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Domenichino, Saint Cecilia, and Clarel

Domenic Zampieri (1581-1641), known as Domenichino, was a native of Bologna who had studied at the Carracci Academy in that city before following Annibale Carracci to establish a practice in Rome in 1602. Like the Carracci themselves, Domenichino was deeply drawn to the saint who had been memorably depicted by both Francia and Raphael in Bologna. One of Domenichino’s most ambitious early achievements in Rome had been to paint five Scenes from the Life of St. Cecilia in fresco at the Polet Chapel of San Luigi del Francesi between 1612 and 1615.  This commission was inspired in part by the discovery of Saint Cecilia’s body “miraculously preserved” when exhumed on October 20, 1599, at Trastavere in Rome, where “the virgin martyr” who had died there in the third century A.D. had been reburied in 821. David Spear makes an excellent case for these five paintings as “masterpieces” of seventeenth-century Italian painting in spite of the fact that the physical condition of some of them had deteriorated so much by the twentieth century as to make full restoration impossible (1:178-83). A quick overview of the five Scenes from the Life of St. Cecilia shows the skill with which Domenichino had consolidated subjects and techniques from his Italian Renaissance predecessors in a way that opened up future subjects and techniques for later generations of painters, especially in France.

The first fresco in the series, Sts. Cecilia and Valerian Crowned by an Angel, converts the expansive, ornamental landscape scene in panel four of the St. Cecilia Oratorio in Bologna into an intimate action by which the angel with outspread arms presents the floral crowns to the kneeling figures (Spear no. 42.1). The next fresco in the series, St. Cecilia Distributing Alms to the Poor, converts the relatively restrained action of the ninth panel of the Oratorio in Bologna into a full-scale orchestration of a diverse array of impoverished Romans reaching up desperately for help from the benevolent saint, as if we were witnessing the urban underbelly of one of Veronese’s celebratory Biblical feasts (Spear no 42.2). The third fresco in the series, The Condemnation of St. Cecilia converts the airy, statuesque assemblage of figures of the seventh scene in the Bologna Oratorio into a tightly choreographed indoor scene that looks forward to the gestural archaism of Nicholas Poussin in the next generation of painters in Rome (see Melville’s copy of his Shepherds of Arcadia, CAT 142) while also reaching back to the archeological authenticity of Raphael by depicting a Roman frieze beneath the feet of the accuser (Spear no. 42.3). The resulting image, as Emily Freeman has noted, is “the equivalent of a sarcophagus in fresco” (37; fig. 1 below).

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Figure 1.  Domenichino. The Condemnation of St. Cecilia, fresco, 1612-15, San Luigi del Francesi Church, Rome.

The fourth fresco in Domenichino’s series, The Martyrdom of St. Cecilia, converts demure plea of the praying, nearly naked saint in the cauldron of boiling water in the Bologna Oratorio into the dying gasp of the martyred saint whose blood is already being soaked up from the tiled floor before her highly expressive mourners (Spear no. 42.4). The fifth and last scene in Domenichino’s series, St. Cecilia in Glory, converts the sketchy, aspirational scene in the upper reaches of Francia’s Burial of St. Cecilia into the fully imagined consummation of the heavenly inspiration felt by Raphael’s St. Cecilia in Ecstasy (Spear no. 42.5; CAT 106, fig. 2).

The range of subject and expression Domenichino achieved in this series, along with an ability to mine the past while also opening new territory for the future, helps to show why Dominichino, in the picture galleries of England as well as in the private collection of Samuel Rogers, was widely considered to be a master among the those early seventeenth-century Italian painters who had most successfully preserved and extended achievements of their celebrated Renaissance predecessors.

Although the cycle that Domenichino painted in the Polet Chapel emphasizes Cecilia’s official role as a Christian martyr as defined by the church, he subsequently depicted her, as had Raphael, as the patron of music in two large paintings on canvas, the most famous of which is the one now in the Louvre (c. 1617-18). On this canvas, only a few years after the frescos in Rome, Dominichino positions the viewer very close to St. Cecilia and the high bass viola which she is playing with Raphaelesque ecstasy as a cupid standing on a ledge holds a manuscript of antique music before her unseeing eyes (fig. 2; Spear no. 23).

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Figure 2. Domenichino. Saint Cecilia playing the Viol, oil on canvas, 1617-18 Louvre.

