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Art in Ruins and Nature in Vigor


CAT 78. Artist and engraver unknown. Untitled landscape with “art in ruins and nature in vigor.” Publication and date unknown. E. Barton Chapin Jr. Family Collection.

The jumble of ancient ruins in this engraved landscape could represent the actual ruins of a specific place or the caprice of an artist’s imaginative pastiche. This artistic genre appealed to the nineteenth-century Romantic mind of Melville as much as it did to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment mind of Gibbon. Genre scenes such as this were widely produced as line engravings in eighteenth-century France and then “colorized” at some point in the nineteenth-century by a dealer, publisher, or amateur artist. This print thus relates to the “two large green French portfolios of colored prints” that Redburn and his siblings would look at every Saturday, “spreading them on the floor” and “gaz[ing] at them with never-failing delight” (NN R 6).

The ruins depicted here suggest the influential mixture of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian sculpture that the Emperor Hadrian assembled at his Villa Adriana at Tivoli in the environs of Rome. Hadrian’s Villa (also known as Villa Tiburs) was built in successive “campaigns of construction” from A.D. 117-125 and 125-133. After official excavation of its ruins began in the sixteenth century, “for the next three centuries Villa Adriana was ransacked for sculpture, marble, and mosaics, although the decoration that remains is still impressive” (Boatwright, 138-42). One wonders exactly what was currently visible when Melville visited on March 20, 1857, and recorded “Villa of Hadrian—Solemn scene & solemn guide—Extent of Ruin—fine site. Guide philosophizing” (NN J 113).

Melville’s copy of Braun’s The Ruins and Museums of Rome (1856) provided a very well-organized guide to the ruins of Rome in the city and its surrounding villas. As Sealts suggests, Melville may have acquired it as a guide to Rome during his 1857 visit (Sealts no. 86.1). This volume was not itself illustrated, but its meticulous table of contents listed for each ruin the plates which had been engraved of it in the major reference books. So Melville, after returning to America, would have known exactly which books to consult for actual images. The expansive spirit of Braun’s volume is shown in the subtitle of his first chapter: “Antiquarian Ramble from the Colisseum to the Capitol.” Throughout his own “rambles” through Rome, Melville took note of sculptural and architectural ruins whose fractured shapes in surprising places surprised his eye and challenged his mind. On his second day in town he was overwhelmed by the “massive” ruins at the Baths of Caracalla, forming “natural bridges of thousands of arches . . . majestic” in their “desolate grandeur.” On his pilgrimage to Gibbon’s church near the Capitol, he was struck by “various columns rifled from ancient edifices.” On his second visit to the Villa Albani, he savored the “architecture of villa” in “richness of landscape.” At the Villa of Hadrian at the end of his stay, the “Extent of ruin” and “fine site” composed into a “solemn scene” (NN J 107, 110, 112, 113).

Many of the most famous Roman ruins were not in Rome or its immediate environs but in the environs of Naples, along the fabled coastline that Melville explored before arriving in Rome. We have already noted the visit to Posilippo in which he examined the “mere ruin” of “Virgil’s tomb” after seeing the “remains of school of Virgil & other ruins of villas.” On an excursion along the Bay of Baiae to Lake Avernus and ancient Cumae a few days later, the “road cut though ruins of old villas of Romans. Singular melting together of art in ruins and Nature in vigor” (NN J 102, 104). This latter phrase perfectly captures the spirit of this untitled colored print of unknown ruins.  For other examples of a “singular melting together of art in ruins and Nature in vigor” in prints Melville acquired of Roman ruins in the Neopolitan region, see Wilson’s Morning and Evening and two separate engravings of Turner’s The Golden Bough (CAT numbers to be assigned). 

Melville in 1857 had followed Gibbon in 1764 and Goethe in 1786, among writers, and Piranesi in 1762 and Flaxman in 1787, among artists, in drawing direct inspiration from the ancient Roman ruins they sought out during residence in modern Rome and its environs. All five of these creators were drawing upon the precedent of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, whose arrival in Rome in 1755 was the turning point in the life of the man who today is seen by many as the founder not only of modern archaeology but of the Western world’s idea of the history of art. Winckelmann was 37 in November 1755, the same age that Goethe and Melville were each to be on their own momentous “birth-days” in the same city (see “Goethe Yes and No” in the essay “Herman Melville Print Collector” on this site). In 1764, two years after Piranesi published The Arch of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius as part of The Campo Marzio of Ancient Rome, Winckelmann published his masterpiece, The History of Art in Antiquity, the first book to provide a comprehensive history of the growth of art within the cultures of the Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans, as well as in their interrelations.

Melville appears to have encountered Winckelmann’s History of Art in Antiquity in Boston in 1852, when he was finishing Pierre (Sealts no. 559). In Madame de Staël’s Germany, a book he acquired in April 1862, he drew five checkmarks alongside a two-paragraph commentary on Winckelmann that spoke to his own recent experience. Winckelmann, “who at first knew antiquity only by books, was desirous of contemplating its noble ruins; he felt himself attracted with ardor towards the South.” When he “returned to Germany . . . after a long abode in Italy,” he "felt as if he could no longer enjoy the arts, when he no longer breathed the air which gave them birth.” In writing of the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoön, Winckelmann “gives to the art of writing the imposing dignity of ancient monuments, and his description produces the same sensation as the statue itself. No one before him had united such exact and profound observation with admiration so animated; it is thus only that we can comprehend the fine arts.” Unlike those “learned men” whose “authority” derived primarily from books, Winckelmann had realized that one must “render himself a pagan in order to penetrate antiquity.” We therefore “feel in his writings the worship of beauty, such as it existed in a nation where it so often obtained the honors of apotheosis” (Staël-Holstein, 2: 171-72; Cowen, 11: 35-37). Melville first shared his worship of ancient beauty in the lectures on "statues in Rome" he delivered during the 1857-58 Lyceum season. He later savored it in his print collection and conveyed it in his poetry.

In “Lone Founts,” published in Timoleon in 1891, Melville, in the spirit Winckelmann, endows a site of ancient ruins with a capacity for inspiring a richer and wiser life in the present and in ages to come:

Foreclose the coming of surprise,
Stand where Posterity shall stand:
Stand where the Ancients stood before,
And, dipping in lone founts thy hand,
Drink of the never-varying lore:
Wise once, and wise thence evermore. (NN PP 277)

Melville’s lone founts embody Piranesi’s concept of “speaking ruins.” The also illustrate Susan Stewart’s idea that “representations” of ruins in art, in the process of “restoring irreparably damaged objects” to life, can also be “framed as restorations of, and even improvements on, the moral order” (2-3).