CAT 103. Engraved by George Cooke. Machiavelli. In Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, vol. 1. London: Vernor, Hood, & Sharpe, 1807. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.
Nicollò Machiavelli. Florentine diplomat and poet, 1469 –1527. The commentary in HG 1 declares that “few names have been more generally consigned to public abhorrence than that of Machiavelli.” Yet “his commentaries on the first Decade of Livy” show a profound understanding of the ancient republics of Greece and Rome. Machiavelli in his Art of War calls upon his countrymen to emulate “the ancient Romans . . . in the excellent discipline and formation of their armies.” His History of Florence is “a master-piece, when we consider the regularity of its plan, the correct delineation of its characters, and the energy and beauty of its numerous harangues” (154-57).
Although The Prince “has most exposed Machiavelli to the censure and obloquy of his contemporaries and posterity,” this book, “by displaying all the possible engines of tyranny,” will help “deprive it of its many resources,” for “vice is seldom dangerous, when drawn in all its native grossness and deformity; it is when disguised under the appearance of decency, that it undermines the morals, and circulates the venom of corruption in the veins of unsuspecting youth.” After the return of the Medici to power in Florence removed Machiavelli from office, he “passed the remainder of his life in study and obscurity.” He “enjoyed but little glory in his lifetime. . . . It is true, that from the nature of most of his works, he would not obtain so many readers as Ariosto and Tasso” (157-60).
In White-Jacket Melville contrasts Machiavelli’s Art of War (“which was very dry fighting”) with Petrarch’s Lives (those “superexcellent biographies . . . in beautiful style”) (NN WJ 167). In December 1851, in the midst of writing Pierre, Melville requested his sister Augusta to retrieve the copy of “Machiavelli’s Florentine history” which their brother Allan had “borrowed from me” (NN CO 214; Sealts no. 340a). In Israel Potter Melville calls the biblical Jacob “a tanned Machiavelli in tents” when he compares his diplomatic wiles with those of Benjamin Franklin (NN IP 46). Machiavelli’s savage skepticism toward the truth of appearances pervades Melville’s Confidence Man; it is not surprising that the Missourian pictures the man with the brass-plate as “that threadbare Tallyrand, that impoverished Machiavelli, that seedy Rosicrucian”; or that the Cosmopolitan in the concluding chapter tries to undermine the old man’s faith in the reliability of the Bible by citing the admonition to distrust your friends in the apocryphal “Son or Sirach,” from which Machiavelli had gotten his “view of nature” (NN CM 130, 242-43).
Melville naturally had Machiavelli on his mind when he visited Italy in 1857 while The Confidence Man was in production. In Rome at the Doria Pamphili palace on March 10 “Machiavelli’s portrait disappointed me. Ugly profile, &c. Didn’t like it.” At Santa Croce in Florence on March 25 Melville “saw tombs of Dante, M. Angelo, Alfieri, and Machiavelli. Preacher near M’s tomb. M said nought. Crucifix held out toward him.” In Genoa on April 11, in response that city’s “elaborate architecture represented in fresco,” Melville recalled “Machiavelli’s saying that the appearances of a virtue may be advantageous, when the reality would be otherwise” (NN J 111, 114, 123). Nine years later, in the prose supplement to Battle-Pieces, Melville argued that the victorious North must show “magnanimity” toward the “defeated South” by contending that both “benevolence and policy—Christianity and Machiavelli—dissuade from penal severities toward the subdued” (NN PP 185). One decade later, when the pilgrims in Clarel reach the birthplace of Christ in Bethlehem and Derwent opines that their Franciscan guide seems “unmanly,” Rolfe retorts that “Of our Lord, / This same was said by Machiavel, / Or hinted, rather. Prithee, tell, / What is it to be manly?” (NN Clarel 4.14.94-98; emphasis Melville’s).
