Skip to main content

Seventeeth-Century Italian Artists

For Lucy Baxter in Melville’s copy of The Renaissance of Art in Italy, the paintings of Veronese marked the end of the Renaissance. For all his “magic” as a colorist “of many chords,” the “seeds of Decline are in him: his works are painted to please the senses, not to exalt the soul.” For Baxter, the extraordinary flowering of the Italian Renaissance that had culminated in the Venetian masterworks of Titian and Veronese near the end of the sixteenth century had been quickly followed by “a second faint arrival—a feeble echo of the first.” This “feeble echo” emanated from Bologna, where the Carracci (Lodovico, Agostino, and Annibale)—“opened a school” from which “sprang all the artists who were worthy of the name in the seventeenth century, including Domenichino, Albani, Guido Reni, Guercino.” Yet, “as this school forms no part of the Renaissance, we will leave to some future Gibbon the task of recording the Decline and Fall of Italian Art” (Baxter 361-63).

Not all nineteenth-century commentators saw such a severe separation between Italian Renaissance painters and their successors in what soon became known as the second Bolognese school. When young Melville began to learn about European painting as a newly returned sailor from the South Seas in the mid-1840s, his most influential guide was William Hazlitt, whose famous essay “On the Pleasures of Painting” was the lead essay in the copy of the American edition of Table-Talk that Melville inherited after the sudden death of his brother Gansevoort in 1846 (Sealts no. 266a). In that essay, Hazlitt declared that “my first initiation into the mysteries of art was at the Orleans Gallery. I was staggered when I saw the works there collected.” Young Hazlitt had “heard the names of Titian, Raphael, Guido, Domenichino, the Carracci—but to see them face to face, to be in the same room with their deathless productions, was like breaking some potent spell—was an effort almost of necromancy! From that time I lived in a world of pictures” (Table-Talk, 1: 13).

Hazlitt’s “first initiation” into the mysteries of art at the Orleans Gallery in London in 1798 at the age of twenty was followed five years later by his first “immersion” into those mysteries at the Louvre in Paris. There he “marched delighted through a quarter mile of the proudest efforts of the mind of man, a whole creation of genius, a universe of art. I ran the gauntlet of all the schools from the bottom to the top; and in the end got admitted to the inner room, where they were repairing some of their greatest works,” three by Domenichino and one Titian (Table-Talk, 1:13-14). In each of these accounts Hazlitt the essayist saw Titian and Raphael, from the Renaissance, and Domenichino and Guido, from the second Bolognese school, as part of a continuous tradition.

Melville was thirty years old during his “first initiation” into the mysteries of art on the visit to London in 1849 that concluded with the two visits to Samuel Rogers and his private gallery. There he was “face to face” with two of the actual paintings had “staggered” young Hazlitt fifty years earlier before Rogers acquired them from the Orleans Gallery: Titian’s Noli me Tangere (CAT 109, fig. 2) and Raphael’s Agony in the Garden (CAT 108, fig. 5). In Rogers’s private gallery as well at Hampton Court, the Dulwich Gallery, and the National Gallery, Melville saw paintings by Guido, Domenichino, and the Carracci side by side with those of Titian, Raphael, and Veronese. Melville in his journal entries, like Hazlitt in his essay, made no distinction among painters from those two “schools.”

Melville’s six-week “initiation” into the galleries of London in 1849 was followed by his three-month “immersion” into the galleries of Italy eight years later. His journal entries during five weeks in Rome and ten days in Florence remained as eclectic as those in London had been. Works by Guido, Domenichino, and the Carraccis were well represented in the galleries in Rome and Florence, and they appear as freely in Melville’s journals as those by their Renaissance predecessors. Melville’s first opportunity to immerse himself exclusively in works of the second Bolognese school came during the one full day he spent in Bologna, whose celebrated Picture Gallery (Pinacoteca) had by far the richest collection of such works in the world. In Bologna, Melville had access not only to an extraordinary collection of Bolognese painting from Francia through the Carraccis to Domenichino and Guido; he also had access to a highly astute and enthused commentary on the paintings in that collection in the copy of Valery’s Travels in Italy he had acquired in Florence the week before. Today we can monitor Melville’s response to the paintings he saw that day in Bologna in two ways: in the brief journal entry he made after visiting the Gallery and in the sustained markings he made in his copy of Valery.

