Skip to main content

Domenichino in Landscape and in the Cathedral of Naples

At the same time that Domenichino was extending his theoretical knowledge of the harmonies of musical sounds and pictorial colors, he was expanding the landscape component of the mythical and Biblical subjects whose pictorial depiction by Raphael had been memorably extended by Titian and Veronese in Venice and by Annibale Carracci in Bologna and Rome. Titian and Veronese had extended Raphael’s treatment of such subjects in paintings inspired by epic poetry that Ariosto and Tasso had written during the sixteenth century. Annibale’s fresco of Rinaldo and Armida for the Farnese palace at the time of Domenichino’s arrival in Rome in 1602 was one of the first paintings inspired by Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered in the seventeenth century (Spear, p. 122, cat. 68).  

Domenichino was to expand the above pictorial tradition in ways that were to influence not only Nicholas Poussin but Claude Lorrain. Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) was another aspiring painter from France who arrived in Rome in the 1620s. He too would have been quickly acquainted with Domenichino’s Scenes from the Life of Saint Cecilia frescoed on the walls of San Luigi dei Francesi, the national church for French emigres in Rome. But Claude was himself most strongly drawn to those landscapes in which Domenichino’s ostensible subjects from ancient myth, the Bible, or epic poetry were increasingly subordinated to the beauty and expanse of the landscape itself.

Domenichino’s expanding appropriation of landscape subjects from Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered is seen in two paintings at the Louvre in Paris in which he extended the example of Annibale. His Rinaldo and Armida from 1620-21 uses the landscape much as Poussin was to do, as a geometrical frame for a carefully choreographed ensemble of human figures in the foreground. His Landscape with Erminia and the Shepherds from 1623-25 more directly anticipates Claude, the landscape itself becoming the primary subject within which the figural element is a more anecdotal feature. The latter painting soon became known as one of Domenichino’s many “landscape and” paintings. Such paintings were extremely popular, as were the landscapes of Claude Lorrain, among English collectors at the time Samuel Rogers was assembling his collection in the early 19th century. 

All three Domenichino landscapes that Melville would have seen during his two visits to Rogers’s private gallery in December 1849 were of the “landscape and” variety. In the catalogue of that collection in the 1844 edition of Hazlitt’s Criticisms on Art, they were listed as Landscapes with “Flaying of Marsayas,” with “The Bird Catchers,” and with “Tobias and the Fish” (Appendix IX, nos. 18, 19, 20). A version of the latter painting at the National Gallery when Melville visited in 1849 (fig. 5) is a striking example of Domenichino’s expanded landscape style—and a direct anticipation of Claude Lorrain’s mature landscape practice.

CAT 111 fig 5 Domenichino Landscape Tobias and the Fish.jpg

Fig. 5. Domenichino. Landscape with Tobias laying hold of the Fish, oil on copper, 1610-13. National Gallery London.

The unnatural size of the Angel Raphael in relation to Tobias and the fish at the edge of the river shows that Domenichino, like Claude himself, was more successful at painting the landscape itself than the figures within it.  But this landscape, with its gracious spaciousness and harmonious coloring, is creating Claudean effects before Claude himself was doing so. Spear dates the Landscape with Tobias and the Fish 1610-12 and indicates that it was bequeathed to the National Gallery in 1831, so perhaps the painting owned by Rogers was one of the two copies of this painting that surfaced in the 1960s (Spear, cat. 38, p. 178, pl. 137). Gustav Waagen, the German art historian who published his evaluation of Rogers’s collection in 1854, found the Landscape with Tobias and the Fish to be “very attractive” owing to “the poetry of the composition and the delicacy of execution” (2:78).

Dominichino’s influence on the artistry of both Poussin and Claude was of considerable interest to Melville as a print collector. In 1854, the National Gallery version of Domenichino’s Tobias and the Angel was reproduced in the essay on Domenichino in the copy of The Works of Eminent Masters that Melville acquired in 1871. For an illustration and discussion of how Claude Lorrain’s depictions of Tobias and the Angel were influenced by those of Domenichino, see figures 1-4 in our introduction of “Six Unframed Mythological, Pastoral, and Religions Landscapes” in the section on Claude Lorrain in chapter 3. The fifteen prints Melville collected after the paintings by Claude Lorrain (CAT 121-135) and the nine prints he collected after paintings by Nicholas Poussin (CAT 136-143) not only initiate but anchor the impressive array of images he was to collect from “Three Centuries of French Art.”

