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Seeing the Carracci with Samuel Rogers

The frescos in the Camerino and Galleries of the Farnese Palace made Annibale the most influential living painter Rome until his death in 1609. They have continued to impress visitors ever since—as they did Melville on his third day in Rome in February 1857, when he left a quick impression of their grandeur in his journal after visiting the tombstone of Keats in the Protestant Burial Ground: “Thence to Farnese Palace—finest architecture of all the palaces (private)” (NN J 107; see fig. 5 below). Many of Annibale’s most magnificent paintings after 1595, however, were on canvases that went straight into private collections and were never seen in public until they surfaced in London in the early nineteenth century or in New York in the late twentieth century.

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Figure 5. Annibale Carracci and studio. The Loves of the Gods in the Vault of the Farnese Gallery, fresco, 1597-1608. Farnese Palace, Rome.

Annibale painted The Coronation of the Virgin (fig. 6) in the late 1590s while he and his brother Agostino were “frescoing the Camerino of the Farnese Palace for Cardinal Odoardo.” By 1603 the Coronation had been acquired by Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, nephew of Pope Clement VII. From then it “remained in the Aldobrindini family then passed through the hereditary line to the Pamphilij and Borghese families” before it was purchased and brought to England by the dealer Alexander Day before 1803. The painting then remained among private collectors in England until 1971, when it was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in New York (Christiansen, "Annibale Carracci"). This painting is important to our story because one of the English owners was Samuel Rogers.

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Figure 6. Annibale Carracci. The Coronation of the Virgin, oil on canvas, after 1595. New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Rogers purchased the painting from Christie’s in 1833 and proudly displayed it in his intimate private gallery until his death in 1855. The painting was seen in public for three days prior to the sale of the “Very Celebrated Collection of Works of Art, the property of Samuel Rogers, Esq., Deceased” which began on April 28, 1856, and continued for “eighteen following days.” During those eighteen days, Herman Melville’s collection of short stories entitled The Piazza Tales was in the process of being published in New York and London (NN PTO 498-99, 450).

Annibale’s Coronation of the Virgin was described in the 1856 sale catalog for Rogers’s Collection as “the coronation of the Virgin by the Trinity; a group of noble figures seated on the clouds on either side, the smaller figures seen in the centre beneath. This noble capo d’opera was formerly in the Pamphili Palace, at Rome, and was imported into this country by Mr. Day, about 1800, from whom it was purchased by Mr. Rogers. See Mrs. Jameson’s admirable critique upon this noble work” (Catalogue of the Very Celebrated Collection, no. 730, p. 76).

Anna Brownwell Jameson devoted an entire chapter to the collection of Samuel Rogers in The Companion to the Most Celebrated Private Galleries of Art in London that she published in 1844. Her itemized list of 73 individual paintings and drawings in Rogers’s collection gives much more space to Annibale’s Coronation of the Virgin than to such celebrated “gems” of the collection as Raphael’s Christ on the Mount of Olives (CAT 108, fig. 5), Raphael’s The Virgin and Child (CAT 108, fig. 4), and Veronese’s Mary Magdalene anointing the Feet of the Savior (nos. 29, 30, and 26 in her inventory of Rogers’s collection; CAT 110, fig. 3). Even Titian’s Noli me Tangere (her no. 37, CAT 109, fig. 2) receives slightly less space than does Annibale’s Coronation (her no. 7).

Jameson’s commentary on Annibale’s Coronation begins with a description that helps her reader to “see” it (fig. 5 above).

The Coronation of the Virgin—by the Father and the Son. In the centre of the picture, the Holy Virgin, with the Father and Son on each side, seated on semicular throne; a crowd of angels attending, some of whom perform a heavenly concert, in the foreground; while myriads of angelic spirits seem to float around, and melt into the dazzling abyss of light beyond.

Jameson then considers the allegorical significance of the Holy Virgin as the “emblem” of the “triumph of the Christian religion” and points to the “fertility of fancy” and “unity in the midst of variety, which renders this picture very remarkable, and one of the most truly poetical ever painted by Annibal[e] Carracci.” After Jameson notes the “delicious” angelic figures and “deep luminous background” deriving from Annibale’s study of Correggio, she concludes by suggesting that “it would be worth while to contrast the rich artistic treatment of the subject here, with the divinely chaste and spiritual treatment of the same subject” the Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Angelico in the Louvre (Jameson, no. 7, pp. 393-94).

