiece is one of the last works Sebastiano painted before leaving Venice for Rome in 1511; some early authorities had attributed it to Giorgione, who died a year earlier.

As Michael Hirst has noted, Sebastiano’s “seductively beautiful group of female saints” has influenced artists from Titian (who soon borrowed their figures for one of his own works) to Henry James (who found “the face and figure” of the central saint as “almost unique among the beautiful things of Venice” just one year after publishing The Portrait of a Lady in 1881). James feels that this “magnificent creature,” in addition to being the “perfect flower” of sixteenth-century Venice, would have been “a strange, a dangerous, but a most valuable acquaintance” (Hirst 26-27). In Melville’s print collection, his acquisition of this 1873 engraving of Sebastiano’s classically composed yet alluring trio of females relates well to the engravings he acquired of the Beatrice Cenci at the Barberini Palace, of a Venus and Cupid drawn by Boucher, and of a variety of alluring female figures by Watteau (CAT 113, 161, 158, 159, and 160). In Melville’s late poetry, such engravings relate to the repressed sexuality so strongly felt in both Clarel and “After the Pleasure Party” (for a detailed discussion of such connections as they radiate out from Sebastiano’s seductive trio, see Wallace, 2000, 20-26).

Young Melville first alluded to Sebastiano in Mardi, where one of the martial games on the imaginary island of Direnda features “a tussle between two-score warriors” who “all in a mass, writhed like the limbs in Sebastiano’s painting of Hades” (NN M 447). In Rome on March 4, 1857, the day after the journal entry conveying his impression of the Beatrice Cenci at the Barberini Palace, Melville recorded a visit to the “church of St. Pietro in Montorio” in which he saw “Flagellation of Piombo” (a work from Sebastiano’s Roman period whose increased muscularity shows the effect of his collaboration with Michelangelo) (NN J 108-09). Melville marked several pages in Vasari’s chapter on Sebastiano, placing three marginal check marks next to a footnote in which Vasari supports his own opinion about the position Sebastiano occupied between Michelangelo and Raphael by citing an unnamed “contemporary” who finds it nearly laughable that Michelangelo would try to use Sebastiano as a “lance with which . . . to lift the Urbinese from his saddle!” (Vasari, 4:65).[1] 

[1] Here and elsewhere on this site I am grateful to Hershel Parker for sharing his notes on Melville’s marks and annotations in Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters.

Modern authorities such as Michael Hirst and Maura Lucco rank Sebastiano’s artistry and originality more highly than did Vasari. Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) knew Sebastiano personally, but only in the 1530s and 1540s, after the artist had completed his most important work in Venice and Rome. Hirst regrets that Vasari was Sebastiano’s “first, unsympathetic biographer.” Not only was Vasari too quick to assume that Sebastiano’s mentor Giorgione was the actual creator of the altar-piece of the San Giovanni Crisostomo in Venice; he was less than forthcoming in the manner in which he withdrew that attribution in the revised edition of his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters. Hirst is especially taken with the “plastic style” in which Sebastiano depicted “the female saints of the Crisostomo alterpiece.” The Magdalen, in particular, combines visual “plasticity” with “a love of substance” not previously seen in Venetian art. At the same time, her “seductive beauty” also embodies the artist’s “instinct for harmony, even statis.” Hirst considers the entire Cristostomo altarpiece one of “the supreme examples of Venetian High-Renaissance painting." To him, the three female saints to the left of the main action are in the foreground of that achievement (see fig. 1). For Michael Hirst in 1980s, as for Henry James in the 1880s (and perhaps for Herman Melville when he acquired this engraving sometime after its publication in 1873), these three women are “a paradigm of Venetian classicism, tranquilly poised” (Hirst 1-2, 17, 24, 28).

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Fig. 1. Sebastiano del Piombo. The San Giovanni Altarpiece, 1510-11. San Giovanni Crisostomo, Venice.

