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Veronese in Melville’s Print Collection and “At the Hostelry”

The one engraving after a painting by Veronese that Melville acquired for his own collection was The Daughter of Paul Veronese, an imperial folio engraving by Antoine-Louis Romanet (1742-181). The original painting might once have been owned by Peter Paul Rubens (Cocke, p. 193, fig. 52). Currently in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, the painting is known today as Portrait of a Woman with a Lapdog and is “thought to represent a member of the Muselli family of Verona” (Pérez-Jofre, no. 320, pp. 227, 329; Piovene and Marini, no. 292). The letterpress commentary immediately below the image in Melville’s French-language print notes Veronese’s skill in depicting fine costumes and fabrics and calls attention to the small dog sitting on the table. Romanet’s imperial folio print is one of 19 images after Veronese among 352 images from the Orleans collection that were engraved for the three-volume Galerie du Palais royal between 1786 and 1808 (Couché, 2: no. 9; Stryienski, no. 92). All the original paintings had belonged to Phillipe II, Duke of Orleans, whose collection was dispersed during the French revolution, largely in England, where, as we have seen, Samuel Rogers acquired both Raphael’s Christ in the Mount of Olives (CAT 108, fig.5) and Titian’s Noli me Tangere (CAT 109, fig. 2).

Baron Von Hadeln calls the oil painting Portrait of a Woman with a Lapdog “one of Veronese’s finest. The figure of the young lady is at once charming and imposing. Her presence is handsome, slender, and tall.” Her costume appears to be “related to the Spanish fashionable male dress at the time. The underdress of striped silver and gold silk” is “also worn by several female saints in Veronese’s religious paintings” (Von Hadeln 192). By painting such an imposing and composed young woman in clothing that combines male strength, female virtue, and female charm around 1570 (when it is usually dated), Veronese was participating in the same cultural moment in which Tasso was distributing similar qualities among the three heroines of Jerusalem Delivered, whose manuscript he was still revising at the court of Alfonso II in Ferrara. A few years after engraving Veronese’s striking young woman for the Galerie du Palais royal, Romanet contributed engravings to a deluxe edition of Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered published in Paris in 1803.

Melville did not record the name Veronese in the journal he kept in Italy in 1857 (although at Versailles in 1849 he had been struck by “Titan overthrown by Thunderbolts,” the painting by Veronese that Napoleon had brought from Italy as an ornament for what had once been the bedroom of King Louis XIV) (NN J 34, 346). Veronese is a major presence in “At the Hostelry,” Melville’s unpublished poem in which more than a dozen Italian, French, and Dutch Old Master painters converse about the meaning of “the picturesque.” Veronese is the genial presiding spirit over sections 5-8 of this highly “conversable” poem, Melville’s poetic counterpart to the prose conversation that Hazlitt creates among Old Master painters in “Of Persons One Would Wish to have Seen” (in Melville’s copy of Hazlitt’s Table Talk, Sealts 266a).  

Introduced into the conversation by Rubens as “Paölo of Verona,” Melville’s Veronese is a “gorgeous fellow, / Whose raiment matched his artist-mood: / Gold chain over russet velvet mellow— / A chain of honor; silver-gilt, / Gleamed at his side a jeweled hilt.” He has a personality to match: “In feather high, in fortune free, / Like to a Golden Pheasant, he.” In conversation he easily absorbs snide asides from Spagnoletto (Ribera) while warmly eliciting contrasting views of the picturesque from Gerard Dou and Watteau. When Veronese begins to wax eloquent about the Venetian approach to painting festive supper scenes (bringing together two of Titian’s favorite subjects as he imagines “a Maltese knight of honor / Toasting and clasping his Bella Donna”), he graciously accepts Jan Steen’s countervailing interjection that “All’s picturesque beneath the sun,” whether “cloth of frieze or cloth of gold.” When Watteau joins Steen to suggest that Veronese’s vision “too [much] abounds / In life of old patrician grounds / For centuries kept for luxury mere,” Veronese asks Watteau if he prefers the rising spirit of “Utility” that before long will drain Venice’s Grand Canal and “Improve it to a huckster’s street” (NN PP 159-60). Melville’s portrayal of Veronese in this poem is entirely in the spirit of Lucy Baxter’s assertion in his copy of The Renaissance of Art in Italy that “Paolo Veronese brought the glow of human enjoyment into everything” (361). Melville’s convivial narrative poem is itself a vivid verbal companion to one of Veronese’s time-bending banquet scenes.