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Melville and Turner in Venice

A second example of the long-range effect of Melville’s 1857 travels in Italy on his subsequent life as a poet deeply attuned to the intersection among “books, pictures, and the face of nature” (in the phrase he marked in the copy of Hazlitt’s Criticisms of Art he acquired in 1870) began with his visit to the private gallery of the poet Samuel Rogers in London in 1849 and ended with the publication of Timoleon in New York in 1891. The essential connecting tissue between the 1849 visit in London and the 1891 publication in New York entered Melville’s retinal consciousness in month of April 1857, first in a Venetian gondola, then in a London gallery.

As discussed in the above entries on Raphael, Titian, and Veronese (CAT 108, 109, 110), young Melville, during his two visits to the private gallery of Samuel Rogers in December 1849, would have seen first-impression prints of the 57 watercolor vignettes that J. M. W. Turner had created for reproduction in Rogers’s Italy 1830 and Poems in 1834. One of the most beautiful of those was Venice, a small vignette (2 5/8 inches high by 3 3/8 inches wide) engraved by E. Goodall as the head-piece for the same-named poem (fig. 4). Goodall’s minute engraving after Turner’s exquisite design catches perfectly the spirit in which Rogers invokes a vision of Venice in the opening lines of the poem printed directly beneath the engraved vignette:

There is a glorious City in the Sea.
The Sea is in the broad, the narrow streets,
Ebbing and flowing; and the salt sea-weed
Clings to the marble of her palaces.
No track of men, no footsteps to and fro,
Lead to her gates. The path lies o’er the Sea.
CAT 110 PT fig 4 Goodall after Turner Venice 1830.jpg

Figure 4. E. Goodall after J. M. W. Turner. Venice, second published state, 2 5/8 x 3 3/8 inches, for Samuel Rogers, Italy, 1830. Tate Gallery, London.

No less than Finden’s steel engraving of Santa Maria della Spina, Goodall’s steel engraving of Venice had created a fixed, tactile equivalent of the “coral grottoes in sea” and the “bouquet of architecture” that Melville had seen with his mind’s eye in Pisa. It also preserves the exactitude of the architectural detail Turner had managed to convey within such a circumscribed space in the fluid watercolor medium. The vertical columns and ornamented facades of the Ducal Palace on the right and the Sansovino Library on the left provide broad horizontal support for the Campanile that rises high behind the Library and the domes of St. Mark’s Basilica glowing behind the Palace. The one “narrow street” leading directly from the sea into the communal space of St. Mark’s Plaza opens just enough space within this enchanting “bouquet of architecture” for the viewer’s eye to “ebb and flow” in the spirit of Rogers’s poem.

Melville, like so many visitors, was drawn to St. Mark’s Plaza, with its narrow pathway to the sea, immediately upon arriving in town. After seeing churches, chapels, and palaces in Padua on the morning of April 1st, he had taken an afternoon train through the rain over “level country” that made him feel he was “approaching Boston from the West.” He then took “a gondola to Hotel Luna,” the famous hotel only a few steps from St. Mark’s Plaza. After dinner there, Melville “sallied out to piazza of St. Marco, & about there till 8 P. M.” (NN J 117).

The next morning, after having “breakfast at Florian’s,” the famous café on St. Mark’s Plaza recommended by Valery, Melville went straight to the Ducal Palace, after which he explored St. Mark’s Basilica and Rialto Bridge before climbing all the way “up Bell Tower” (the Campanile). After a relaxed afternoon in a gondola that took him “to Grand Canal & round by Guidecca,” he had dinner and took another “walk in St. Mark’s” and then “to bed.” He concluded this journal entry by declaring that there is “no place like the St. M.s Square for enjoyment. Public ball room—no hours. Lights. Ladies taking refreshments outside” among “musicians, singers, soldiers, &c &c &c. Perfect decorum. Fine architecture.” In the “court” of the Ducal Palace that evening he met an “affable young man” named Antonio, engaging him as his guide for the next day (NN J 118).