Sebastiano was only twenty-six years old when he moved to Rome in 1511. The immediate success of the Polymephus that he soon painted adjacent to Raphael’s Galatea brought him to the center of the artistic world in which the expansive classicism of Raphael and the muscular athleticism of Michelangelo were vying for supremacy. Sebastiano was an instinctively classicizing artist eager to bring increasing strength and dynamism to his pictorial style and he greatly admired both artists. During this period, he became a close associate of Michelangelo, whose influence is easily seen in Flagellation of Christ that Melville noted in his journal after visiting Saint Peter in Montorio in 1857. This 1517 painting is generally considered to be Sebastiano’s Roman masterpiece. This work appears to have been a joint undertaking in which Sebastiano was given the commission with the understanding that Michelangelo would provide drawings which Sebastiano would turn into an appropriately pictorial painting. As a result, Vasari give most of the credit to Michelangelo for the success of the painting (as had also done with Giorgioni in relation to the Venetian altarpiece). Michelangelo was no longer in Rome by the time Raphael died in 1520, so Vasari did acknowledge that Sebastiano had then become the leading artist in Rome. His continuing status in the wider culture was shown by Ariosto in the 1534 edition of Orlando Furioso. At the beginning of canto 33, Ariosto names those contemporary Italian artists he considers equal to the greatest of the ancients. Along with Leonardo, Bellini, and Michelangelo, he lists “Sebastiano del Piombo, Raphael, and Titian” (396).

After the brutal sack of Rome by mutinous soldiers of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1527, Sebastiano took more commissions outside the city, including at the court in Ferrara in which Ariosto was a fixture. He became a friar in the Catholic Church at the pleasure of Pope Gregory VII and for the rest of his life had a guaranteed income which, in Vasari’s view, contributed to Sebastiano’s subsequent “laziness” as a painter. Melville drew long marginal lines along two passages to this effect the five-volume copy of Vasari he acquired in 1862. One of those is a “facetious and amusing letter” in which Sebastiano wrote that “since I have enough to support me, I will not work; there are geniuses now in the world who do more in two months than I used to do in two years; I think, indeed, that if I live much longer I shall find that every thing has been painted which it is possible to paint, and since these good people are doing so much, it is upon the whole well that there is one who is content to do nothing, to the end that they may have all the more to do” (Vasari 4:74). 

The discussion of Sebastiano and the Venetian school that accompanied the reproduction of Sebastiano’s three saints in the Art-Union of London (in February 1873 and March 1874) would not have given Melville much that he did not already know from Vasari (from whom William B. Scott borrowed shamelessly). The commentary on Sebastiano in the 1847 edition of Lanzi’s The History of Art in Italy that Melville borrowed from the library of Evert Duyckinck in 1859, soon after returning from Italy, was itself heavily reliant on Vasari. Melville did have access to fresh, first-hand responses to Sebastiano’s work in the capacious, often entertaining 1852 edition of Valery’s Travels in Italy he had purchased Florence en route to Venice in 1857. Valery gave recognition to the female figures in the “superb painting by Sebastiano del Piombo” in the Venetian altarpiece by calling that painting St. John Chrysostom and other saints. In discussing The Flagellation at San Montorio in Rome, Valery wrapped some of Vasari’s major points in his own language by saying that the chapel of this church, “slowly painted in six years by Sebastiano del Piombo after vigorous designs by Michael Angelo, is the result of a league between the latter, and Sebastiano, his favorite pupil, against Raphael, who had been ranked above Michael Angelo for invention or coloring” (178, 558-59). Passages such as these in Melville’s books about art greatly enriched the aesthetic framework from which he wrote “At the Hostelry,” the eight-part narrative poem, unpublished at his death, in which Melville conducted a running debate among more a dozen Old Master painters from Italy, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain over the nature of the “picturesque” in painting (NN BBO 149-68).

One of the most telling commentaries on the artistry of Sebastiano del Piombo to which Melville had access in his personal library came not from his books on Italian art by Vasari, Lanzi, Valery, or Baxter but from the copy of Hazlitt’s Criticisms on Art that he acquired and inscribed in 1870. In the essay on the Royal Collection at Hampton Court outside London, Melville marked the passage in which Hazlitt praises Sebastiano’s “portrait of a lady with green and white purfled sleeves” by comparing those sleeves to “the leaves and flower of the water-lily, and as clear!” As for Sebastiano’s depiction of the lady herself, Melville drew a marginal line along the entire passage in which “the natural ease of her attitude, and the steady, sensible, conversable look of the countenance, place this in a class of pictures which one feels a wish to have always by one’s side.” Melville underlined the word “conversable,” showing how closely and sympathetically he was reading this one word with which Hazlitt asserts of power of painted portraits to speak to us as if they were alive (MMO 263a, 075.8-16).