After Annibale’s Coronation of the Virgin was seen in public for three days preceding the sale of Rogers’s Very Celebrated Collection in April 1856, the painting slipped back into a series of private collections for more than a hundred years until it was acquired by the New York Metropolitan Museum in 1971. During that time, the reputation of the Carracci and their Bolognese followers had fallen abruptly from the period in which Rogers and others were building their collections in the early 19th century. Ruskin had signaled the change while Rogers’s collection was being sold in 1856, declaring in volume 3 of Modern Painters that the Carracci and Domenichino were nothing more than “art weeds” growing on the “ruins” of Venetian art, producing landscapes best characterized as “Scum of Titian” (3:324). Melville acquired all five volumes of the First American Edition of Modern Painters in 1865 (Sealts no. 431). Few dismissals of the Bolognese artists were as nasty as Ruskin’s, but by the time Melville took his mezzotint of “The Healing of the Blind” to be framed by Dexter in 1869, the once commanding reputation of the Carracci was in an eclipse that lasted a century.

In 1971 a new wave of interest in the transformational role of Carracci among art historians culminated in the publication, in London, of Donald Posner’s two-volume Annibale Carracci: A Study in the Reform of Italian Painting around 1590. The curatorial resurrection of Annibale Carracci’s reputation in the United States began during the same year when the New York Metropolitan Museum acquired the magnificent oil painting of The Coronation of the Virgin that Melville had seen in the collection of Samuel Rogers during his two visits in 1849. Writing for the Museum in 2011, Xavier Salomon used Jameson’s commentary from 1844 to present The Coronation of the Virgin as "a perfect example of all the best qualities of Annibale” which also “illustrates a particular era in his career as an artist.” After describing the way the Holy Virgin is “crowned” by members of the Trinity and surrounded by a “glory of angels playing musical instruments and singing,” Salomon emphasizes the ease with which Annibale “combined different styles and models which he had studied in Northern Italy first and then in Rome. The Venetian color of Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese is combined with the sweetness and delicacy of Correggio’s compositions from Parma. The general scheme of the painting is indebted to Raphael’s fresco of the Disputa in the Stanza della Signatura in the Vatican, and the figure of God the Father is based on sculpture from classical antiquity” (Salomon, 2011).

Annibale’s remarkable versatility as a painter is shown by two paintings the New York Metropolitan Museum added to its collection after acquiring The Coronation of the Virgin in 1971. Two Children Teasing a Cat, a delightful genre scene dating from the late 1580s, came to the museum in 1994. The Burial of Christ—a small, dark, deeply emotive image painted in oil on copper less than 18 inches high dating from 1595—arrived in 1998. Reviewing all three acquisitions in 2003, Keith Christiansen, the Museum’s curator of European paintings, emphasized that Annibale Carracci was “the most admired painter of his time and the vital force in the creation of Baroque style.” During the 1580s in Bologna, he was “painting the most radical and innovative pictures in Europe,” featuring “a new, broken brushwork to capture movement and the effects of light on form.” After 1595, when Annibale moved to Rome “to work for the powerful Farnese family,” his painting was “transformed through his first-hand encounter with classical antiquity and the art of Michelangelo and Raphael. . . . When unveiled in 1600, the [Farnese] ceiling was instantly acclaimed as the equal of any work in the past. In combining northern Italian naturalism with the idealism of Roman painting, Annibale created the basis of Baroque art” (Christiansen, “Annnibale Carraci”). 

After acquiring three paintings by Annibale Carracci in the late twentieth-century, New York’s Metropolitan Museum has acquired three paintings by Ludovico Carracci, one of which Melville would have recognized from his visits with Samuel Rogers in 1849. The Museum acquired The Lamentation, Ludovico’s highly expressive painting from 1582, in 2000. This was followed in 2007 by Madonna and Child with Saints, an exquisite painting in oil on copper, from 1607. In 2020, in celebration of its 150th Anniversary in New York City, the Museum announced its acquisition of one of Ludovico’s last and most mysterious works, The Denial of St. Peter, c. 1616. The one of the three Melville would have immediately recognized is the Madonna and Child with Saints, a copy of which was the one painted by Ludovico in Rogers’s collection.

