Parting Thought on Ancient Rome and Modern Italy
Although Melville acquired his copy of Goethe’s Travels in Italy in 1849, he made many of his marks in the book during or after his travels in 1857 (see “Goethe Yes and Now” in the introductory essay on “Herman Melville as Print Collector” on this site). Melville marked Goethe’s declaration that “I reckon a new birth-day,—a true new birth from the day that I entered Rome.” He also made a marginal calculation by which he determined that Goethe was 37 years old on the day he arrived in Rome in 1786—the same age as Melville on his first day in the city (here is the marginal calculation as it appears in Melville’s Marginalia Online, MMO 228, p. 349: http://melvillesmarginalia.org/Share.aspx?DocumentID=47&PageID=11080).
One intriguing by-product of Melville’s travels in Rome and other Italian cities was this stray, undated note in his journal: “Frescoes of Travel by Three Brothers: Painter, Poet, and Idler” (NN J 154). Melville’s original third term was “Scholar,” which he revised to “Idler,” closer to his role when actually traveling in Italy. Back home, he was both poet and scholar as he built his art and book collections; published Battle-Pieces, Clarel, John Marr, and Timoleon; and continued to revise Billy Budd, “At the Hostelry,” “An Afternoon in Naples,” and many other unpublished manuscripts. As we have seen, many of these compositions drew upon his travels in Italy as well as the books and prints he collected, weaving together own fusion of Hazlitt’s “books, pictures, and the face of nature.”
The prints in Melville’s collection show the degree to which Renaissance writers such as Machiavelli, Ariosto, and Tasso influenced Renaissance painters such as Raphael, Titian, and Veronese—as artists in both fields continued to draw inspiration from Dante, the Bible, and Ancient Roman culture. This rich pattern of associations was expanded throughout the seventeenth century by Annibale, Domenichino, Guido, and Solimena. All these associations made for a cohesive sense of a cultural patrimony upon which Melville could draw during the twenty-five years in which he composed, published, and revised his poetry in New York. For twenty of those years, he was working five or six days a week as an inspector at the New York Customs House. On many of those days, after returning home in the evening, he would “take off the day’s clothing” and “enter [his] study” (as Machiavelli had done when composing The Prince in 1513). There, “reclothed appropriately,” surrounded by his book and print collections, he would “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 . . . 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” (Machiavelli, 131-32).