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Titian’s and Melville’s Men with a Falcon

After Melville returned from the Mediterranean in 1857, it is perhaps not surprising that the artistry of Titian was very much in play in Clarel, the epic poem about the Holy Land published in 1876, American’s centennial year. In Clarel, Melville was trying to evaluate his own nation’s evolving psyche as seen through Middle Eastern culture at the time of Christ, during the European crusades in the Middle Ages, through the eyes and minds of the Italian Renaissance, and during the post-Darwinian thought and capitalistic colonialism of the late Victorian age. The explicit allusion to Titian in Battle-Pieces, the book of poems about the American Civil War that Melville published in 1866, is perhaps more surprising.

Titian appears in the opening stanza of “Commemorative of a Naval Victory.” Melville’s opening lines support the proposition that sailors can be “gentle” and “refined” as well as “strong” by declaring that “The hawk, the hound, and sworded nobleman / In Titian’s picture for a king, / Are of hunter or warrior race” (NN PP 135-36). In 1966, Hennig Cohen was the first to note that “the hawk, the hound, and sworded nobleman” are all clearly visible in Titian’s The Man with the Falcon, a painting from a private collection that had been engraved in 1811 (Cohen, Battle-Pieces, 160-61, 284; Wethe 2: cat. 28). The painting Melville alludes to is now in the collection of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, and identified as Portrait of Giorgio Cornaro the Younger with a Falcon (fig. 6).

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Figure 6. Titian. Portrait of Giorgio Cornaro the Younger with a Falcon, oil on canvas, 1537. Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha Nebraska.

The identity of the man sitting for the portrait with the falcon had been disputed by art historians ever since Titian painted this canvas sometime in the sixteenth century. A wide range of Italian noblemen had been suggested before Crowe and Cavalcaselle proposed Giorgio Cornaro as the sitter and 1520 as the date in their two-volume study of Titian’s life and art in 1877. Girogio Cornaro was a leader of the local family in Cadore who had helped to repel the invaders from Austria in 1508. Crowe and Cavalcaselle noted that his family banner was featured in the The Battle of Cadore that Titian had painted in the Great Hall of the Venetian Ducal Palace in 1837, destroyed by fire in 1877. Their proposal of Giorgo Carnaro as the sitter in The Man with the Falcon had been disputed by several subsequent scholars until Matthew Averett very persuasively argued in 2011 that the sitter in the portrait was Giorgio Cornaro the Younger, son of the earlier candidate. Citing stylistic as well as biographical evidence, Averett also proposed 1537, not 1522, as the date of the painting (Crowe and Cavalcaselle 2:17-19; Averett p. 559-62).

Giorgio Cornaro the Younger (1517-1571) had arrived in Venice from Crete as a teenager. He and his father had brought hunting falcons from Crete, trained them, and sold them to Venetian nobles while grooming young Giorgio for noble status. The young man was invested as member of the Venetian Grand Council upon reaching his twentieth birthday in 1537. Averett shows that such an event was often commemorated with a commissioned portrait by Titian or another leading Venetian artist. Because young Giorgio is wearing a black damask hunting jacket in this portrait, the prismatic coloring typical of Titian in the 1530s is most evident in the way the richly textured background of the painting highlights the face of the man, his right hand, the breast of the Peregrine falcon he is holding, his gloved hand beneath the bird, and the chain bracelet on the falconer's visible wrist. At the lower left Titian gives us just enough light to make out the face of the hunter’s loyal dog. The head of the sword that balances the head of the dog to the hunter’s right reflects no light at all; it is recognizable primarily by its shape. Though more sparingly applied, the richness of coloring and texture in this painting is similar to that of the Bella Donna in the blue dress that Melville would have seen at the Pitti Palace in Florence. Crowe and Cavalcaselle declared that Titian "never produced a finer picture" than this portrait of a nobleman whose smooth "complexion is warm and burned by the sun" (Averett 562-65; Crowe and Cavalcasalle 2: 19-20).