Decades later, Melville could recall one slice of the social ease and architectural grandeur he had savored within St. Mark’s Square through this engraving of St. Mark’s Basilica in his copy of The Renaissance of Art in Italy (fig. 5):

CAT 110 PT fig 5 Baxter Scott San Marco Basilica Venice p. 14.JPG

Figure 5. Engraving of Basilica di San Marco, Venice (completed A. D. 1094) in the New York edition of The Renaissance of Art in Italy.

Only from a boat out in the water would Melville have been able to gaze in toward the Square and its buildings from the perspective Goodall gives us in the engraving after Turner. He may have seen something close to that view the next morning when he and Antonio took to the city’s canals and waterways to explore the famous “Glass bead manufactory” and then the Church of San Giovanni e Paoli, where Melville would have seen Titian’s masterpiece, The Martyrdom of St. Peter, ten years before it was “destroyed by a fire.” Their next stop was the Arsenal, once the city’s glorious shipyard, which still displayed the “yellow silk banner” of a Turkish admiral “captured” at the Battle of Lepanto. They then glided through the Grand Canal, with its literary associations with Shakespeare, Othello, and Byron. After his evening meal, Melville returned to “the Piazza” (118, 503).

Melville’s itinerary was quite similar the next day. In the morning he took a gondola “at Piazzeta for Murano,” passing its famous cemetery before “gliding into water village.” After closely examining the Murano church and then the Jesuit church, he swung back around to the Grand Canal and examined its famous “House of Gold” and other waterside palaces before the afternoon visit to the Gallery of the Accademia, where he saw Titian’s Assumption, his Virgin in the Temple, and paintings by other Venetian masters too numerous to note in his journal. After dinner on this evening he “took gondola till dark on Canals,” noting an "Old Palace with grinning monsters &c” (118, 504-05).

April 5 was the most Turneresque day during his travels in Italy and perhaps in his life. It was a Sunday morning, and he had difficulty leaving breakfast table “on St. Marks” at which he was savoring impressions the way a painter with a sketchbook might do: “Austrian flags flying from three masts. Glorious aspect of the basilica in the sunshine. The charm of the square. The snug little breakfast there. Ladies. Flower girls—musicians . . . peddlars of Adriatic shells. Cigar stores &c &c.” Not wanting to break the mood, but perhaps having been graciously asked relinquish his table to another patron, Melville found “a chair by the arcade at Mindel’s” in which he could spend “some time in the sun” simply “looking at the flags, the sun, & the church.” After noting “the shadow of the bell-tower” and the “people coming to feed” the pigeons, he finally “took gondola” to “the garden laid out by Napoleon . . . at end of Venice,” enjoying its “fine view of lagoon & isles on two sides of Venice.” The view was even finer when the gondola carried him across to “the Lido, from whence fine view of Venice, particularly the Ducal palace, &c” (118-19).

Melville was already seeing the kind of views in which Turner had excelled ever since his first visit to in Venice in 1819, first in fluid watercolor drawings in his sketchbooks, eventually in the ethereal oil paintings he exhibited at the Royal Academy in the early 1840s. On this April day in 1857, after landing at the Lido, Melville at first “walked across the sand to the Adriatic shore.” He then paid a long visit to the Armenian Convent in its “admirable retirement from the world, asleep in the calm Lagoon, the Lido a breakwater against the tumultuous ocean of life.” His detailed examination of the “quadrangles, cloisters” and garden of this convent—and of the Armenian portraits, Turkish medals, old printing presses, silky vestments, and “swinging silver censers” treasured by this secluded community of worshippers—served as a palate cleanser for the Turneresque dream of his return to the city. Seen through the “mirage-like effect of fine day,” ships in the Malamocco Passage seemed to be “floating in air.” This sense of floating through a mirage carried Melville first to the Church of Santa Maria Salute, and then to the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, before he finally “landed at steps of Ducal Palace under Bridge of Sighs” (119).