As is typical of Melville’s journal entries on gallery visits in general, his mentions of individual paintings he saw in Bologna are brief and cryptic: “To the Gallery. The Madonna of the Rosary. A Circe. St. Cecilia. David Victorious. &c. To the Campo Santo.” Three of Melville’s shorthand notations refer to paintings by artists he was to acquire for his own print collection. Melville’s “The Madonna of the Rosary” is the celebrated painting by Domenichino, whose Saint Cecilia is the subject of the second catalog entry in this section (CAT 112). Melville’s “St. Cecilia” refers to Raphael’s Saint Cecilia in Ecstasy, the most famous work in the entire Bologna Gallery, which we have already discussed in our catalog entries on Francia and Raphael (CAT 106, fig. 2; MBB 2.3). Melville’s misnamed “David Victorious” is the celebrated Samson Victorious by Guido Reni, whose Beatrice Cenci is the subject of the third catalog entry in this section (CAT 113). Melville’s “A Circe” is La Maga Circe by Lorenzo Garbieri, a close follower of Ludovico Carracci in the Bolognese school (NN J 116, 499).

Those four cryptic titles in Melville’s journal entry are supplemented by thirteen check marks Melville made next to Valery’s brief, cogent comments on individual paintings by Bolognese artists in the Gallery (fig. 1). Whether Melville made these marks in the Gallery itself, during his subsequent travels in Italy, or after returning home to America, they would have served not only as a handy reminder of actual paintings he had seen, but as recognition of those paintings in this Gallery that were still seen as absolute masterworks of the Bolognese school of Italian painting centuries after their actual creation. Valery’s innate pictorial perception and evocative language enabled him to begin his discussion of nearly every painting with a clear declarative sentence that, even in translation, gave Melville a perfect introduction to the paintings themselves and the tradition they represented and had helped to create.

CAT 111 intro fig 1 Valery pp 240-241.jpg

Figure 1. Melville’s marks and annotations in Valery’s commentary on the Bologna Gallery in Travels in Italy, pp. 240-41. Gansevoort-Lansing Collection. New York Public Library (Sealts no. 533).

Melville’s first check mark, on page 239, is next to “The Holy Family by Innocente d’Imola, a pupil of Francia.” The next three marks (which carry over the top of p. 240 seen above) single out individual paintings by the Carraci, presented here as “a tribe of painters, of which Ludovico is the worthy chief” (239). Valery’s commentary on the three paintings marked by Melville—Ludovico’s Transfiguration, Agostino’s Communion of St. Jerome, and Annibale’s St. Catherine and St. Clair—emphasize their continuity with paintings of similar themes by Titian, Veronese, and other Venetians because “there is no such thing as an exhausted subject in the arts any more than in letters” (Valery 239-40, Cowen 11: 342-44).

Melville’s next three check marks accompany three extremely accomplished paintings by Domenichino: the “celebrated Martyrdom of St. Agnes”; the Madonna of the Rosary with “its shower of roses”; and The Martrydom of St. Peter the Dominican, which Valery compares to a painting by Titian. These are followed by four check marks next to an amazingly accomplished quartet of paintings by Guido Reni: the “unearthly grief” Madonna della pietà; the ground-bound “anguish” of the Massacre of the Innocents; the “poetic desolation” of Christ in his agony; and the Hebraic Apollonianism of Samson Victorious.  Melville’s last two check marks are next to Cavardone’s Martyrdom of St. Peter and Guercino’s God the Father (Valery 240-41, Cowen 11: 344-50).

Before considering the variety of annotations Melville made in response to the most famous painting in the Bologna Gallery—Raphael’s Saint Cecilia, on the right-had column of page 241—let us sample what Valery had to say the two paintings by Bolognese artists whose titles Melville noted in his journal and marked in his copy of Valery. The first of these is Domenichino’s Madonna of the Rosary (fig. 2). The passage Melville marked in Valery declares that this painting “with its shower of roses, and the sublime old man’s head, is not inferior to [Domenichino’s] “grand masterpiece,” the “celebrated” Martyrdom of St. Agnes in the same gallery. Those who consider the Madonna of the Rosary to be “the best of Domenichino” point to “its perspective, and especially its colouring, vigor, interest, and purity,” all of which combine to make it “a fine poem of many cantos” (240). The “shower of roses” with which Domenichnio bridges the gap between heavenly bliss and earthly anguish in the Madonna of the Rosary anticipates those “paradise flowers” though which Melville highlights the conflicted psyche of Vine in “The Recluse” canto of Clarel (NN C 1.29.8-58).