Domenichino’s reputation as a person and an artist suffered many vicissitudes both during and after his lifetime. After arriving in Rome, he had a mutually beneficial relationship as a protégé of Annibale Carracci before being bitterly accused by Giovanni Lanfranco, a student of Agostino Carracci, of stealing idea from that master. Domenichino had excellent relations with some of his students and assistants, including Barbalonga, but Pietro da Cortona had famously declared that “Domenichino did not want to recognize another painter in the world than himself, or train pupils, and when any of them got ahead he would throw them out” (Spear 1:102). In 1831, at the peak of his influence in Rome, Domenichino accepted a lucrative commission to design and execute twenty four frescoes and three altarpieces for the Capella del Tesoro di Gennaro of the Cathedral (fig. 6). Domenichino spent the last decade of his life painting Scenes from the Life of San Gennaro even though he had reason to believe that a tight-knit cabal of Neapolitan artists was trying to kill him. Saint Gannaro (Januarius in Latin) was a legendary bishop from Naples who became a Catholic saint and martyr after his beheading during the era of Saint Cecilia in Rome.

CAT 111 fig 6 Treasury of San Gennaro Naples from Artstor.jpg

Figure 6. View of one section of the Chapel of the Treasury of Saint Januarius in the Cathedral of Naples, Italy, most of which was designed and painted by Domenichino from 1631 until his death in 1641.

Melville visited the famed Cathedral of San Januarius (Gennaro) twice during the one week he spent in Naples after arriving in Italy from his travels through the eastern Mediterranean and Greece. On February 19, he took a cab to Capo di Monte to see the “superb palace, roads, grounds, & view” before descending into the catacombs beneath the church of  St. Januarius, where he was led through a “great extent” of “old bones” by “an old man with a lantern” from whom he could not “get away.” Two days later, he spent much of the morning examining the extraordinary archaeological holdings from Egypt, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, and the ruins of Pompei at the Museum Borbonico before moving on to the “vast collection of paintings” among which had had time to note only a “Madonna by Raphael,” a Domenichino, and “two small Correggios” before moving on to see the colossal sculpture of the Farnese Hercules. Melville then took “a voiture” up to the “Cathedral of St. Januarius,” where he was immersed in the visual legacy of Domenichino’s last decade on earth (NN J 101, 103, 456, 460). In the copy of Valery’s Travels in Italy he was soon to acquire in Florence, he had direct access to Valery’s detailed and sophisticated appreciation of Domenichino and other Italian artists in Naples that would remain a personal resource while writing Clarel, “At the Hostelry,” and “An Afternoon in Naples in the Time of Bomba” back home in New York.

After his expert commentary on the rare archaeological artifacts in the Museum Borbonico and a detailed listing of individual works by Italian masters in its Picture Gallery (including multiple masterpieces by Sebastiano del Piombo, Raphael, Titian, Veronese, and the Carracci), Valery gave lavish attention to the “magnificent” chapel of the Treasury of St. Januarius. Valery considered all three Domenichino altarpieces representing “the miracles of the saint” as masterpieces; he also had the highest praise for the “superb frescos of the ceilings, the corners, and the lunettes” by Domenichino that surrounded them. Valery concluded his account of the Treasury of St. Januarius with the kind of backstory that always interested Melville, indicating that Domenichino, “but for the persecution he experienced from his rivals . . . would have completed the cupola, at which Lanfranco refused to work unless the part begun by his great predecessor was effaced. Guido was also to have been employed at this chapel, and had repaired to Naples, whence he was forced to depart suddenly in consequence of the threats of Spagnoletto and the Greek Belasario Corenzi” (443-47, 450-451).

In 2005, Elizabeth Cropper examined the vicissitudes of Domenichino’s life and career (and of art history in general) in the book she called The Domenichino Affair: Novelty, Imitation, and Theft in Seventeenth-Century Art. Cropper defends Domenichino from Lanfranco’s charge that he had stolen the essence of Agostino Carracci’s Last Communion of Saint Jerome in his painting of the same name through a close examination of the paintings themselves and the conditions under which they were created. She shows how Domenichino, as a student of the Carracci, was in this painting exemplifying the Carracci’s own practice of internalizing the achievements of their predecessors in order to make them their own. Cropper cites Poussin’s appreciation of Domenichino’s Last Communion of Saint Jerome exactly because of the brilliance with which Domenichino had adapted Agostino’s subject to his own use. She also points to the way Tasso defended himself against charges of theft from the romances of Ariosto by arguing that “the novelty of a poem lies in the form rather than in the material” (4, 118). Melville had direct access to Valery’s thoughts on this issue in a passage he marked in his own copy of Travels in Italy: “The Communion of St. Jerome is the masterpiece of Agostino, as Domenichino’s on the same subject is also his chef-d’oeuvre; for there is no such thing as an exhausted subject in the arts any more than in letters” (Valery 240; Cowen 344; see check mark in top left column of figure 7).