In these Venetian waters, on that Sunday afternoon, Melville had floated right into the visual world of the one Turner painting he is certain to have seen in a public gallery in London in 1849. Robert Vernon had purchased Turner’s mirage-like oil painting The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa direct from the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1842. In 1847, the National Gallery had acquired Vernon’s unparalleled collection of paintings by contemporary British artists and installed it as the Vernon Gallery in the basement of its own building at Trafalgar Square. Young Melville visited both the Vernon Gallery and National Gallery on December 17, 1849, so he would have seen Turner’s ethereal Venetian seascape (fig. 6) three days before his first visit to Rogers’s private gallery. That was the visit in which he and Rogers spent the entire morning alone with Rogers’s collection, during which Melville is likely to have seen Goodall’s engraved vignette of Turner’s Venice along with the first-impression prints all the Turner vignettes for Rogers’s Italy. What an introduction to Turner’s Venice this sequence would have provided to the young American novelist: one of the finest of the painter’s powerfully indistinct canvases of the 1840s followed by a first impression print one of the most minute and gem-like steel engravings the world had ever seen (NN J 42-43, 362-63, 367-69; Wallace, Melville and Turner, 284-88).

CAT 110 PT fig 6 Turner Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella 1842 Tate Britain (N00372).jpg

Figure 6. J. M. W. Turner. The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa, oil on canvas, 1842. Given by Robert Vernon to the National Gallery 1847, transferred to the Tate Gallery 1949.

The above oil painting that Melville first saw in the Vernon Gallery in 1849 is called simply Venice—The Dogana in the 1859 steel-plate engraving by J. T. Willmore that Melville was to add to his own print collection (CAT number not yet assigned). The churches of Santa Maria Salute and San Giorgio Maggiore that Melville singles out in his “mirage-like” journal entry are the same ones that Turner featured in this 1842 painting. The approximate distance in space from the tiny dogs Turner painted on the steps of the Hotel Europa in the lower right corner of the painting across to the location of the Ducal Palace and St. Mark’s Plaza is indicated by the placement of the Campanile near its left edge. The church of Santa Maria della Salute prominent on the right side of the painting is “on the south bank of the St. Mark’s entrance to the Grand Canal" (NN J 119, 505-06).

On April 5, 1857, after floating through the Turneresque mirage of Venetian waters to the steps of the Doge’s Palace, Melville had walked, eventually, into the world of Turner’s Rialto Bridge—Moonlight featured on the cover of the copy of Valery’s Travels in Italy he had recently purchased in Florence (fig. 7). That was the long walk that had taken him from the “crowds of people . . . in the piazza of St. Mark” to the view of the Grand Canal from Rialto Bridge before finding himself, beyond the bridge, surrounded by women with "rich brown complexions" such as Titian had painted. By the time he had returned to see the “tumblers and comic actors in the open space near Rialto,” he was walking “by moonlight” through the scene Turner had painted (NN J 119).

CAT 110 PT fig 7 title page in HM Valery NYPL.jpg

Figure 7. W. Miller after J. M. W. Turner. Venice (The Rialto—Moonlight), vignette from Samuel Rogers’s Poems, 1834, reproduced on the cover of Valery’s Travels in Italy inscribed by Melville after its purchase in Florence in March 1857. Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library.

Melville’s unusually expansive account of the morning, afternoon, and evening of the day that had begun with his “snug little breakfast on St. Marks” did not end with his return to same open plaza in which in moonlight was now vying with gaslight. His April 5 journal entry continued with a stream-of-consciousness collage of further impressions from the day on the water followed by two rambling paragraphs about the life and times of his guide Antonio. This new collage of Venetian impressions notes that the Grand Canal is “not straight and stiff,” but “winds like a Susquehanha.” And that one of the storied old Venetian places is now “occupied as barrack” by “Austrian cots & burnishing armor.” Melville’s inventory of the astonishing variety of “vehicles” one sees floating through the canals of Venice suddenly shifts to a picturesque image of “St. Mark’s at sunset, gilt mosaics, pinacles, looks like holyday affair. As if the Grand Turk had pitched his pavilion here for a summers day. 800 years!” So magical is this city that Melville would “rather be in Venice on rainy day, than in other capital on fine one” (118-19).

But this day had been a fine one. And this impressionistic extension of his journal entry after having returned through the moonlight from the Rialto had itself begun with two more mirage-like images from his afternoon out on the water. One is generically Turneresque: “On these still summer days the fair Venetians float about in full bloom like pond lilies.” The other is more specifically so: “The Ducal palace’s colonade like hedge of architecture” (118-19).

