Raphael in England, in Hazlitt, and in Billy Budd
Earlier in his travel through Italy, Melville had singled out paintings by Raphael at the Museo Barbonico in Naples (“face of Raphael’s Madonna touchingly maternal”) and at the Quirinale and Doria Pamphili palaces in Rome (NN J 103, 110, 111). Melville’s first exposure to authentic works by Raphael had come during the 1849 visit to Hampton Court in England in which he had taken note of Raphael’s seven “Cartoons” for the Sistine tapestries even though they “are not well disposed for light.” These designs, applied in body color on paper affixed to canvas, were still thought to be among the most precious treasures of the Royal Collection even though they were in a very poor state of conservation. Hazlitt had helped to solidify this elevated reputation in the essay on “The Pictures at Hampton Court” reprinted in the copy of Criticisms on Art that Melville acquired in 1870. Hazlitt devoted twelve pages of that fifteen-page essay to the glories of Raphael’s Cartoons. In the paragraph immediately after the one in which Melville marked and underlined the tribute to Sebastiano’s “conversable” lady “with green and white sleeves,” he marked two passages in the highly appreciative introduction Hazlitt gave to the Cartoons at Hampton Court before proceeding to a detailed discussion of each one.
Hazlitt began by declaring that “all other pictures look like oil and varnish to these.” In these works, “the painter seems to have flung his mind upon the canvas; his thoughts, his great ideas alone prevail; there is nothing between us and the subject; we look through a frame, and see scripture-histories, and are made actual spectators of miraculous events.” Melville drew one marginal line next to Hazlitt’s declaration that these images are “a sort of revelation of the subjects of which they treat; there is an ease and freedom of manner about them which brings preternatural characters and situations home to us with the familiarity of common-day occurrences; and while the figures fill, raise, and satisfy the mind, they seem to have cost the painter nothing.” He drew another line next to Hazlitt’s declaration that “the Cartoons are unique productions in the art. They are more intellectual, or rather visible abstractions of truth and nature.” Hazlitt completed this train of thought by declaring that these images have the vividness of a “waking dream.” He even suggested that this effect may be enhanced by the “decayed and dilapidated state of the pictures themselves. They are the more majestic for being in ruin.” Here, “amidst the wreck of colour, and the mouldering of material beauty, nothing is left but a universe of thought, or the broad imminent shadows of ‘calm contemplation and majestic pains!’” (77-78; MMO 263a, 077.13-17, 20-22).
Young Melville’s direct exposure to the Raphael Cartoons at Hampton Court at age 30 in 1849, enriched by the close attention to Hazlitt’s praise of these works shown by the marks he made in the copy of Criticisms on Art he acquired at age 50 in 1870, resulted in his own most powerful tribute to Raphael, even though he does not use the painter’s name, in the manuscript of Billy Budd he left unpublished at his death in 1891 at age 72. Pope Leo X had commissioned Raphael to depict acts of the apostles Peter and Paul, founders of the Christian Church, in the tapestries designed for the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel. Hazlitt devoted one substantial paragraph to each of the seven Cartoons for the tapestries in the Hampton Court collection. He began with Raphael’s depiction of The Death of Ananias, inspired by the miracle in Acts 5:1-5 in which Ananias is immediately, convulsively struck dead by the hand of God upon his being charged by Saint Peter of dishonesty in a matter of generosity to the poor (fig. 3). Melville alluded to that Biblical passage, and to Hazlitt’s commentary on Raphael’s cartoon inspired directly by that passage, and probably also to Melville’s memory of his direct encounter with that cartoon at Hampton Court forty years earlier, in the climactic moment of his Billy Budd manuscript. This occurs when young, innocent Billy—his mouth a “convulsed tongue-tie” and his face “a crucifixion to behold” after being falsely accused by Claggart—shoots out his right arm and strikes Claggart dead. Billy’s blow “had taken full effect upon the forehead, so shapely and intellectual looking a feature in the Master-at-arms; so that the body fell over lengthwise, like a heavy plank tilted from erectness. A gasp or two, and he lay motionless” (NN BBO 46-47).