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Parting Thought on Ancient Ruins

David Jordan in Gibbon and the Roman Empire finds that Gibbon becomes less certain of his ability to actually know the lives of his human subjects between the first volume of his History in 1776 and the last in 1787. Gibbon shows himself increasingly aware that he is writing not so much this history of the Roman Empire as that of his own mind (4-6). Piranesi’s revisions of his 1749 Carceri in 1761 show a similar awareness of the inevitable subjectivity of creative perception, drawing on one’s deepest instincts and most peripheral awarenesses in the attempt to see and feel things as they most truly are, in the fluid process of remaining imaginatively alive. The fluidity of this process is suggested by the title Luigi Ficacci gave to the opening chapter of Piranesi’s Complete Etchings: “The Discovery of Rome out of the Spirit of Piranesi” (9-25).

Before Piranesi could make the imaginative leap into his own subjective perception and expression, he had spent a full decade, from the mid-1740s to the mid-1750s, “tracking down every surviving relic” of ancient sculpture and architecture “in Rome and its suburbs.” At this point in his life as an aspiring architect, he was chartless, searching for a way to clear out a path of his own within a culture not ready for his energy or imagination (Ficacci 17-19). Piranesi’s hands-on immersion in the tactile reality of ancient Rome enabled him to create in his 1761 Carceri etchings the pictorial equivalent of Ishmael’s observation of the “visible surface of the Sperm Whale . . . all over obliquely crossed and re-crossed with numberless straight marks in thick array, something like those in the finest Italian line engravings.” Ishmael’s verbal depiction of the surface of the whale was itself based on Melville’s tactile immersion in the process of tracking down, cutting in, and trying out the bodies of each sperm whale that could be harvested from those living creatures whose partial forms emerged during his whaling voyages across the open expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Within Moby-Dick itself, those same “linear marks” that appear to be “engraved upon the body itself . . . as in a veritable engraving, but afford the ground for far other delineations . . . to the quick, observant eye” (NN MD 306). That latter eye is the imaginative eye of the Melville who has “swam through libraries” while writing his five previous novels” in the late 1840s after having “sailed through oceans” in the early years of the same decade (NN MD 136). While swimming through the libraries of Young America in the late 1840s, young Melville was getting his first indelible glimpses of an ancient world that eventually became as compelling to him as the relics of ancient Rome were to young Piranesi in his archaeological excavations of the late 1740s.

Melville as early as the “Time and Temples” chapter of Mardi (1849) associated himself with remnants of ancient cultures that have left their archaeological and architectural monuments in Persia, Spain, Mexico, and the “Illinois mounds” as well as in Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem (NN M 228-30). In the “Dreams” chapter he identified with the great writers from Homer and Anacreon to Petrarch and Milton who have left their own monuments to the mind, while also crediting those philosophers as diverse as St. Paul and Montaigne, Julian and Augustine, and Plato and Proclus and Veralum, with whom young Melville has “conversed” and “sought counsel” concerning universal issues that press upon the hearts and minds of each new generation and culture (NN M 366-38).

In the “Sailing On” chapter of Mardi, Melville boldly launched into the exploratory side of the psyche that would darken and deepen before eventually dissolving into the ambiguities of the “penetralia” of Pierre. His narrator pledges to follow the “blast resistless” of the “world of the mind” wherever it leads him on his “chartless voyage.” He would rather “sink in boundless depths than float on vulgar shoals," so he implores the gods to "give me, ye gods, an utter wreck, if wreck I do” (NN M 556-57). One year before the commercial shipwreck of Pierre, Melville had published Moby-Dick, still one of the most imaginatively successful exploratory books ever written by an American author. After Pierre, however, although he continued to write and publish a dozen short stories, one novel, and four books of poetry that are highly valued today, Melville had ceased to be a public figure in the way the young author of his first six maritime novels hand been. Melville was to live the rest of his life in relative obscurity. Yet the same Mediterranean voyage that in 1856-57 marked the highly disappointing end of a highly productive decade as a young writer of fiction was to be the catalyst for three surprisingly productive decades as a poet and collector of prints in spite of no longer being able to support himself or his family as a writer.

Piranesi, unlike Melville, got his fame later in life. Arriving in Rome in 1740 hoping to be an architect, he was unable to get a foothold and turned to making engravings of popular views until leaving for Venice to pursue other possibilities in 1745. In the late 1740s his Vedute of Rome, engravings of popular sites for the tourist trade, quickly began to stand out from those of his competitors, giving a welcome source of income when he returned to the city and to began his methodical excavation of the sculptural and architectural ruins of ancient Rome. In those years he accompanied that research with “theoretical and polemic tracts” in support of “great works he never built.” Piranesi was not able to realize any of his own architectural ambitions until his arcane archaeological research caught the attention of Pope Gregory III. From 1758 to 1769, while “enjoying the patronage” of this new pope, Piranesi was finally able “to translate his architectural designs into reality.” He formed a large workshop in Rome at which he was able to “tackle the completion of his ambitious archaeological project” while also reconstructing churches in Rome and continuing to publish his Vedute and other, more personal, engraving projects. Piranesi devoted the rest of his life to his goal of “restoring Rome with architecture . . . worthy of its ancient glory.” In the process, he unearthed “a totally unknown world that . . . was loaded with an extraordinarily forceful charge of information.” The heart of his legacy to subsequent centuries is found much less in the churches he restored than in his reconstructive and exploratory engravings such as the Arch of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the Carceri, his entire oeuvre a rare blend of theoretical freedom and painstaking research (Ficacci, 9, 22-23).