Hampton Court was the first in the series of picture galleries in the suburbs of London that Melville visited on his first visit to that city late in 1849. Young Melville probably carried with him, borrowed from his friend Evert Duyckinck, the “pocket edition” of Hazlitt’s Sketches of the Picture Galleries of England in which the Hampton Court essay had first appeared in 1824 (Wallace, Melville and Turner, 252). This Sunday excursion on a “beautiful autumn day” was a tourist’s dream. Walking out a few steps from his lodgings on Craven Street, Melville “heard the music” at Temple Chruch and saw the recently restored effigies of “the 10 Crusaders . . . who had been to the Holy Land” as medieval warriors. These were effigies of actual twelfth-century Knights Templars to whom Melville was to allude to in “The Paradise of Bachelors” in 1855 and in Clarel in 1876, the epic poem in which Melville’s projected those “monk-soldiers helmet-crowned” from medieval England back into the world of the literary Jerusalem in which Tasso had deployed then in Jerusalem Delivered three hundred years earlier (NN J 281-82).

From Temple Church on that Sunday morning,  Melville had “looked in” in at St. Paul’s Cathedral before taking “a bus . . . for Hampton Court.” In his journal he carefully recorded the names of places he had previously known only from his reading (from “the Strand to Picadilly & Hyde Park, past Kensington Gardens, Hammersmith, Chiswick, Truhmam Green, Kew”) before the bus took him “across the Thames to Richmond Hill,” where “the prospect was ineffably fine. . . . The day was one in a million for England, too. Here here the poet Thompson dwelt. I was on top of the coach. Pope lived near here, at Twickeham, over the way. Arrived at Hampton Court about 2 P. M.--distant some 20 miles, I think, from St. Paul’s. The place is full of pictures” (NN J 116).

The picture gallery at Hampton Court contained 1008 paintings that were individually listed in Appendix 3 of the 1843 edition of Hazlitt’s Criticisms on Art that Melville acquired in 1870. After wandering through such an astonishing assemblage of authentic Old Master paintings for the first time in his life, young Melville did what he was to do in almost every English and Europlean gallery he was to visit in 1849 or 1857: he made a quick staccato list in his journal of those painters and paintings that had most caught his eye. At Hampton Court on November 11, 1849, these were Raphael’s “Cartoons” (which were “not well disposed for light”), “a Venus by Titian,” an “Ignatius” possibly by Guido, “Rembrandt’s Jew,” and “lovely” portraits of the “Beauties” that Lely and Van Dyck had painted for the King of England, among which Melville singled out “the Dutchess of Cleveland” (NN J 116). Later in life, Melville was to acquire prints after paintings by five of those six artists: Raphael (CAT 108), Titian (CAT 109), Guido (CAT 113), Rembrandt (CAT 186), and Van Dyck (CAT 199). He was also to acquire prints after twenty additional Old Master painters whose individual paintings are listed in the Hampton Court appendix in Hazlitt’s Criticisms on Art. By the time Melville was assembling his own print collection in the 1870s, supplemented by his growing library of books on art and artists, the visual images in the prints he was collecting and the verbal information in the library he was buildling were each enriched by the journal entries he had made in England and on the Continent in 1849 and 1857 as well as by his exceptionally retentive memory of the entire array of paintings he had seen while traveling abroad.

After seeing the paintings at Hampton Court on the afternoon of November 11, Melville and his companion, Dr. Adler, a German professor from New York City, had “walked thro’ the parks . . . till after sundown,” after which they stopped at “a road side inn” and “drank a glass of ale” before “returning to town by the RR,” dining “at the Adelphi . . . stopping in at St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, & to bed early.” It was probably just before going to bed that he jotted down the shorthand list of a few of the individual paintings that had most caught his eye at the gallery. In doing so, he was probably assisted by the “pocket edition” of Hazlitt’s Sketches of the Picture Galleries of England that Duyckinck had brought with him on his own first visit to those same galleries a decade earlier. John Murray’s first Handbook of London, written by Peter Cunningham, with whom Melville was to dine at one of his “Paradise of Bachelors” dinners in December, was in production but not yet published.