In 1844 Anna Jameson identified the version of Ludovico’s painting in Rogers’s collection as The Virgin and Child, with Six Saints, “a small and beautiful picture” that Rogers had purchased from “the house of a nobleman at Bologna.” She then referred the reader to Ludovico’s “repetition of the same subject” that she had already described in her chapter on “the collection of the Marquis of Lansdowne.” There she had identified five of the six saints and found “the countenance” of the Virgin “and the air of her head . . . remarkable for dignity and grace.” She had described this painting as “a cabinet picture of exceeding beauty; most delicate in the sentiment and the treatment, yet with a certain largeness and grandeur in the style of conception” (Jameson, no. 6 in the Rogers Collection, p. 392; no. 8 in the Lansdowne Collection, p. 300). In 1607 Ludovico Carracci had painted his Landsdowne version of the painting for Cardinal Benedetto Giusitiniana, a papal official living in Bologna. This small painting on copper had then traveled through a succession of private collections in Rome, London, and New Jersey for four hundred years until it was acquired New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 2007 and could finally be put on extended display for the general public (fig. 7 below).

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Figure 7. Ludovico Carracci. Madonna and Child with Saints, oil on copper, 11 ¾ x 9 7/8 inches, 1607. Acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of New York 2007.

Keith Christiansen in 2010 declared the Landsdowne version of the painting at the New York Metropolitan Museum (painted on copper less than one foot high) to be “unquestionably among the most beautiful small-scale works by Ludovico.” He also noted that the copy of picture from “the Samuel Rogers collection in the nineteenth century” was sold at Sotheby’s in New York in 2001. Christiansen’s description of the Landsdowne version seen above helps us distinguish and identify essential interpretive details of Ludovico’s design.

The left half of the composition is dominated by the majestic figure of the Virgin, her gaze lowered modestly, her hands extended over a brick ledge on which have been placed some stalks of wheat, forming a sort of improvised altar. She holds an open prayer book. Next to her is seated the infant Christ, who places one hand over his mother’s womb (a reference to the Gospel of Luke 11:27: ‘Blessed is the womb that bore thee’); in the other he holds some wheat, a symbol of the Eucharist. On the right, their heads arranged in a descending diagonal that defines the space of the picture, are the following saints: Bernard, Peter (wearing a cape and holding a key), Andrew (with his cross), Paul (holding a sword), Catherine of Alexander (wearing a crown and kneeling before a broken wheel, her emblem of martyrdom), and a virgin saint (holding a palm branch).

Christiansen suggests that “the kneeling saint in a white habit” is either Romuald or Bernard and notes that “the pose of the Virgin in this picture consciously recalls Michaelangelo’s sibyls in the Sistine Chapel—in particular, the Delphic Sibyl” (Christiansen, “Ludovico Carracci”).

What might all of the above have meant to Melville when seeing Rogers’s version of the small painting on copper by Ludovico, in addition to the Annibale’s much larger painting of The Coronation of the Virgin on canvas, during his two visits to the private collection of Samuel Rogers in December 1849? Annibale’s Coronation of the Virgin was so large and celebrated that Melville could not have missed it within Rogers’s small and select collection. Ludovico’s Madonna and Child with Saints was so highly valued by Rogers and so strategically placed that Melville would not have missed it despite its size.

The catalog for the estate sale of Rogers’s Very Celebrated Collection in 1856 indicated that the copy of Ludovico’s painting of the Madonna and Child with Saints, bought “at Bologna, in 1821,” was one of three pictures that “were hung over Mr. Rogers’s writing table.” The other were two of the most celebrated “gems” in Rogers’s collection: Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, the “precious little picture, painted by Raffaelle when he was about two and twenty” and acquired by Rogers from the Orleans Gallery (CAT 108, fig. 5), and the “exquisite” little octagonal drawing by Claude Lorrain known as The Piping Shepherd that had been engraved by Richard Earlom for the Liber Veritatis and praised by Anna Jameson as “delicious for its soft, tranquil, Arcadian character” (CAT 123, fig. 2; nos. 623, 625, and 624 in Catalogue of the Very Celebrated Collection, pp. 58-59).