From a literary point of view, Melville’s image of a “hedge of architecture” is an interesting variation on the “bouquet of architecture” he had seen ten days earlier in Pisa. Visually, such an image for the colonnade of the Ducal Palace was possible only when looking in at the Palace from out on the water, the perspective from which Turner had created the original watercolor from which Goodall had engraved Venice for Rogers’s Italy. Turner had himself retained all the watercolor drawings he had loaned to Rogers for that book. They had never been seen in public until after they migrated to the National Gallery in 1856 among the 19,000 paintings, drawings, and sketchbooks within the Turner Bequest. Imagine the surprise Melville must have felt when he visited the “Vernon & Turner galleries” three weeks after his departure from Venice on the morning after writing his April 5 journal entry and saw that a generous selection of the original vignettes for Rogers’s Italy were already on display in an exhibition of Turner watercolors now running concurrently with the inaugural exhibition of oil paintings from the Turner Bequest (Warrell, “The First Selection of Watercolours from the Turner Bequest, 1856,” nos. 29-43).

Below is the vision of the Ducal Palace and its surrounding buildings that Melville would have seen in Turner’s exquisite watercolor three weeks after he had envisioned the colonnade of the Ducal Palace as “a hedge of architecture” from the same spot out in the sea (fig. 8). If you look carefully to the left of image, you will see the light pencil drawing outlining the shape of the Campanile that Turner added as a guide to Goodall in making the engraving.

CAT 110 PT fig 8 Turner Venice for Rogers's Italy Tate Britain 1826-27.jpg

Figure 8. J.M.W. Turner. Venice, for Rogers’s Italy, watercolor on paper, c. 1826-27. Tate Gallery, accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856.

The colors and textures of the Ducal Palace in Turner’s gem-like watercolor intensify the degree to which Goodall’s engraving itself resembles “coral grottoes in sea” and the “bouquet of architecture” that Melville had envisioned when seeing architectural sites in Pisa. The coral-like colors and organic textures of Turner’s image give actual tactile form to the “hedge of architecture” Melville had imagined in his mind’s eye when looking at the same colonnade of the same Ducal Palace that Turner had depicted from about the same place in the sea about thirty years earlier. Turner in the foreground of this image, like Melville later in his journal entry about the “mirage-like effect” of Venetian waters, gives close attention to every variety of marine “vehicle” that plies the canals and wider waterways of the liquid city. By far the most prominent and unique of all those that Turner floats before the viewer is the huge, colorful vessel that displaces much of the waterline—and considerable space above it—on the far right side of the image. That conspicuous vessel is one that Titian, Veronese, and Admiral Girogio Cornaro would all have recognized during any year before the Admiral’s death shortly before the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

The vessel in question is the Bucintoro, one in a succession of imposing state barges from which each successive Doge of Venice from 1311 until the Napoleonic invasion in 1798 had performed the Marriage of the Sea ceremony by which this sea-girt city pledged that “We wed thee, sea, as a sign of true and everlasting domination.” As Veronese had done in his Biblical feast scenes, Turner is here blending images from contemporary Venetian life with those from stories and traditions of centuries before. In this Venetian vignette, Turner has positioned the Bucintoro in such a way that its upper deck blocks the viewer from seeing the infamous Bridge of Sighs across which captives were marched from the Doge’s Palace into the state prison at the far right. At the same time, the low, pointed prow of the Bucintoro draws the viewer’s eye up through the gem-like façade of the Ducal Palace before rising higher into the domes of the Basilica behind it and then across to the very top of the Campanile.

Melville was in a less structured way blending sights and scenes of contemporary life with storied traditions from centuries ago in his April 5 journal entry. The most obvious example was the passage in which the sunset on the “gilt mosaics” and “pinacles” of St. Mark’s Basilica caused him to imagine that “the Grand Turk had pitched his pavilion here for a summers day” some “800 years” ago. Reaching back some three hundred years was the passage in which the “clear, rich, golden brown” complexions of the beautiful women he saw above the Rialto made him realize that Titian’s women were “drawn from nature, after all.” Earlier that day, after the gondola that had floated him through the “mirage-like effects” of Malamocco Passage finally “landed” him “at the steps of the Ducal palace under the Bridge of Sighs,” he took note of something which, no less than Turner’s image of the Bucintoro, required some specific historical knowledge to appreciate (119-20).