CAT 111 fig 7 crop Melville marks Valery p 240.jpg

Figure 7. Melville’s markings on The Communion of St. Jerome as depicted by Agostino and Domenichino (along with many other markings on paintings by Domenichnio and Guido) on page 240 of Valery’s Travels in Italy.

The Communion of St. Jerome (fig. 8) was one of seven reproductions in the essay on Domenichino in the copy of The Works of Eminent Masters that Melville acquired in 1870.

CAT 111 fig 8 Domenicino Communion of Saint Jerome Hollis Scan.jpg

Figure 8. Domenichino. The Communion of St. Jerome. In Melville’s copy of The Works of Eminent Masters, London: 1854. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Like Valery in Melville’s day and Cropper in ours, the author of the Works essay robustly defends Domenichino against Lanfranco’s accusation of theft from Agostino, quoting at great length Fuseli’s argument for the superiority of Domenichino’s painting to that of his Bolognese mentor. This essay concluded with a survey of the distribution of Domenichino’s works throughout Europe and England that would have helped Melville recall where he had seen this and that painting by this master. The list from Italy included not only individual paintings that Melville would have seen at the Bologna Gallery, the Naples Cathedral, and the Vatican, but also at galleries in Turin, Milan, Genoa, and three other Roman venues. St. Cecilia was one of thirteen paintings by Domenihino listed for the Louvre in Paris. Tobit and the Angel was one of five Domenichimos listed at London’s National Gallery. Other Domenichinos were listed at Windsor Castle, the Dulwich Gallery, and numerous private galleries, including the three we have already noted at the gallery of Samuel Rogers. Of these, The Punishment of Marsayas and Tobias and the Fish “are very attractive, from the poetry of the composition and the delicacy of the finish.” The Bird-Cage, originally painted for Cardinal Borghese, is “a very fine picture, which has, unfortunately, turned quite dark” (“Domenic Zampieri,” 2:194-95, 2000-02).

Domenichino’s reputation had remained high in England during the early nineteenth century, when Hazlitt was visiting the Orleans Gallery and the Louvre and when Samuel Rogers was building his highly selective collection of European Old Master paintings. Domenichino's paintings had remained highly valued by French and German commentators such as Valery and Waagen during Melville’s visits to London and the Continent in the mid-nineteenth century. One strand of British opinion toward Domenichino began to change when John Ruskin published the first two volumes of Modern Painters in the mid-1840s. Ruskin’s primary goal in those volumes was to elevate the paintings of J. M. W. Turner by diminishing and ridiculing those by Claude Lorrain, Domenichino, and any other Italianate Old Master painter who offended his idiosyncratic eye.

Here is Ruskin in on Domenichino in volume 1: “I once supposed there was some life in the landscape of Domenichino, but in this I must have been wrong. The man who painted the Madonna of the Rosario and Martyrdom of St. Agnes in Bologna, is probably incapable of doing anything good, great, or right in any field, way, or kind, whatsoever” (1:87). In volume 2 Ruskin found the “naked angels” in the Madonna of the Rosario and the Martyrdom of St. Agnes to be “particularly offensive”; Ruskin saw only “studies of bare-legged children howling and kicking in volumes of smoke.” Guido Reni’s Susanna in London’s National Gallery was “devoid alike of art and decency.” And even Raphael’s St. Cecilia is lacking in spirituality; she is “a mere study of a passionate, dark-eyed, large formed Italian model” (2:216, 124, 134).

Melville came to love Turner’s late seascapes as much as young Ruskin did—and for a much longer time. He acquired all five volumes of Modern Painters in 1865 (Sealts no. 431). But Melville never felt the need to elevate Turner or any other Modern Painter at the expense of the Old Masters. Melville’s print collection remained selective, yet eclectic, to the end of his life. The fifteen prints after Claude and the thirty-two prints after Turner to be featured in chapters 3 and 7 of this site confirm the impression of his early biographers that Claude and Turner remained his “favorites” in landscape.

Melville showed a sophisticated understanding of “novelty, imitation, and theft” throughout his life as a novelist, poet, and collector. In his early fiction he borrowed freely from sources ranging from the Penny Cyclopedia to Shakespeare while making them as entirely his own as had Domenichino when honoring Agostino’s painting by emulating it. In Clarel, Melville borrowed as freely from Titian, Raphael, and Piranesi as he did from Shakespeare, Dante, and Tasso. The books he collected, no less than the prints he collected, reveal a heightened appreciation for artists in either field whose gift for uniting “unlike things” included “reverence--audacity” among those qualities that must “meet and mate / And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart, / To wrestle with the angel—Art” (NN PP 280).