The digital image below shows the “conversable” portrait of Hazlitt’s “portrait of a lady with green and white purfled sleeves” as she appears at the King’s Dressing Room at Windsor Castle today (fig. 2). Curators of the Royal Collection Trust currently attribute Hazlitt’s Portrait of a Lady in Green not to Sebastiano del Piombo but to Agnolo Bronzino (1503-32). They note that earlier inventories of the painting had attributed this portrait variously to Raphael, Andrea del Sarto, Sebantiano del Piombo, Pontormo, and Girodamo da Carpi before arriving at the current attribution of Bronzino. Combining the theory that Brozino painted this portrait with evidence that Charles I of England “acquired the painting” from a court in northern Italy c. 1629-32, they date the Portrait of a Lady in Green c. 1528-32, a period during which Vasary indicates that Bronzino worked for the Duke of Urbino and “painted the portrait of a daughter of Matteo Sofferoni.” Because Bronzino was celebrated for the “precision” of his technique, they support their attribution to Bronzino by citing Hazlitt’s comparison of the lady’s “green and white purfled sleeves” to “the leaves and flower of the water lily” (see here).

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Fig. 2. Hazlitt’s “Portrait of a Lady with green and white purfled sleeves” (by Sebastiano del Piombo) at Hampton Court currently in the King’s Dressing Room at Windsor Castle as Portrait of a Lady in Green and attribued to Agnolo Bronzino by the Royal Collection Trust.

Sebastiano del Piombo was himself filling commissions from various courts in northern Italy c. 1528-1532. Simply from seeing Melville’s copy of Merz’s 1873 engraving of the three female saints that Sebastiano painted for the altarpiece in Venice in 1511 (or even the color reproduction of the altarpiece that appears here as fig. 1), one would not expect a painting by Sebastiano to show the extraordinary precision that Hazlitt celebrated in the "conversable" painting that was then attributed to Sebastiano at Hampton Court. Neither the 1873 engraving of the three female saints from the Venetian altarpiece nor the photograph of that altarpiece from our own day shows the delicacy of texture and resplendent color of the Portrait of a Lady in Green as it is seen in the King’s Dressing Room at Windsor Castle today (fig. 2). That difference, however, may be due more to the degradation of the Venetian painting by the time Herz engraved it in the early 1870s than to its condition when freshly painted in the early 1510s.

Hirst was dismayed to report even in 1981 that the canvas of the Crisostomo altarpiece “is now in a ruinous state. Close examination revealed by a removal of the painting from its site revealed that the heavy, discoloured varnish all over its surface cloaks a large number of areas of damage, in some cases of total paint loss caused by the proximity of candles which are so threatening an aspect of the interior of San Giovanni.” Herz finds it “unlikely that systematic cleaning can be attempted.” The magnitude of the loss “has been clearly demonstrated by the small areas of the painting stripped of varnish by the Venetian authorities. Where these tests have been made, we find colours we could scarcely guess at from the yellowed aspect of Sebastiano’s last major project” in Venice. “The Magdalen is, in reality, clad in . . . powder blue sleeves.” The “rest of her drapery is a deep red for the bodice and a deep green for the mantle drawn about her. The flesh tones are a very pale pink.” Herz regrets that “we must . . . take leave of the Crisostomo altar-piece, at least for the present, with the acknowledgment that it’s a painting we see only dimly through a veil” (28-29).

The extraordinary care with the Portrait of a Lady in Green has been preserved in the Royal Collection ever since its acquisition from a court in northern Italy four hundred years ago, contrasted with the severe pictorial degradation inflicted by centuries of candles, smoke, and varnish on the Venetian altarpiece since Sebastiano painted it five centuries ago, shows, again, how vulnerable works of pictorial art can be in contrast to the relative stability of words. Hazlitt’s comparison of the “green and white purfled sleeves” of the “conversable” lady at Hampton Court to the “leaves and flower of the water lily” was as fresh when recently employed by the curators of the Royal Collection in reinforce their attribution to Bronzino as it had been when Hazlitt compared leaves of the lily with the sleeves of the lady as a way of celebrating Sebastiano’s artistry.