At first Melville noticed that “the Prison” was “black as by fire.” And that, “in parts,” so was the Ducal Palace. He then recalled that there “was a fire here” (NN J 119, italics Melville’s). One of the most traumatic fires in the long history of Ducal Palace was the one in 1577 that had destroyed Titian’s Battle of Cadore in the Great Hall, along with much else in the Palace, one year after Titian’s death. One immediate result of that fire had been the commission for Veronese to paint the large allegory of the Battle of Lepanto that Melville would have seen in the Council Hall of the Palace three days before he saw traces of that centuries-old fire when landing “at the steps of the Ducal Palace under the Bridge of Sighs.” Had Titian, Veronese, or Admiral Cornaro been able to project themselves through time into Melville’s Turneresque day on Venetian waters, they all would have been deeply dismayed to see “Austrian flags flying from three masts” near the Ducal Palace in the morning or, later in the day, the “Austrian cots & burnishing armor” that had transformed the fabled Foscari palace on the Grand Canal into an army “barracks” (118-19).

Melville could have had no expectation as he arrived in London in late April 1857 that he would actually be standing face to face with the gleaming façade of the Ducal Palace he had seen three weeks earlier in Venice, this time in the original watercolor from which Goodall had engraved the gem-like vignette for Rogers’s Italy whose first impression, on the finest paper,  young Melville would have seen at Rogers’s breakfast table in 1849 (NN J 127-28, 44, 46). During his Mediterranean travels, Melville may well have learned that the National Gallery was planning an inaugural exhibition of some of the most cherished oil paintings it had acquired as part of the Turner Bequest, but he would not have expected to see a companion exhibition devoted to watercolors in which those from Rogers’s Italy played a prominent part. After having converted the colonade of the Ducal Palace into a “hedge of architecture” in his own imagination when approaching its façade only three weeks earlier, it would have provided quite a shock of recognition to see his own entranced vision materializing in the living color of Turner’s original vignette.

At the Vernon Gallery the same day he visited the Turner Gallery, Melville would not have been surprised to see the liquid expanse of Turner’s oil painting The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa he had already seen at the Vernon Gallery eight years earlier. He may, however, have been struck by the degree to which that 1842 oil painting replicated “the mirage-like effect” of his own transit across those same waters three weeks earlier that had finally brought him face to face with the façade of the Ducal Palace. At the inaugural exhibition of oil paintings from the Turner Bequest in 1857, Melville was now finally seeing many of the fabled paintings that had still been unsold in Turner’s private studio at the time of the young novelist’s 1849 visit to London. After a generic mention of “sunset scenes of Turner” in his 1857 journal, Melville mentioned three specific paintings: The Shipwreck, Peace—Burial of Wilkie, and The Fighting Temeraire taken to her last berth (NN J 128, 527). Melville eventually acquired engravings after Peace—Burial of Wilkie and The Fighting Temeraire for his own print collection (CAT numbers to be assigned).

fig9cat110 pt.jpg

Figure 9. J. M. W. Turner. The Fighting Temeraire being towed to her last berth, 1838, oil on canvas, 1839. Accepted as part of the Turner Bequest by the National Gallery in 1856.

Already in 1866, nine years after seeing the sunset painting of The Fighting Temeraire (fig. 9) in the Turner Gallery, Melville was to feature that painting in “The Temeraire,” the poem he paired with “A Utilitarian View of the Monitor’s Fight” in Battle Pieces. Melville contrasts the grand old wooden warship from the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 being towed up the River Thames to its own graveyard by a “pigmy steam-tug” with the fight between the Monitor and Merrimack in the American Civil War in 1862, inaugurating a new era in which “rivets clinch the iron-clads / Men learn a deadlier lore.” The Temeraire in Melville’s poem—no less than The Temeraire in Turner's sunset oil painting or the Bucintoro in his sunstruck watercolor—represents “navies old and oaken,” to be seen “no more” (NN PP 41-43).