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Veronese’s Mary Magdalen in London in 1849 and Italy in 1857

Simply seeing Veronese’s Feast in the House of Levi in the same gallery with Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin (CAT 109, fig. 5) at the Accademia in Venice 1857 would have given Melville a striking example of the opposing approaches these two great Venetian masters took to Biblical subjects in general. During his visit to the private collection of Samuel Rogers in London in 1849, young Melville would have seen a striking contrast in how these two painters depicted similar moments in the life of Mary Magdalene. In Titian's Noli me Tangere (CAT 109, fig. 2), Melville would have seen Magdalene reaching out impulsively to Christ as he tells her not to touch him. In Veronese's Mary Magdalen anointing the feet of our Saviour, he would have seen Magdalene as she does touch his feet in the process of anointing them. The catalog of Rogers’s collection in the 1844 edition of Hazlitt’s Criticisms of Art identified this painting as a study for “the great picture in the Durazzo Collection at Genoa, from which [it] differs in many respects” (no. 26). The painting in the Durazzo Collection at Genoa was Veronese's first version of The Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee, painted for a refectory in Venice in 1560 (fig. 3). Melville would have seen a full-scale painting for which the canvas owned by Samuel Rogers was a study when he visited Turin in Genoa near the end of his travels in Italy in 1857.

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Figure 3. Veronese, The Feast in the House of the Simon the Pharisee, c. 1560. Sabaudo Gallery, Turin, Italy.

Rogers's study for the Veronese painting was inspired by the scene in the Gospel of Luke (7:36-50). In Veronese's painting, Christ very comfortably extends his foot to Mary Magdalene to be anointed. She looks at him directly, lovingly, without any rebuke or warning from him, holding his foot her breast while she reaches down with her other hand to the ointment jar on the ground. Christ and Magdalene dominate the right side of this painting even though Veronese has surrounded them with more than two dozen heterogeneous humans and animals massed together on the ground level and overlooking the proceedings from the balcony. She, not He, is the pictorial and humanistic focus of the painting. Veronese expanded upon his Biblical source in a very tactile way by showing the ease with which Christ extends his leg to the allegedly sinful woman whom Simon and his fellow Pharisees would otherwise have cast out. Pictorially as well as scripturally, this painting is a striking contrast to the scene Titian had chosen to depict in which Christ, appearing miraculously after the Resurrection, asks Mary Magdalene, alone with him in a landscape setting, not to touch Him with her yearning, outstretched hand.

A review of “The Collection of Samuel Rogers” in the London Art Union in 1847 called his painting of Mary Magdalen anointing the feet of our Saviour “a repetition, on a smaller scale, of the large picture which is in the Durazzo Palace at Genoa.” Rogers’s deep personal attachment to this work is suggested by a statement that appeared, without further elaboration, in the London Athenaeum immediately after his death in 1855: “this is the one picture that he actually crawled on his hands and knees to obtain” (“Rogers’s Treasures,” 1553). The Art Union review in 1847 located that painting in Rogers’s dining room: “Gorgeous and brilliant in colour, it is an admirable example of the Venetian gaiety of representation of religious subjects” (85). Rogers habitually entertained his visitors in that expansive dining room (fig. 4) at 10 in the morning, serving a light breakfast as the conversation swung between literature and art works. The eyes of his guests would move between the table to the walls until it was time to make a closer examination of the paintings themselves. Melville arrived at 10 am for his solo morning with Rogers on December 20, as well as for the more social visit three days later at which Rogers introduced him to two popular English writers and their wives (NN J 44, 46, 367-69).

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Figure 4. Samuel Rogers’s breakfast room, St. James Place, London. Illustrated London News, January 5, 1856.

By the time young Melville arrived at Rogers’s breakfast room, he had already seen a great number and variety of paintings by both Veronese and Titian during his visits to Hampton Court, the Dulwich Gallery, and the National Gallery. The appendix listing the paintings at Hampton Court in the 1843 edition of Hazlitt’s Criticisms of Art listed 18 by Titian and 6 by Veronese; another 8 by Titian and 6 by Veronese were listed in the collections at Dulwich and the National Gallery. Even so, it would be a special treat to see these contrasting images of Christ with Mary Magdalene in the home of the British collector-poet for whom Noli me Tangere and Mary Magdalen anointing the feet of our Saviour were among the most treasured of all his fabled “gems.”

Melville had opportunities to reacquaint himself with Veronese’s and Titian’s contrasting depictions of Mary Magdalene when touching—or not touching—the body of Christ while he traveled through Italy and returned to London in 1857, but this time he would not have been able to see them in the company of Rogers or of each other. When Samuel Rogers died in December 1855, he had bequeathed Titian's Noli me Tangere to London's National Gallery. Melville probably saw it there when he visited the National Gallery and its newly installed Turner Gallery two weeks after his travels in Italy (NN J 128, 527).