Melville’s “Commemorative of a Naval Victory,” after alluding to gentility and refinement allied with strength in Titian’s painting of “the hawk, the hound, and the sworded nobleman,” devotes its second stanza to “the festal fame” a glorious warrior often enjoys as a “famous guest” in “social halls” following his victory. Giorgio Cornaro the Younger was himself a Naval commander. He was in fact “the captain of a Venetian war galley” on ten different occasions “in the last twenty years of his life” (Averett 568). As his naval exploits were beginning in the early 1550s, Giorgio the Younger was also becoming increasingly prominent within the “social halls” of the Venetian ruling elite. In 1551 he commissioned Andrea Palladio, the greatest domestic architect in Italy, to design a country estate for himself and his extended family at Piombino Dese, a small town about twenty miles northwest of Venice, and about the same distance northeast of Padua. Villa Cornaro was to be continuously occupied by the Cornaro family (whose name was Corner in the Venetian dialect) until the Napoleonic invasion in 1807. Lovingly restored in the late 20th century, Villa Cornaro is once again an Italian architectural treasure. One of its most distinctive features is a larger-than-life, full-length, terra cotta sculpture of its founder, Admiral Giorgio Cornaro, Titian’s Man with a Falcon (figure 7). The sculpture was commissioned by one of Cornaro’s sons after his father’s death in 1571; it still stands in the niche for which it was designed more than 440 years ago (Averett 567-68; "Giorgio Cornaro (H-4)").

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Figure 7. Terra cotta sculpture of Admiral Giorgio Cornaro, c. 1575. Villa Cornaro, Piombino Dese, Italy.

In the third stanza of Melville’s “Commemorative of a Naval Victory,” the “festal fame” that the “sworded nobleman” has achieved in combat and enjoyed in “social halls” is invariably crossed by shadow, a shadow that extends to all who have attained the highest achievement no matter what their profession.

But seldom the laurel wreath is seen
     Unmixed with pensive pansies dark;
There’s a light and a shadow on every man
     Who at last attains his lifted mark—
     Nursing through night the ethereal spark.

For a visual correlative of the laureled victor imagined here it would be hard to improve upon the image of Tasso as engraved by Morghen and Hart in Melville’s print collection (CAT 105). Morgan’s engraved portraits of Ariosto and Dante also memorably convey “light and shadow” and “pensive” thought beneath the “laurel wreath” (CAT 104, MBB 2-2).

In the last four lines of Melville’s poem, the unnamed victorious sailor who has been associated with Titian’s “sworded nobleman” of a “warrior race” has outlived his days of glory.

Elate he can never be;
He feels that spirits which glad had hailed his worth,
    Sleep in oblivion.—The shark
Glides white through the phosphorous sea. (NN PP 135-36)

That gliding white shark puts Melville’s personal stamp upon the world of the sixteenth-century warrior-prince.

One primary challenge facing a literary critic intent on interpreting “Commemorative of a Naval Victory” as a poem in Battle-Pieces is equivalent to the one that had bedeviled interpreters of The Man with the Falcon for decades and even centuries: which naval victory and which sailor, if any, does this Battle-Pieces poem intend to commemorate? The best guess offered so far is from Stanton Garner, the Melville scholar most deeply immersed in the American Civil War as it impinged on Melville’s life and poetry. Garner suggested that “Melville’s model for the naval victor” was Admiral David Farragut, whose military exploits are celebrated in two other Battle-Pieces poems. “The Battle for the Mississippi” celebrates Farragut’s “fiery” capture of New Orleans in April 1862, after which he had “sailed up to the town / and Anchored / Sheathed the blade.” Farragut’s heroic naval leadership is shown even more fully in “Battle for the Bay,” the battle in which he captured Mobile, Alabama, in August 1864. Farragut was indeed “In societal halls a favored guest / In years that follow victory won.” But he was already “in failing health” in December 1864, when he “returned to New York City to a hero’s welcome at a public reception, at which he was given money to purchase a home.” And Melville’s two poems celebrating his two great victories are themselves shadowed with indelible images of irretrievable loss: “But pale on the scarred fleet’s decks there lay / A silent man for every silenced gun” (NN PP 47-48, 80-83, 667).

Giorgio Cornaro the Younger did not survive to see the ultimate success of the naval campaigns to which he devoted much of his adult life: he “met his fate fighting for Venice against the Ottoman Empire in an engagement preceding the Battle of Lepanto in 1571” (Averett 568). The victory of the Venetian navy over the Ottomans in the Battle of Lepanto off the west coast of Greece was as decisive in the course of European history as the victory of the Greeks over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis two thousand years earlier had been. The Battle of the Lepanto was the last major naval battle to be fought in galleys rowed by oarsmen rather than ships driven by sail. In that Battle, the “sworded noblemen” in 6 galleasses and 206 galleys on the Christian side were arrayed against a like number of galleys and galliots on the Ottoman side in sword-to-sword combat. The scale of the opposing forces is suggested in the lower half of Vernoese’s Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto, c. 1572, a painting Melville would have seen at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice in April 1857 (fig. 8; NN J 118).

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Figure 8. Veronese. Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto, c. 1572. Gallerie dell’Accademia.