Domenichino’s Saint Cecilia playing the Viol had been acquired by the Louvre in Paris in the 1660s, so Melville may well have seen it during his  three-hour run through the “heaps of treasures of art of all sorts” on the afternoon of November 30, 1849. Earlier that month Melville had plenty of exposure to paintings by Domenichino during his visits to Hampton Court, the Dulwich Gallery, and the National Gallery in London, experience which, combined with Hazlitt’s high appreciation of this painter, might have helped him catch notice of Domenichino’s most unique and distinctive portrayal of St. Cecilia herself during his one afternoon at the Louvre. Back in London in December, any previous exposure to any paintings by Domenichino would have been richly augmented during his two visits to the private collection of Samuel Rogers, where Melville would have seen four paintings by the Bolognese master, an Infant Jesus and three landscapes of mythological or Biblical scenes (NN J 44, 46; Hazlitt, Criticisms on Art, 1844, Appendix IX, nos. 17-20).

In the photographic print of William Sharp’s 1791 engraving of Domenichino’s Saint Cecilia that Melville acquired after 1870, the patron saint of music with her crown of roses sits securely next to the organ, looking away from its pipes, perhaps taking celestial dictation as she transcribes with her signature palm leaf the invisible music she is hearing as the angel holding the harp looks and listens. The distinctive portal of the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in the background evokes the authority of the church as well as the area of Rome in which the remains of the ancient saint had been found miraculously preserved. This composite image smoothly integrates the crown of roses from the ancient Passio, the iconography of the patron saint of music, and the miracle of her reappearance in the heart of Rome.

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Figure 3. Pietro da Cortona (formerly attributed to Domenichino). Saint Cecilia, oil on canvas, ca. 1620-25. National Gallery London.

Schleier, attributing the painting to Pietro da Cortona in 1970, called this Saint Cecilia, then in London’s National Gallery, “the most noble and beautiful figure in Cortona’s early work” (759). He dates the painting to between 1620 and 1625, when Cortona was closely associated with Domenichino—and when Domenichino himself was collaborating with Antonio Barbalonga on a new Saint Cecilia for the Palazzo Pallavinci—Rospigliosi in Rome that Spear dates c. 1623-30. In that painting, Cecilia is sitting near a trio of angels, one of which is helping her hold up a musical manuscript, each of the others holding a viol or related stringed instrument. As Cecilia casts her eyes skyward, her face, neck, and saintly flesh catch the heavenly light (Spear, cat. 91, fig. 309). Melville is likely have seen this painting when he visited the Rospigliosi collection on March 7, 1857, where he noted not only Guido Reni’s celebrated Aurora “floating overhead like Sun-dyed clouds” (the “ceiling fresco of Aurora strewing flowers before the chariot of the Sun”) but also the “bas reliefs” that had been built into one of the walls (NN J 109, 478).

Melville did not refer directly to individual paintings by either Domenichino or Cortona in the Roman portion of his 1857 journal, but he would have been surrounded by their work without necessarily knowing it when visiting the Farnese, Barberini, and Doria Pamphili palaces. One of Domenichino’s first commissions after arriving in Rome had been painting frescoes of mythological scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis on the ceiling of the Casino in the garden of the Farnese Palace (1602-04). These frescoes were under the active supervision of Annibale Carracci, who gave young Domenichino more freedom in painting frescoes in the gallery of the Palace itself. When Melville visited the Farnese Palace and grounds on February 27, 1857, he found that it had the “finest architecture of all the palaces” in Rome (NN J 107, 468). When Melville visited the Barberini and Doria Pamphili palaces during his next few weeks in Rome, he walked beneath the glorious overhead frescoes that Cortona had painted in those two palaces in the 1630s and 1650s, respectively (J 107, 108, 468, 481-82). At the end of March in Florence, during each of his visits to the Pitti Palace, Melville walked beneath the splendid overhead frescos that Cortona had painted in its successive painting salons in the 1640s (J, 114, 116, 490-91, 495-96).

All the images and information Melville had gathered about Saint Cecilia by the time he published Clarel in 1876 (whether from the “books and pictures” in his own home or from “the face of nature” made visible in the galleries of London, Paris, Bologna, and Rome) appears to have informed two conspicuous allusions to Saint Cecilia in that ambitious poem. Each relates to the character of Vine, introduced as “The Recluse” in canto 29 of Book 1. Vine is a person whose involuted personality has turned on itself in a way that the seems to preclude direct inspection. This five-stanza canto pivots on the sustained analogy with Saint Cecilia in the six-line, one-sentence stanza three:

         A charm of subtle virtue shed
A personal influence coveted,
Whose source was difficult to tell
As ever was that perfumed spell
Of Paradise-flowers invisible
Which angels round Cecilia bred. (NN C 1.29.21-26)

The editors of the NN edition of Clarel found “no source” for this “perfumed spell” of Cecilia’s “Paradise-flowers” (p. 743) but Melville is clearly alluding to that moment in the ancient Roman Passio in which the angel who places the crowns of roses and lilies on the heads of Cecilia and Valerian assures them that “these flowers will never fade, their aroma will remain sweet forever” if they remain worthy “though the purity of [their] hearts and the holiness of [their] bodies” (quoted in Freeman 30).