A few weeks earlier in Italy, Melville had two different opportunities for becoming reacquainted with Veronese’s depiction of Mary Magdalen anointing the feet of our Saviour. So far I have found no record of the subsequent fate of the copy that had belonged to Rogers himself. But the original painting in the Durazzo Collection at Genoa for which Rogers’s copy had been made (fig. 1 above) was now in the Royal Palace in Turin (Torino). Melville arrived in Turin at 9 pm on the evening of April 9 and spent the next morning in the Gallery of the Royal Palace, where he took note of individual works by Titian, Rubens, Albano, Van Dyck, Teniers, and Brueghel. He would also have seen Veronese’s original painting of Magdalene washing the Lord’s Feet at the table of the Pharisee, now one of the most prized possession of this Royal Palace. As the fourth edition of Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Northern Italy emphasized, this “fine picture” had been “one of the principal ornaments of the Palazzo Reale or Durazzo at Genoa” (19). This edition of Murray’s Handbook, published in 1852, prided itself on being “carefully revised and corrected up to the present time” (in the words of its full title page). Melville may have borrowed this edition of the Handbook from his friend Evert Duyckinck before sailing to Italy and other Mediterranean lands in 1856 (as he had an earlier edition of the handbook before leaving for England and the Continent in 1849; see Sealts no. 375).

On Saturday, April 11, Melville left Turin at 10 in the morning on a railway journey that brought him to Genoa at three in the afternoon. After winding through the “noble scenery” of the Apennines on a roadbed and tunnels “built with great skill and cost,” he entered the city through a two-mile tunnel cut through the base of the mountains. After Melville’s “carpet bag fell from shoulder of clumsy porter” with such force that he was at first afraid to examine the damage, he checked into the Feder Hotel that now occupied the “former Admiralty palace” near the Custom House and Free Port. He then began to explore this historic maritime city whose galleys manned by slaves had famously combined with those of the Venetian navy to win the Battle of Lepanto of 1571. On both sides of the famous Strada Nuova, he saw many of Genoa’s great palaces,” whose exteriors he found “inferior to those of Rome, Florence, and Venice.” He was surprised to see “paintings of architecture rather than the reality,” some of them featuring historic battle-scenes. One of these palaces was the Durazzo that until recently had housed Veronese’s painting of Mary Magdalen anointing the feet of our Saviour, now in Turin (NN J 123, 513-14). Melville was to explore the vast interiors of the Durazzo and its palatial companions on Monday after a very strenuous day of outdoor sightseeing on Sunday.

After visiting Genoa’s Cathedral and Ducal Palace on Sunday morning, Melville traversed the dramatic topography of this highly picturesque, highly fortified city in a way that would have evoked memories of climbing through the valleys of Nukaheva in 1842 and sailing on the warship United States in 1844, with the difference that Melville was now a man in his late thirties rather than a youth in his early twenties. To get a view of Genoa in relation to the encroaching mountains and expansive sea, he left behind the parading troops and promenading women in the city center by taking a bus to a "promontory" at the end of the harbor and ascending its historic "light house (300 feet high)" (J 123). The structure as Melville climbed it still stands in Genoa today (fig. 5). Its two terraced towers were completed in 1543, twenty-eight years before the naval forces of Genoa combined with those of Venice to defeat the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Lepanto.

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Figure 5. Lighthouse of Genoa in 2007.

Perched on a natural rock formation, the lighthouse rises 383 feet above the sea, three times higher than the main mast of either the whale ship Acushnet that carried Melville into the South Seas in 1841 or the frigate U. S. United States that brought him home to Boston in 1844 (each of whose mast-heads reached approximately 125 feet above sea level). From one side of its topmost terrace, the former whaler and sailor had a “superb view” of “Sea Coast to south.” From the other side of that same terrace, “with all Genoa & her forts before you . . . the height & and distances of those forts [and] the bleakness, the savageness of the glens between, seem to make Genoa rather the capital and fortified camp of Satan: fortified against the Archangels” (NN J 123).

Melville spent the rest of the afternoon walking into, through, and higher up into this picturesque, somewhat ominous vista. From “ramparts overhang[ing] the open sea” and “arches thrown over ravines,” he continued “up and up” until he reached the ancient “gallery slave-prison,” its “gratings” ironically “commanding [a] view of sea—infinite liberty.” As he “followed round and round” and “thence higher,” he came finally to “ramparts” with “magnificent views of deep valley other side--& of Genoa & sea.” From there the view got “finer and finer” as he climbed higher and higher until he got to the “apex fort,” beyond which he saw “the two encircling vallies, and the ridge in which their heads unite to form the site of the highest forts.” Not surprisingly, it was “with great fatigue” that the former South Seas whaler and mast-head sailor “descended by irregular path” into the city and his hotel (124).

J. M. W. Turner had first explored Genoa and its environs during the period in which he was creating watercolor vignettes soon to be engraved for Rogers’s Italy and Poems, returning again in 1838. His watercolor Genoa from the Sea, unengraved and probably unexhibited in Turner’s lifetime, was part of the Turner Bequest that had entered the National Gallery in 1856 (fig. 6). It comes closer than any other image I have seen to capturing the picturesque topography and receding mystique of the environs of Genoa as Melville experienced them on that Sunday afternoon in April 1857. Before learning the actual height of the Genoa lighthouse as it still stands today, I thought Turner might have exaggerated the height above which it rises above the promontory on the left side of the image. But promontory itself rises 117 feet above the sea. And the lighthouse rises nearly 300 feet above that. So this watercolor drawing may indeed show how this lighthouse appeared when seen from the sea.