CAT 111 intro fig 2 domenichio madonna of the rosary.jpg

Figure 2. Domenichino. The Madonna of the Rosary. 1617-21. Bologna Pinacoteca.

Guido’s Sampson victorious is a very different painting, one victorious man standing high above the field of victory strewn with bodies of the dead (fig. 3). Valery’s compact one-sentence commentary enriches the compelling visual image by merging two ancient cultural traditions Guido is himself merging, those of Judeo-Christian scripture and Greco-Roman sculpture: “the Samson victorious has something of Apollo, but it is not the Pythian onquerer, the God of verse, or the sun and the arts; it is a Jewish Apollo, standing over the prostrate Philistines and breaking their heads with an ass’s jawbone” (240). Here is a marriage of Hebrew and Hellenic traditions such as Melville would soon be making in the “Tomb and Fountain” canto of Clarel (NN C 1.28.151). For a strong pictorial link between the expressive muscularity of Guido in Bologna and Raphael in Rome a century earlier, compare the body of the Philistine in the right foreground of Samson Victorious with the body of Ananias in the right foreground of Raphael’s Death of Ananais (CAT 108, fig. 3).

CAT 111 intro fig 3 Guido Reni Samson Victorious 1614-16 Bologna Pinacoteca.jpg

Figure 3. Guido Reni. Samson Victorious. 1614-16. Bologna Pinacoteca.

Valery, after surveying “the beautiful productions of the Bolognese school” marked by Melville above, discusses “some masterpieces of other schools in the same gallery.” Valery begins with a paragraph on “the immortal St. Cecilia” by Raphael. Melville drew two overlapping marginal lines alongside the entire paragraph and underlined the words I have underlined in the portion included below:

Music, like speech, seems really a gift of God, when it appears under such an emblem. How I shall describe the perfections of such a painting? the ardour, the triumphant joy of the seraphim singing the sacred hymn in heaven, the purity and simplicity of the saint’s features, so well contrasted with the frivolous and coquettish air of Magdalen? Worthily to render all these beauties, one must be able to exclaim with Correggio, when he first contemplated this work: Auch’ io son pittore! (Cowen 11: 350-51; Valery 239-41)

Melville’s brief reference to Raphael’s Saint Cecilia in his 1857 journal entry, augmented by his marginal markings and underlines of Valery’s praise for this painting in the copy of Travels in Italy he had with him in Bologna, show how aware he would have been of the pivotal role Raphael’s Saint Cecilia (1515-16; CAT 106, fig. 2) would have played in the iconographic and pictorial transitions from Francia’s Marriage of Cecilia and Valerian (CAT 106) to Domenichino’s Saint Cecilia (CAT 112) in Melville’s own print collection.

Our exploration of Melville’s collection of seventeenth-century Italian art begins in Bologna, where Domenichino and Guido both studied before following Annibale Carracci to Rome. After returning to Bologna for the art of Agostino and Guiseppi Mitelli, whose artistic lives extended to Rome and Madrid, we conclude this section with Francesco Solimena in Naples. The career of Stefano della Bella (1610-1664) shows that artists of this period cannot be neatly classified by nationality or national school. Born and trained in Florence, he was considered a French artist by the time he etched Esclave tenant un chameu par le bride in Paris in 1649 (CAT 68), though political and personal vicissitudes soon brought him back to Italy again.

Two great seventeenth-century French artists in Melville’s collection, Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin, created much of their best work while living in Italy. So did Peter Paul Rubens and Herman Swanevelt of the Flemish and Dutch schools. Although I have cataloged the work of the latter four artists in chapters on the French, Dutch, and Flemish schools, each was a de facto seventeenth-century Italian artist while living and painting in Italy.