“Commemorative of Naval Victory” is one of the few poems in Battle-Pieces that does not name an indentifiable American battle, commander, event, artwork, or scene. Could Melville possibly have known that the sitter in the Titian painting he alluded to in “Commemorative of a Naval Victory” was in fact a commander in the Venetian navy? Crow and Cavalcaselle had not proposed the elder Girogio Cornaro as the likely sitter of The Man with the Falcon until 1877, a decade after Melville had published Battle-Pieces. Melville might have learned a surprising amount of information about the Cornaro family during his two visits to the private gallery of Samuel Rogers in December 1849. One of the paintings in Rogers’s collection was an anonymous copy of Titian’s The Cornaro Family, a “reduced copy of the great picture at Northumberland House” (no. 34 in the “Catologue” of Rogers’s collection in the 1844 edition of Hazlitt’s Criticisms on Art). That original painting from Northumberland House is now at London’s National Gallery, where it is identified as The Vandremin Family and has been celebrated as “one of Titian’s greatest masterpieces” (Wethey, 2:35, cat. 110, pl. 36). In this family portrait, which Titian is now thought to have painted in the 1540s, the patriarch at the center of the depicted family is accompanied by what appear to be a son, a grandson, and seven great-grandsons (fig. 9).

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Figure 9. Titian. The Vandremin Family, c. 1540-45. National Gallery London.

Because Rogers owned a “reduced copy” of this painting that was then thought to represent several generations of the Cornaro family, Rogers is himself likely to have learned a great deal about the family whose patriarch Giorgio Cornaro had defended Cadore against the invasion of the Austrians in Battle of Cadore in 1808 that Titian had commemorated in the Battle of Cadore he completed in the Ducal Palace in 1837, the same year in which he appears to have been painting the portrait of Giorgio Cornaro the Younger as The Man with a Falcon, thereby launching the career of the young man who grew to become the proud proprietor of Villa Cornaro before becoming the Admiral Cornaro who died in battle shortly before the Christian forces won the decisive Battle of Lepanto in 1871.

There were also two Americans from whom Melville might have gained first-hand knowledge about Titian and his paintings before publishing “Commemorative of a Naval Victory" in 1866. James Jackson Jarves, whom Melville had personally sought out in Rome in February 1857, was an American art historian and collector resident in Italy, deeply interested in Titian, who had already published several books on Italian art by the time he published the 1864 edition of Art-Hints later acquired by Melville (NN J 106, 466-67; Sealts no. 296). Henry Tuckerman was a New York author, art collector, and admirer of Melville’s novels whose art-filled home Melville had visited when renting a nearby house in New York City early in 1862. Currently in the midst of writing his masterpiece, Book of the Artists (1867), Tuckerman had already published two books based on travels in which he explored the art and culture of Italy, The Italian Sketch Book in 1837 and Sicily: A Pilgrimage in 1852. His studio was full of books, engravings, and original paintings from both Italy and America, and his collection of busts and statuettes included both Dante and Tasso. Tuckerman had also published a book on an American naval commander in 1850 and he had befriended the Italian freedom fighter Garibaldi during the latter’s residence in on Staten Island in the late 1850s. Tuckerman was the perfect companion for discussing Italian art, culture, and politics during the very years in which Melville was actively pursuing his “Quest for an Aesthetic Credo” as a poet (Parker, Herman Melville 2: 484-87).

Whether or not Melville knew that the human subject of Titian’s painting of “the hawk, the hound, and the sworded nobleman” was a naval commander for the Venetian state, the allusion to that painting was a fine way to commemorate those warriors who are of “a gentle breed, / Yet strong like every goodly thing.” Even though Giorgio Cornaro the Younger died before achieving his military apotheosis, Averett demonstrated that he had led the life of the ideal Italian nobleman by citing Baldesarre Castiglione, the close personal friend of Raphael whose book The Courtier had very strongly influenced Machiavelli’s The Prince. For Castiglione, the ideal “prince or courtier,” in addition to possessing all the social graces and intellectual range of a well-educated nobleman, “should be a warrior.” He stipulated that there could be nothing “more noble, glorious, and profitable . . . than for Christians to direct their efforts to subjugating the infidels.” By this standard, Giorgio Cornaro the Younger’s life, “from flying falcons, to building country estates, and finally in death in battle . . . unfolded very much as the ideal life of a courtier." At the age of twenty in 1537, the first socially recognized step in preparing for this ennobled life was to be painted by Titian in his black damask hunting jacket, with his hunting dog behind him, sword at his side, and falcon in hand (Averett 568). This prepared young Cornaro for a life of acquiring the attributes of the ideal “sworded nobleman” in the first stanza of Melville’s “Commemorative of a Naval Victory.”