Vine is himself introduced in “The Recluse” as “no saint.” The once “ripe flush of his blood” has “cooled.” His “virgin soul” differs from that of Cecilia because “Flesh, but scarce pride / Was curbed.” Vine’s “desire was mortified; / But less indeed by moral sway / Than doubt if happiness thro’ clay / Be reachable” (C 1.29.33-37). Clarel, Rolfe, and others try to reach him as through a veil.

Saint Cecilia reappears in “The River-Rite” in Book 2 in the hands of Rolfe. Rolfe shows his fellow pilgrims a small book “in vellum bound: embossed there on, / ‘Tween angels with a rosy crown, / Viols, Cecilia on a throne.” This embossed Cecilia with her “rosy crown” amidst angels and viols resembles those painted by Domenichino on the canvases at the Louvre and the Rospigliosi gallery during Melville’s visits in 1849 and 1857. Rolfe presents his embossed image as a gift from a friar in a nearby “St. John’s convent.” He then leads his fellow pilgrims in singing “that hymn of beauty blest / The Ave maris stella” as they stand near the spot at the Jordan River where John had been baptized. “Even Vine, / Ravished from his reserve supine,” drew near and added his voice to those of Rolfe and Derwent. Their “triple voices blending” achieve a rare moment through which “came concord full, completion fine— / Rapport of souls in harmony of tone” (C 2.24.24-30, 38-41, 52-53).

Melville in this passage has created a moment of pure Cecilian grace in the musical mode. Among the actual paintings he is certain to have seen in person, this musical ekphrasis of a “concord full, completion fine / Rapport of souls in harmony of tone” most closely resembles the pictorial concord of Raphael’s Saint Cecilia in Ecstasy he had seen in Bologna in March 1857, three weeks after visiting the Rospigliosi gallery in which Domenichino’s enraptured Cecilia appears to be drawing her inspiration from Guido’s sun-struck Aurora high above her. We know that Melville had seen the Raphael in Bologna because he had not only noted it in his journal entry but had underlined Valery’s description of the “the ardour, the triumphant joy of the seraphim” who are singing the “sacred hymn” that Cecilia is hearing.  In Raphael’s painting, the ecstasy is in heavenly music we imagine Cecilia is hearing; her four earthbound companions, saints though they may be, hear it not. The “rapport of souls in harmony of tone” in “The River-Rite” in Clarel achieves a “concord full” among three earthbound pilgrims as they sing “Ave maris stella” among themselves.

Melville in these two cantos of Clarel is remixing, as Domenichino did in his Scenes from the Life of St. Cecilia and subsequent paintings on canvas, the responses of earlier artists to the story of Saint Cecilia while also making elements of that story his very much his own. In this case, Melville is drawing upon the legend and representations of the legacy of the Roman Saint Cecilia as a way of exploring the conflicted psyche and outward manner of his late friend Nathaniel Hawthorne as imagined in the character Vine. For a short moment during a very long pilgrimage these elements do achieve a “concord full.”

Domenichino, like Melville, had a wide-ranging intellect and a highly pictorial poetic sensibility. By the time Domenichino was collaborating with Barbalonga on the new Saint Cecilia for the Rospigliosi gallery in the late 1620s, he was deep into the theoretical study of harmony and concord in musical sound as well as in pictorial hues (see Spear, 1:27-46). These theoretical studies enriched the pictorial influence he was to have on Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665), the aspiring French painter who studied at Domenichino’s Academy after arriving Rome in 1820s and became the leading French exponent of the Classical Baroque style of which Domenichino had become the acknowledged Italian master. We have already noted the degree to which the tightly composed, frieze-like figure painting in the Condemnation of St. Cecilia (fig. 1) was to serve as a stylist influence for Poussin and other seventeenth-century painters from France for whom San Luigi dei Francesi served as the French national church in Rome.

A more specific example of the influence of Domenichino is seen in Poussin’s Saint Cecilia now in the Prado Museum in Madrid (fig. 4). In this oil painting, which has been variously dated between 1627-28 and 1635, Poussin is making Domenichino’s primary ingredients very much his own. His Cecilia, lacking the crown of roses, sits at a harpsichord, not an organ, reading music from an antique musical score held by two angels in the manner of Domenichino’s paintings at the Louvre and the Rospigliosi gallery as two young singers prepare to sing from their own score. The religious and mystical elements have here been decidedly secularized, as if for a broader domestic audience. One wonders if Poussin had borrowed, and magnified, the same antique music book Domenichino had used in the paintings now in the Louvre and the Rospigliosi gallery.

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Figure 4. Nicholas Poussin. Saint Cecilia, oil on canvas, c. 1827-28 / 1835. Prado Museum, Madrid.