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Italian Sightseeing

After arriving in Pisa from Leghorn on the morning of March 23, Melville left that city for Florence that same afternoon. His journal for that day recorded five sites that caught his eye and imagination during his short time in Pisa. Four of them were bunched closely together. He “walked at once to the Duomo,” the city’s celebrated Cathedral, discovering that “one end of it looks like coral grottoes in sea,” as seen by “pearl diver.” Next was the Baptistery, "like dome set on ground. Wonderful pulpit of marble.” Next he registered the “Campanile,” the famous leaning tower of Pisa, looking “like pine poised just ere snapping. . . . It will move altogether if it move at all, for Pillars all move with it. . . . You wait to hear the crash.” Finally came the “Campo Santa,” the burial ground, with its “beauty of bowered walks of stone.” As an ensemble, “the four monuments stand in common,” surrounded by springtime grass. “Come upon them as upon bouquet of architecture” (NN J 113-14).

If Melville wanted to refresh his eye as to the actual look of these building later in life, he had excellent images of all of them in Baxter’s The Renaissance of Art in Italy that he acquired sometime after 1883. Three of the four buildings appear in one composite image (fig. 1 below). In their dates of completion, the Baptistery to the left (A.D. 1153) was preceded by the Cathedral in the center (A.D. 1063) and followed by the Campanile leaning to the right (A.D. 1174). 

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Figure 1. Engraving including three of the four buildings Melville saw as a “bouquet of architecture” in Pisa in 1857 as they appear in the New York edition of Lucy Baxter’s The Renaissance of Art in Italy published in 1883.

Glancing at the above image might have been helpful in achieving the precision of the opening stanza of “Pisa’s Leaning Tower,” one of the “Fruit of Travel Long Ago” poems Melville published in Timoleon in 1891:

The Tower in tiers of architraves,
         Fair circle over cirque,
A trunk of rounded colonades,
         The maker’s master-work. (NN PP 294)

All that was missing in Baxter’s engraved representation of Pisa’s famed architectural ensemble was the imaginative flair of the “coral grottoes in sea” and “bouquet of architecture” into which Melville had, in his journal, verbally compressed and expressed his visual assimilation of these buildings.

Melville also recorded impromptu impressions of one other architectural site in Pisa that day: “Sea-chapel on river side. Collonaded Street. Silence.” The excellent notes to the NN edition of the Journals identify Melville’s river-side sea-chapel as “Santa Maria della Spina, built in 1230 on the south bank of the Arno during Pisa’s great period of prosperity for the convenience of mariners.” This chapel was named “after its once most famous relic, a fragment of the Crown of Thorns. A little upstream on the same side, the Loggia dei Banchi was notable for its long colonnade of open arches” (NN PP 114, 490).

Soon after returning home from Italy in 1857, Melville acquired (if he had not owned it before) the sixteen-volume American edition of the Life and Works of Lord Byron with frontispieces and vignettes by J. M. W. Turner published by Little, Brown in Boston c. 1851, a repackaging of the seventeen-volume edition of the Life and Works published by John Murray in London in 1832-34. In the London edition, Edwin Finden’s engraving after Turner’s watercolor vignette of Santa Maria della Spina appeared as the frontispiece for volume 5 in the Life of Byron. In Melville’s copy of the Boston edition, the same image was again used as the frontispiece for the same volume (fig. 2).

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Figure 2. E. Finden after J. M. W. Turner after W. Page. Sta Maria della Spina. Frontispiece in volume 5 of Melville’s copy of the Thomas Moore, Life of Lord Byron. Boston: Little, Brown, c. 1851. Harvard College, Houghton Library.

Even though this frontispiece for the Boston edition was printed from the same steel plate that Finden had engraved for the London edition, the image preserves much of the precision with which Turner’s compact watercolor managed to convey not only the shape of the sea-chapel on the edge of the river, and the colonnaded façade of the bank rising high behind it, but also the glow of the sun that floods the entire vista with bright light that looks right back at the viewer through the rounded arches of the bridge reflected from the surface of the water beneath it. In all of these ways, Finden had magically managed to translate the fluidity and precision of Turner’s watercolor sketch into a compact, glowing image of ink on paper from lines incised in a steel plate. Here, in Melville’s library, inside the cover of a book on Byron, was a compressed tactile equivalent of the retinal sensations his imagination had converted into “coral grottoes in sea” and the “sea-chapel on river side” while wandering through the “bouquet of architecture” in Pisa while waiting for his train to Florence.

When Melville’s acquired The Renaissance of Art in Italy after its publication in 1883, he could compare Turner’s vignette of Sta Maria della Spina in his copy of the Life of Bryon with the image in Baxter’s book catching more of the precision with less of the magic (fig. 3):

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Figure 3. Church of Santa Maria Della Spina (erected in 1230, enlarged in 1323) as it appears in Lucy Baxter’s The Renaissance of Art in Italy, published in New York City in 1883.

For Baxter in 1883, the buildings that Melville had seen as a “bouquet of architecture” in Pisa in 1857 exemplified the “First Era” (1050-1350) of “The Rise of Art” in Italy (21-31).