Melville’s allusions to Machaivelli in his early novels, his 1849 letter, his 1857 journal, Battle Pieces, and Clarel show how fully he had internalized Machiavelli as a historian, diplomat, and living person. After returning from Italy in 1857, all of the reading, thinking, and writing Melville had done about Machiavelli while living in America had been enriched by the living legacy of Machiavelli in the cities and churches in which he had lived and died. The copy of Valery’s Travels in Italy Melville acquired in Florence was a handy compendium of the legacy of Machiavelli and other Italian Renaissance authors and artists through the eyes and mind of an extremely resourceful, broadly cultured European of Melville’s own century. Most of the writers, artists, and artworks whose names Melville jotted down in his journal between mid-February and mid-April 1857 are discussed at length in Melville’s copy of Valery’s book, often with marks or annotations added by Melville himself during his travels in Italy or after he came home. Some of Melville’s markings relate directly to his own journal entries on the same subject. Others are the only record he have of Melville’s direct interest in an Italian author, artist, or artwork discussed by Valery.
Immediately after visiting the Doria Pamphili Gallery in Rome on March 10, Melville had written that “Machiavelli’s portrait disappointed me.” At some undetermined date after acquiring Travels in Italy later that month, Melville drew a marginal double bracket next to the phrase in which Valery recommended Raphael’s “terrible Cesare Borgia, with Machiavel,” in that gallery for its insight into “the action and thought of the fifteenth century.” Cesare Borgia (1475-1507) was a church leader and mercenary soldier who was a major inspiration for Machiavelli’s The Prince (Cowen 11:373, Valery 572).
In addition to writing in his journal for March 25 “that he saw tombs of Dante, M. Angelo, Alfieri, and Machiavelli” at Santa Croce in Florence, Melville marked several passages in Valery’s extended discussion of those tombs. One of those came in the paragraph in which Valery deeply regrets that Michelangelo’s proposal to “build Dante’s sepulchre at Florence” was rejected in favor of a much lesser artist. Melville entered a large check mark next to the sentence in which Valery takes some consolation in the fact that “this poor monument” had inspired “the fine verses of Count Jocopo Leopardi, one of the first contemporary poets of Italy, on the love of Italy and her present glory.” Melville added two marginal check marks, two marginal lines, and two internal underlines to the footnote which Valery gave 1831 as the date for Leopardi’s poetic tribute to Dante and June 16, 1837, as the day Leopardi “died at Naples of the cholera.” Melville underlined the words “cholera” as the cause of Leopardi’s death and “aged forty years” as a measure of the loss (Cowen 11:359-62, Valery 354). The words Melville wrote in his 1857 journal and the marks he made in his copy of Valery were early steps toward his subsequent life as lecturer, poet, and print collector. Soon after returning to America, he was lecturing on “Statues in Rome” and writing poems on art and artists.
In Israel Potter, Melville had projected Machiavelli all the way back into the world of the Old Testament by presenting Jacob, in whom the “the diplomatist and shepherd are blended,” as a “tanned Machiavelli in tents” (NN IP 76). Three years later at Santa Croce in Florence, Melville playfully projected Machiavelli into a conscious afterlife when declaring that Machiavelli “said naught” in response to the priest “near Machiavelli’s tomb” who extended a crucifix “towards him” (NN J 114). Melville's copy of The Renaissance of Art in Italy had an excellent depiction of a marble pulpit in that church dating from 1474. Baxter’s book also provided an excellent depiction of the façade of Santa Croce, completed in 1442, behind which Melville visited the tombs of Dante, Michelangelo, Alfieri, and Machiavelli in 1857 (Baxter 46, 99; fig. 1).
Figure 1. Church of La Santa Croce, Florence. Begun A.D. 1294. Completed A.D. 1441. In Melville’s copy of Lucy Baxter, The Renaissance of Art in Italy, 1883, p. 99.
Melville’s gravesite at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City, next to that of his wife Elizabeth, differs from that of Machiavelli in not being surrounded by those of famous writers and artists. The Woodlawn resting place does relate to the silence Melville imagined coming from that of Machiavelli by featuring an elaborate scroll featuring no words at all (fig. 2).
Fig. 2. Headstones of Herman and Elizabeth Melville at Woodlawn Cemetery, New York City, August 1, 2019, the 200th anniversary of Herman Melville's birth.