Parting Thought on Machiavelli, Ariosto, and Tasso
In a famous letter to Francesco Vettori on December 10, 1513, Machiavelli described the process by which he had been composing The Prince after having lost his position in the Florentine government the year before. Having taken refuge from the city on a farm, he has been trapping birds and cutting down trees, walking between the grove and the aviary with “a book in my pocket, either Dante or Petrarch, or one of the lesser poets.” After spending the afternoon with coarse companions in an inn, he returns to his house in the evening, where “I enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.” As a result, “I have . . . composed a little work On Princedoms, where I go as deeply as I can into considerations on this subject, debating what a princedom is, of what kinds they are, how they are gained, how they are kept, why they are lost” (Machiavelli, 131-32).
Machiavelli’s ritual of stripping off “the day’s clothing” to prepare himself to commune with the ancients “on that food which only is mine and which I was born for” is an apt metaphor for the spiritual transition Melville must have experienced on those long evenings during which, having returned from the Customs House, he composed his own epic poem in the company of those ancients whose books and portraits he most admired, his inner life rich in inverse relation to his current social, economic, and literary status. Machiavelli’s description of shedding the clothes and cares of daily life to commune with the ancients anticipates by more than 300 years Hazlitt’s declaration that “Our intercourse with the dead is better than our intercourse with the living” in the sentence preceding the one on “books, pictures, and the face of nature” that Melville marked in his copy of Hazlitt’s Criticisms of Art in 1870 (MMO 263a [040, 1-2]).
At certain moments while writing an epic poem as ambitious as Clarel—or maybe even when remembering the sustained presence of his own “heavenly Muse” while writing Moby-Dick—Melville must have dreamt fondly of some distant day in which the best of his own literary labors might be deemed worthy of the laurels that crown the heads of Dante, Ariosto, and Tasso in the his copies of the engravings Raffaelle Morghen originally created for the “Fathers of Italian Literature and Poetry” series in the decade before Melville was born (MBB 2-2, CAT 104 and 105). “Art,” the signature poem of Melville’s Timoleon in 1891, begins with these two aspirational lines: “In placid hours well pleased we dream / Of many a brave unbodied scheme” (NN PP 280).