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Roman Ruins, Fallen and Recreated

Edward Gibbon declared in his posthumous Autobiography that “the idea of writing of the decline and fall of the city first started into my mind . . . as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol” near the Church of the Jesuits in Rome “on the fifteenth of October, 1764.” For more than twenty years after this personal epiphany, Gibbon had worked to repeople the ruins of Rome with the reconstructed lives and times of the imperial leaders who had presided over the decline and fall of the city from the time of the Age of the Antonines. Through this continuing imaginative act, Gibbon had to some degree “created the Roman Empire” as an imaginative construct (Jordan, 18-21, xii).

Nearly a century after Gibbon “mused amidst the ruins of the Capitol,” Melville did so too, with Gibbon very much on his mind. His journal entry for March 8, 1857, includes these words: “To Jesuits Church—to Gibbon’s church nigh Capitol . . . Gibbon’s meditations—Christianity” (NN J 110). Melville began to convey his own way of restoring and repeopling the ruins of Rome in the lecture on the “Statues in Rome” that he gave in the United States beginning in November 1857. He recalled a Gibbonesque epiphany of his own: “when I stood in the Coliseum, its mountain-chains of ruins waving with foliage girdling me round, the solitude was great and vast  . . . so, restoring the shattered arches and terraces, I repeopled them with all the statues from the Vatican, and in the turfy glen of the arena below I placed the Fighting Gladiator from the Louvre, confronting him with the dying one from the Capitol” (NN PTO 494). For three full decades after returning from his only visit to Rome, Melville continued to “restore” and “repeople” of Rome and other ancient sites through the prints he collected and the books he read as well as the words he wrote, always remaining attentive to the minds of those writers and artists whose eye for such imaginative activity was comparable to his own.

As Melville revisited from time to time the books and prints he had gathered of ancient Romans and their culture, he could always return in his mind to that one footloose month in Rome when he not only made multiple visits to see the ancient busts and sculptures at the Capitoline Museum and Vatican Collection but also visited the principal public museums and private galleries of the city as well as the celebrated villas beyond its urban core. On his travels to and from these specific destinations, he took note in his journal of sculptural and architectural ruins still randomly scattered across the urban and sub-urban environs. He also kept his eye open for engraved prints of Rome’s artistic heritage that might be available for purchase. On his first day in town he “stopped at evening in picture dealers” and “was offered $4 for Cenci. Surprising cheap” (NN J 106). Five years earlier, Melville had already alluded to a copy of Guido Reni’s famous portrait of Beatrice Cenci in a New York gallery in the last chapter of Pierre (NN P 351). Perhaps it was on this visit to Rome, perhaps from this very dealer, that Melville had acquired the engraving of this image that Vicenzo Biondi had published in 1838 (CAT 112).

The two prints from Melville’s collection in this section exemplify the spirit of Gibbon in the life and mind of Melville. One print depicts ancient ruins in their fallen state, an invitation to the viewer to imagine the ancient minds and cultures that originally created them. The other print depicts one ruin, fallen long ago, restored to an imagined wholeness through the mind and hand of a single artist-engraver. In 1762, two years before Gibbon had his own epiphany while “musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol,” Giovanni Battista Piranesi had recreated in etched lines on paper his image of the Arch of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, providing new visible access into the “Age of the Antonines” that later creators such as Gibbon and Melville were to see as “zenith of time” and the “Solstice of Man” (NN PP 286).

  • Sources cited primarily in this section:
  • Braun, Emil. Handbook of the Ruins and Museums of Rome. Brunswick: Frederick Vieweg, 1856 (Sealts no. 86.1).
  • Boatwright, Mary Taliaferro. Hadrian and the City of Rome. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.
  • Ficacci, Luigi. Giovanni Battista Piranesi: The Complete Etchings. Cologne: Taschen, 2000.
  • Jordan, David P. Gibbon and his Roman Empire. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971.
  • Otter, Samuel. “How Clarel Works.” In A Companion to Herman Melville, ed. Wyn Kelley. Malden MA: Blackwell, 2006. 467-81.
  • ------. “Melville, Poetry, Prints.” In Melville’s Philosophies. Ed. Branka Arsić and K. L. Evans (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017): 219-59.
  • Robison, Andrew. Piranesi, Early Architectural Fantasies: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Etchings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
  • Staël-Holstein, Anne Louise Germaine (Necker). Germany. New York: Derby and Jackson, 1859 (Sealts no. 487).
  • Wilton-Ely, John. Giovanni Battista Piranesi: The Complete Etchings. 2 v. San Francisco: Alan Wofsey 1994.
  • --------. “Piranesi, Giovanni Battista.” Grove Dictionary of Art, 1996: 24: 841-7.