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Arch of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius


CAT 79. Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Arch of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. In The Campo Marzio of Ancient Rome. Rome: 1762, plate 35. Private collection.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) was a contemporary of Gibbon (1713-1794) and had undertaken his imaginative excavation and recreation of The Campo Marzio of Ancient Rome in close collaboration with the English architect Robert Adam; on the 1762 title page G. B. Piranesi is listed as “Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, London.” Campo Marzio was the monumental center of Imperial Rome. The Arch of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius that Piranesi has recreated in this large, striking, exceptionally accomplished print stands for the Age of the Antonines at its absolute height, at the period that Melville described in his poem as the “summit of fate,” the “zenith of time,” and the “Solstice of man.” One wonders if Melville is alluding directly to his copy of this Piranesi engraving when he writes, “Back to the Past one glance be cast— / The Age of the Antonines!” (NN PP 286). The print survives today in a frame that may possibly date from Melville’s own collection. This engraving is a fine supplement to Melville’s engraved busts of three essential persons in the political and personal life of Marcus Aurelius: Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Faustina (CAT 73, 74, and 75). It is an equally valuable adjunct to the characterization of “Aurelius Antonine” in Clarel as “A Cæsar wise, grave, just, benign” (NN C 4.20.45-6).

Piranesi’s italic text below the engraved image indicates that he is depicting the arch as it would have appeared “before it was destroyed to because of the Hippodrome” (the Arch of Marcus Aurelius was also known as the Arch of Portogallo). The letters A and B in the italic text refer to the matching “anaglyphs” immediately above the same letters in the print, Piranesi having transferred them to their imagined place in the ancient arch from their contemporary home in “the Capitoline building.” The letter C in the italic text refers to the Manifica Colonna Coclide (the Magnificent Spiral Column of Marcus Aurelius, also known as the Antonine column), which Piranesi depicts in the far distance next to the letter C under the curve of the arch. Piranesi has been able to assemble and display all of these elements so clearly because “later” architectural “accretions” around the site have been “dramatically stripped away” (Wilton-Ely 1994, no. 597, 2: 613). The number 448 in the sky above the building on the right was added to the original copper plate in an edition published by Firmin Dido in Paris after 1810. In the Paris edition, the plates of the Campo Marzio “are numbered from 418 to 455,” a numbering system retained by the National Calographia Institute after the original plates were returned to Rome in 1839 (Ficacci, pp. 14, 24, 424, 453).

Beyond its imaginative virtuosity in archaeological reconstruction, the Arch of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius epitomizes several of those aesthetic qualities for which Piranesi’s graphic art remains highly valued to this day: “the manipulation of superhuman scale, powerfully receding diagonal perspectives, and the modulation of space by skilled lighting” (Wilton-Ely 1996, 842). It also exemplifies Piranesi’s special ability in the Campo Marzio series to create “a sensation of an eclectic totality, with every possible angle and detail replete with significance.” As much as any Campo Marzio etching, the Arch of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius provides equal access to “tactile detail and a looming magnificence” (Stewart 187-88).

Beyond its obvious value to Melville as a “glance” back to the “Age of the Antonines,” this print relates to Melville’s interest in the composition of “old Roman walls” and the mass of “a Roman triumphal arch” in Moby-Dick (NN MD 375, 376). It also relates to the 1857 journal entry in which Melville noted the “singular melting together of art in ruins and Nature in vigor” along the road “cut through the ruins of old villas of Romans” along the Bay of Baiae north of Naples (NN J 104). Piranesi’s urban vision of “Nature” remains vigorous in its hearty growth amidst the masonry of brick and stone above the curve of the Marcus Aurelius arch, but the “art” of the arch itself has been resurrected from ruin into an image of its original grandeur. Piranesi has himself “restored the shattered arches and terraces” of ancient Rome (in Melville’s words for the “Statues in Rome” in 1857). Piranesi’s engraving of the Marcus Aruelius arch even corresponds to Melville’s own image of the Coliseum as “mountain-chains of ruins with foliage girdling me around” (NN PTO 404). To the same degree that the bright sunlight on the face of Piranesi’s arch suggests the glory of the age that Melville was to see a century later as the “Solstice of man,” so does the depth of the diagonal shadow through that bright light suggest what Gibbon was to intuit in his first Roman “epiphany,” two years after the print was published, about that age’s inevitable “decline and fall.”

For a more detailed account of several issues in this entry, see the section on “Piranesi, Arch of Marcus Aurelius, Age of the Antonines” in my essay on the collection of the late David Metcalf (Wallace 1997, pp. 4-11). For architectural images of Rome that relate particularly to this one, see Claude’s Roman Forum (CAT 122), Westall’s Byron contemplating the Coliseum, and Turner’s Ancient Rome (numbers to be assigned).

Melville’s extended allusion to Piranesi in the “Prelusive” canto of Clarel relates to the psychological as much as the architectural side of Piranesi’s genius. There, rather than the extreme clarity of the exterior of Piranesi’s Aurelian arch, Melville explores the “Interiors measurelessy strange” of Piranesi’s haunting Carceri etchings, first executed in 1749 and profoundly deepened and darkened in 1761, excavating deeper into mankind’s “penetralia of retreat— / The heart with labyrinths replete” (NN C 2.35.2, 21-22). Into those labyrinths Melville had previously undertaken his own deepest excavations in Pierre, with explicit help from Flaxman’s Dante (CAT 80-102).

We have as yet have no explicit record of Melville’s physical access to Piranesi’s Carceri from his print collection or his book collection, but his imaginative access to this series, including its cover page, is unmistakable in “Prelusive.” Melville may have had access to those  prints in the sophisticated print libraries of his friends Evert Duyckinck or Richard Lathers; he would have had access to both editions of the Carceri among the works by Piranesi in the Astor Library in New York City (Otter, “Melville, Poetry Prints,” 241). For an extremely satisfying exploration of Melville’s “Prelusive” canto in relation to its unique placement and function in the narrative structure of Clarel, its rare penetration for an nineteenth-century author into Piranesi’s intaglio technique, and its uncanny ability to “mirror” the “mazes” in Piranesi’s “mirages” in the 1761 edition of the Carceri, see the sequential argument unfolded by Samuel Otter in “How Clarel Works” (476-80) and “Melville, Poetry, Prints” (passim).

Melville’s ’s sophisticated sifting through “Piranesi’s rarer prints” in the “Prelusive” canto of Clarel leads to this final psychological internalization: “Dwell on those etchings in the night, / Those touches bitten in the steel / By aqua-fortis till ye feel / The Pauline text in gray of light; / Turn hither then and read aright” (NN C 2.35.33-7). Piranesi’s 1761 Carceri are the nighttime prelusive to the daylight excavations of his 1762 Campo Marzio.