  • Works cited in this section:
  • Baxter, Lucy E. (pseud. Leader Scott). The Renaissance of Art in Italy. New York: Scribner and Welford, 1883 (Sealts no. 451.1).
  • Blunt, Anthony. The Paintings of Nicholas Poussin: A Critical Catalogue. London: Phaidon Press, 1966.
  • Bologna, Ferdinando. Francesco Solimena. Naples: L’Arte Tipographica, 1958.
  • Bryant, John. Herman Melville: A Half-Known Life. Vols. 1 and 2. Hoboken NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2021.
  • Catalogue of the Very Celebrated Collection of Works of Art, The Property of Samuel Rogers, Esq., Deceased. London: Christie and Mason, Monday, April 28, 1856, and Eighteen Following Days.
  • Christiansen, Keith. “Annibale Carracci (1560–1609).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2003).
  • ----------. “Ludovico Carracci, Madonna and Child with Saints, 1607.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010,
  • Cropper, Elizabeth. The Domenichino Affair: Novelty, Imitation, and Theft in Seventeenth-Century Italy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
  • De Vesme, Alexandre. Stefano della Bella: catalogue raisonne, ed. with additions Phyllis Dearborn Massar. 2 vol. New York: Collectors Editions, 1971.
  • “Domenic Zampieri” (Domenichino). In The Works of Eminent Masters. London: John Cassell, 1854. 2 vol. in 1, 2:193-204 (Sealts no. 564).
  • Feinblatt, Ebria. Agostino Mitelli, Drawings: Loan Exhibition from the Kunstbibliothek, Berlin, 31 March—30 April 1965.  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1965.
  • --------.  “Mitelli (1) Agostino (2) Guiseppe.” Grove, 21: 732-33.
  • Freeman, Emily. Domenichino’s Scenes from the Life of St. Cecilia: Artistic Interpretation and the Counter-Reformation. M.A. Thesis. Texas Christian University.
  • Gerson, Horst. Rembrandt Catalogue Raisonné, 1968. Cited by Wikimedia,
  • Hazlitt, William. Criticisms on Art. 2nd Series. London: Templeton, 1844.
  • ------. Table-Talk. 2 vol. New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1845.
  • Jack, Belinda. “Melville: Ambiguous Confession.” In Beatrice’s Spell: The Enduring Legacy of Beatrice Cenci.  New York: Other Press, 2005.  90-115.
  • Jameson, Anna. Companion to the most Celebrated Private Galleries of Art in London. London: Saunders and Otley, 1844.
  • Massar, Phyllis Dearborn. Presenting Stafano della Bella: Seventeenth-century Printmaker. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1971.
  • Lanzi, Luigi Antonio. The History of Painting in Italy. Tr. Thomas Roscoe. 3 vol. London: Bohn, 1847 (Sealts no. 320).
  • Lee, Rensselaer W. Tasso and Art. Middlebury VT: Middlebury College, 1970.
  • Looney, Dennis. “Tasso, Torquato.” Grove 30: 358-59.
  • National Gallery (London). Complete Illustrated Catalog on CD-ROM. London: National Gallery Publications, 1995.
  • Pavone, Mario Alberto. “Francesco Solimena.” Grove, 1996, 29: 36-43.
  • Pepper, D. Stephen. Guido Reni: A Complete Catalogue of his Works. New York: New York University Press, 1984.
  • Posner, Donald. Annabile Carracci: A Study in the Reform of Italian Painting around 1590. 2 vol. London: Phaidon, 1971.
  • Ruskin, John. Modern Painters. First American from the Third London edition. 5 vols. New York: Wiley, 1860-62 (Sealts no. 431).
  • Salomon, Xavier F. Salomon, “Annibale Carracci, The Coronation of the Virgin, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,” 2011,
  • “Samuel Rogers at his Breakfast Table, engraved by Charles Mottram.” Tate Gallery London,
  • Schleier, Erich. “An Unnoticed Early Work by Pietro da Cortona.” Burlington Magazine 821 (November 1970): 752-59.
  • Spear, Richard E. Domenichino. 2 vol. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.
  • Sweetster, M. F. Guido Reni. Boston: Houghton, Osgood, 1878.
  • Szabo, Franz. Kaunitz and Enlightened Absolutism, 1753-1780. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • Valery, Antoine Claude Pasquin. Historical, Literary and Artistical Travels in Italy, a Complete and Methodical Guide for Travellers and Artists. Tr. C. E. Clifton. Paris: Baudry, 1852. (Sealts no. 533).
  • Varignana, Franca. Le collezioni d’Arte della Cassa di risparmio in Bologna: le incisioni, vol. 1: Guiseppe Maria Mitelli. Bologna: ALFA, c. 1978.
  • “Virgin and Child in Glory with Saints Louis, Alexius, John the Baptist, Catherine, Francis, and Clare (Madonna of San Ludovico),” Pinacoteca Nazioinale Bologna,
  • Waagen, Gustav. Treasures of Art in Great Britain. Tr. Elizabeth Eastlake. 4 vols. London: John Murray, 1954.
  • Wessley, Joseph Edward. Richard Earlom: Verzeichniss seiner Radirungen und Schabkunstblätter. Hamburg: Haendcke & Lemkuhl, 1886. 2 vol.