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Figure 6. J. M. W. Turner. Genoa from the Sea, watercolor, gouache and pen and ink on paper, c. 1828-38. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856. Tate Gallery, London.

Turner provided just enough detail to suggest the path of the smoke that rises from the lamp whose light brightens the top of the tower. During his visits to Genoa in the 1820s and 1830s, whale oil, preferably from the head of sperm whales, had been the preferred fuel for lighthouse lamps in the United States and Western Europe. The Genoa lighthouse would have required less oil of whatever kind it was using after January 1841, when it activated a rotating Fresnel lens with which to radiate its light during the same month in which young Melville sailed from New Bedford to hunt sperm whales in the South Seas (Vogel 58-62).

On the morning of Monday, April 13, Melville ran the gauntlet of palaces along Genoa’s Strada Nuova. These featured “large halls” differing “in style form those in Rome.” He had been “shown thro’ some palaces in great haste,” so he reminded himself to “see Guide Books” in order to remember details of what he saw. The Durazzo Palace, the once proud owner of the original painting by Veronese whose “repetition, on a smaller scale” Melville had seen in the breakfast room of Samuel Rogers, was now part of the Royal Palace in Genoa that had “formerly belong[ed] to the Durazzo family.” Murray’s Handbook for 1852 made it clear that Genoa’s Royal Palace was now mourning the loss of Veronese’s original painting as much as its Turin counterpart was savoring the acquisition. One room of the Genoa gallery was still called “Salone di Paolo” in honor of “the fine and large picture by Paolo Veronese, representing the feast given to the Lord in the house of the Pharisee, and the Magdalene at his feet, now returned to the Royal Gallery at Turin.” In the absence of the original painting, “an excellent copy or duplicate remains here” (NN J 124; Murray, Northern Italy, 94). So Melville, eight years after having seen a “repetition, on a smaller scale” of the original painting from Genoa in Rogers’s breakfast room, was now seeing in Genoa not that original painting, but an “excellent copy or duplicate” of the Veronese original he had seen a few days earlier in Turin.

What would Melville have read about this painting by Veronese in the 1852 edition of Valery’s Travels in Italy he had acquired in Florence about three weeks earlier? Simply that “the admirable Magdalen at Christ’s Feet” at the Durazzo Palace in Genoa is “perhaps this master’s chef-d’oeuvre” and the “wonder” of the entire palace (678-79). Without knowing when Valery had last visited Genoa before his death in 1847, it is impossible to know whether this very high praise for Veronese’s depiction of Magdalene at the feet of Christ is based on having seen the original painting or its “excellent copy or duplicate” in Genoa’s Durazzo Palace. Veronese curators and scholars in the early twenty-first century are in the habit of assigning to this and other Biblical banquet scenes by Veronese the name of Biblical banquet, feast, or supper to which the painting alludes. In the mid-nineteenth-century, Murray, Valery, Rogers, Hazlitt, The Art-Union, and The Athenaeum had all identified Veronese’s first version of the painting now known as The Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee (c. 1560) not by the name of the feast in the Bible but rather by the act of Mary Magdalene in anointing the feet of Christ the Saviour.

Two years after returning home from Italy, Melville had borrowed Evert Duyckinck’s copy of Luigi Lanzi’s The History of Painting in Italy. Originally published by Lanzi in the 1790s, this 3-volume English translation by Thomas Roscoe was published by Henry Bohn in London in 1847 (Sealts no. 320). Lanzi had been struck by the speed by which Veronese’s Biblical feast scenes had immediately become so popular throughout Europe that “the first sovereigns in the world became desirous of obtaining copies.” Of all those widely distributed feast scenes, the one Lanzi remembered most vividly was The Feast of Simon that had been “sent from Venice to Genoa, where I saw it in possession of the Durazzo family, with a Magdalen that may be deemed a miracle of art” (Lanzi 2:215-16).

In 1648, Carlo Ridolfi, Veronese’s first biographer, had been the first of many commentators to see the depiction of this Magdalene anointing the feet of Christ as miraculous. Ridolfi was quite a flowery writer, but even he confessed to having no words with which to describe the “grace” and “gravity” with which Veronese’s “loving sinner . . . holds one of Jesus’ feet in the tresses of her golden hair” as “the rest of her locks frame with their golden threads the alabaster of her bosom” (Ridolfi 62). Some of Ridolfi's “tresses” and “threads” of golden hair might appear to be imaginary until one takes a close look at that section of the larger painting (fig. 7).

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Figure 7. Detail of Mary Magdalene anointing the feet of Christ in the painting now in Turin, formerly in Genoa, a copy of which Melville would have seen in the breakfast room of Samuel Rogers in December 1849.