Beyond all the ways in which these late masterpieces by Annibale and Ludovico seen through the eyes of Samuel Rogers in London in 1849 would have prepared Melville for the earlier and more numerous Bolognese masterpieces of all three Carracci he was to see through his own eyes in Bologna in 1857, the two visits Melville made to Rogers’s collection in 1849 expanded the young novelist’s pictorial and aesthetic sophistication in a way that could have only occurred when personally conducted through a collection such as that of Samuel Rogers by a collector and poet such as Samuel Rogers himself. Anna Jameson eloquently expressed in the introduction to her chapter on “The Collection of Mr. Rogers” the rare opportunity such visits would have given a young man such as Herman Melville at this stage of his life. This “small but most beautiful collection” of about seventy pictures had been “brought together at intervals during a period of nearly fifty years.” These “pictures of various date, style, and feeling” were all together "in the same room," but they had been hung in such a manner that “neither the eye shall be offended by inharmonious propinquity, nor the mind disturbed by unfit associations” (Jameson, pp. 385-86).

The following two sentences published by Jameson in 1844 help us imagine what Melville’s two visits to Rogers’s collection might have meant to the young novelist in 1849:

Had I undertaken to educate the eye and the mind of one not deficient in sensibility, but whose taste was yet to be formed, I should desire nothing more or better than occasional access to such a collection as this. An acquaintance with and a due appreciation of what his here, would fix the standard of excellence to such a height, even while it extended the sphere of sympathy and enjoyment, that the former could not be easily lowered, nor the latter easily narrowed, after such an initiation” (Jameson, p. 386).

The extent to which Melville was eventually to embody is in his own life the truth of this observation is seen in the quality and quantity of the print collection he built in his own home during the last twenty-two years of his life after leaving his mezzotint of "The Healing of the Blind" to be framed by Elias Dexter.

Jameson in her introduction to Rogers’s collection addresses not only the quality of the artwork on the walls but the quality of the conversations that artwork had inspired among the guests Rogers had been inviting to share a light breakfast in his private gallery ever since he had begun to his assemble his extraordinary collection. By the early 1820s, those meetings had already achieved such a legendary status among England’s leading writers and artists that Charles Mottram published a mezzotint engraving after John Doyle’s depiction of an imaginary group of guests surrounding Samuel Rogers at his Breakfast Table in 1815 (fig. 8). In this engraving, we see Rogers is at the right front corner of the table with Lord Byron behind him and J. M. W. Turner touching the frame of the painting at the far right. William Wordsworth is sitting across the table from Rogers and the American writer Washington Irving is standing at the far end of the table.

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Figure 8. Charles Mottram after John Doyle. Samuel Rogers at his Breakfast Table, engraving and mezzotint, c. 1823. Tate Gallery London.

Jameson suggests that the works of art which surround Rogers’s breakfast table “derive a consecration” from the fact that “for half a century the greatest, the wisest, the most gifted, the most beautiful of our land” have been “congregated in their presence.” She imagines that Rogers himself, “who has so long presided in the midst of this brilliant circle, and seen ‘star after star’ decay," might look up at the figures in the gorgeous banquet scene of Paul Veronese and think that "we, not they, are shadows” (pp. 385-86). That Veronese banquet scene in Rogers's collection was Mary Magdalene anointing the Feet of our Saviour (no. 26 in her inventory of his collection; CAT 110, figs. 3 and 7).

Perhaps Melville got his idea of the imaginary conversation among Old Master painters in “At the Hostelry,” presided over in part by Paolo Veronese, from the connection Jameson makes here between the guests in Veronese’s banquet scene and those at Rogers’s breakfast table. That connection would have been enriched by his own experience of seeing banquet scenes by Veronese not only at Rogers’s breakfast table in December 1849 and at the Louvre in November 1849, but also at Venice’s Accademia, Turin’s Royal Palace, and Genoa’s Durazzo Gallery in April 1857.

Anna Jameson’s Companion to the Most Celebrated Private Galleries of Art in London is not among the books that survive from Melville’s personal library. But if Melville did not own it he would had easy access to it in the library of his friend Evert Duyckinck before his voyage to England and France in 1849 and after his return from the galleries of Italy and England in 1857. In 1870, a year after writing the note to Elias Dexter about framing “that mezzotint, The Healing of the Blind,” Melville gave Anna Jameson’s newly published book on the Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical, and Historical to his daughter Bessie as a Christmas present (Sealts no. 295).