Piranesi’s exploratory archaeological engravings are a striking confirmation of Ishmael’s assertion in the “Cetology” chapter that “small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity” (NN MD 145). Moby-Dick itself is the classic example of this dynamic in Melville’s literary life, speaking much more urgently to readers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries than it had to the nineteenth century in which he wrote it. Clarel is arguably the comparable example from Melville’s later life, receiving no positive attention during his lifetime, and deep appreciation from only Walter Bezanson and a few other scholars in the mid-twentieth century, but now, in the opening decades of the twenty-first century, being seen as a major nineteenth-century text in addressing the crisis of religious faith in the wake of Darwin, the ecumenical imperative for religious thinkers to acknowledge the  “intersympathy of creeds,” and the need of America’s literary and imaginative life to anchor itself in the actual lives and cultures of “the whole worshipping world” (in Ishmael’s phrase from “His Mark” in Moby-Dick). The imaginative capaciousness of Clarel in religious, cultural, geographical, aesthetic, and gendered relations makes it much more a book for the twenty-first century than the nineteenth.

The aesthetic element of Clarel’s expansive capaciousness is deeply informed by the cross-cultural ethos and aesthetic depth of the prints and engravings in Melville’s personal art collection. This ethos was anchored in both time and space by the Mediterranean tour that took Melville around the rim and through the islands of the eastern Mediterranean, with major stops in Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, Greece, and Italy, between December 1856 and April 1857. The living cultures of the people he met throughout the region, enriched by the ancient cultures he absorbed both consciously and unconsciously, became the inspiration for much of the poetry he would write, and the prints he would be collecting, for the next thirty-four years. In chapter 1 we saw the admixture of Greek, Persian, and Palestinian cultures in the places he visited and the prints he collected. Here we see—not only in the ancient but also in the Renaissance and subsequent sections of this chapter—the deep influence of Roman culture on Melville’s own contemporary thought, not only while he traveled, but after he got back home. Only for one week in Naples followed by four weeks in Rome was Melville able to actually explore the ruins of ancient Roman culture within the dense urban core and surrounding suburban landscape of these two cities. In his imagination, however, he never stopped excavating the imaginative and tactile residue of that deeply formative experience, either in his poetry writing or his print collecting.         

The early sections of this chapter have emphasized the ancient Roman busts and architectural ruins that made their way into Melville’s personal art collection. The next sections will emphasize the writers and artists from the Renaissance through the seventeenth century who demanded his close attention not only while in Italy but in the poetry her wrote and the prints he collected after returning home to New York. The last sections of this chapter will take us from the eighteenth century in which Piranesi lived to the nineteenth century in which Melville visited. Melville spent more time in Rome than in any other city, but he also spent significant time in Messina, Naples, Pisa, Florence, Bologna, Padua, Venice, Milan, and Genoa before moving north to Switzerland.

In Naples in March 1857 Melville was measuring the latest political tensions between Garibaldi and Bomba, the last of the ruling Bourbons, against the glories of ancient Rome and Naples. Eight months later, beginning his tour on the American lyceum circuit in Massachusetts, he was already evoking the art and ethos of the ancient Roman culture in which he had recently immersed himself as a way of measuring contemporary American civilization. As Piranesi challenged Roman culture in the middle of the eighteenth century, so does Melville challenge Americans in the middle of the nineteenth: “We moderns pride ourselves upon our superiority, but the claim can be questioned. We did invent the printing press, but from the ancients have we not all the best thought which it circulates, whether it be the law, physics, or philosophy? As the Roman arch enters into and sustains our best architecture, does not the Roman spirit still animate and support whatever is soundest in societies and states?” (NN PTO 408).

By the time Melville published Clarel in 1876, the United States was entering its Centennial year still deeply riven by the fratricide of the Civil War a decade earlier. All social and religious assumptions that had prevailed in 1857 were under new and blistering scrutiny, and Melville was now an author without an audience working six days a week at the New York Customs House to support his family. Even as conditions changed, much that Melville had experienced on the ground, through his eyes, and in his mind during his eight weeks in Rome and other Italian cites was to remain a guiding influence in the poetry he wrote as well as the art he collected.