Skip to main content

Guido and Beatrice Cenci

During the five weeks that Melville spent in Rome in 1857, he made no mention in his journal of having visited Guido’s Saint Cecilia paintings in Trastevere or Domenichino’s Cecilian Cycle at San Luigi del Francesi. But he was already thinking about Guido’s Beatrice Cenci during his first full day in the city. On the evening of February 26, after a strenuous day of sightseeing, he visited “a picture dealer” who “offered a Cenci for $4. Surprisingly cheap” (NN J 106). If Melville accepted that offer, the print he acquired is probably the copy of Vincent Biondi’s 1838 steel engraving of Saint Cecilia that is the subject of this entry. This print, now part of the William Reese Collection in the Melville Society Archive at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, had first surfaced in the exhibition Prints Collected by Herman Melville Lent by Mr. Samuel T. Sukel at the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1950. Whether or not Melville purchased his “Cenci” from that first picture dealer in Rome, he did make it a point five days later to ride “to Palazzo Barberini to see Cenci.—Expression of suffering about the mouth—(appealing look of innocence) not caught in any copy or engraving” (NN J 108; see fig. 2).

cat 112 fig 2.jpg

Figure 2. Attributed to Guido Reni. Beatrice Cenci, oil on canvas, 1614-1790?). Barberini Palace, Rome.

The belief that Guido Reni had painted the portrait of Beatrice Cenci in the Barberini Gallery had been strengthened by Shelley’s play The Cenci in 1819. By mid-century, the association with Guido had been expanded for English language readers by the novels of Charles Dickens and Nathanial Hawthorne. The 1850 edition of John Murray’s Handbook for Central Italy had expressed no doubts about the authenticity of the attribution, quoting at great length Shelley’s detailed account of the expression of the face as Guido had depicted it (Murray, Central Italy, 1850, 500). Vincent Biondi, who had engraved Melville’s print, was a student of Raphael Morghen. Biondi was one of the few who was allowed to make an engraving from the original painting (most others had been required to work from copies of the painting, making the young woman’s “expression about the mouth” even more elusive). According to Halsey in his catalog of Morghen’s oeuvre, the one engraving even better than Biondi’s was the plate engraved by “Morghen’s pupil, Garavaglia,” with touches on the trial proof by Morghen himself (183). 

Melville had made his own fictional contribution to the association with Guido in Pierre, the novel he published immediately after Moby-Dick in 1852. In the concluding chapter of the novel, Pierre, Lucy, and Isabel enter the “pictured hall” of a shameless New York gallery touting its “undoubted” canvases by “Rubens, Raphael, Angelo, Domenichino, and Da Vinci.” Lucy finds herself drawn toward a “very tolerable copy of that sweetest, most touching, but most awful of all feminine heads—the Cenci of Guido.” The fact that this copy of Guido’s Cenci has “golden” hair causes Melville’s narrator to consider the “fanciful anomaly of so sweetly and seraphically blonde a being, being double-hooded, as it were, by the black crape of the two most horrible crimes (one of which she is the object, and of the other the agent) possible to civilized humanity—incest and parricide,” declaring that “With the aspect of the Cenci everyone is familiar” (NN P 351).

While Lucy is looking intently at “the Cenci of Guido,” Pierre and Isabel each find themselves drawn to a painting whose label indicates “A stranger’s head, by an unknown hand.” Because “this Cenci and ‘the Stranger’ were hung at a good elevation in one of the upper tiers,” they “seemed pantomimically talking over and across the living heads of the living spectators below.” Pierre and Isabel each identify with the portrait of the stranger, but in different ways. Pierre identifies it with the “chair portrait” of his father as a young man, Isabel relating it to the one fleeting image she remembered of the man who may have fathered her, these parallel ruminations heightening their mutual anxieties that their growing love for each other may be deeply incestuous. As if by osmosis, the incestuous trauma thought to have been suffered by the subject of the Cenci portrait centuries before was seeping into the separate psyches of Isabel and Pierre from the portrait of the Stranger (349-51).

Melville’s narrator had introduced the psychological complexities of this scene by recalling his experience of having “victoriously run that painted gauntlet of the gods" in "the great galleries of Europe.” There he had discovered that “certain very special emotions” can result from “an accidental congeniality” with “some one or more individual paintings” not in themselves highly esteemed “in the catalogs and criticisms of the greatest connoisseurs.” So it was with Pierre and Isabel when looking at “a dark and comely young man’s head, portentously looking out a dark, shaded ground, and ambiguously smiling.” Here, in Melville’s fictional partner to the copy of the Cenci by which Lucy is mesmerized, “there was no discoverable drapery; the dark head, with its crisp, curly, jetty hair, seemed just disentangling itself from out of curtains and clouds.” In this image, Isabel sees “certain shadowy traces of her unmistakable features,” whereas to Pierre this same face was “the resurrection” of the portrait of his father “he had burnt at the Inn” (350-51).

The visual and psychological sophistication of this scene, published one year after Melville had published Moby-Dick and three years after he had run the “painted gauntlet” of the Louvre and the picture galleries of London, showed that the young American novelist was already primed for his eight-week run through the gauntlet of Italy’s greatest galleries five years later.

Twenty-five years after the publication of Pierre, and nineteen years after his visit to the picture galleries of Rome, the “expression of suffering about the mouth” that Melville had noted in his journal after seeing the original portrait of Beatrice Cenci at the Barberini Gallery entered his poetry in Book 3 of Clarel. At the beginning of the “Bell and Cairn” canto, Clarel observes his fellow pilgrim Vine in deep meditation. Here Vine, who had inspired the extended allusion to the “paradise flowers” of Saint Cecilia in “The Recluse” canto, inspires an extended allusion to Beatrice Cenci. As seen by Clarel, “he wore that nameless look / About the mouth—so hard to brook— / Which in the Cenci portrait shows, / Lost in each copy, oil or print” (NN C 3.7.16-19). 

Here Melville is again exploring the elusive psyche of his late friend Nathaniel Hawthorne with an extended allusion to the physical appearance of a legendary Italian woman whose engraved portrait he was to be adding to his own print collection. His description of “that nameless look / About the mouth” that is lost in “each copy, oil or print” alludes at once to the “tolerable copy of the Cenci of Guido” he had described in Pierre, the “print” of the Cenci he had been offered by the picture dealer in Rome, and the original painting he had seen five days later at the Barberini Gallery. (See also Bryant, 1: 393-94.)

By associating Vine with the expression of the portrait of the Cenci in Clarel, Melville was also alluding to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s own deep attraction to Guido’s portrait of Beatrice Cenci, which he had called “the most profoundly wrought picture in the world” when he first saw it at the Barberini Gallery in 1858. Two years later, Hawthorne used that portrait as a key element in characterizing the psyches of both Miriam and Hilda in The Marble Faun. Melville would have known of each of these allusions to Guido’s Cenci as soon as they were published—in the copy of The Marble Faun he acquired in 1860 and in the Passages from the French and Italian Notebooks he acquired in 1872 (NN J 474-75; Sealts nos. 247, 252).

Melville in his own print collection had the opportunity of comparing the “expression about the mouth” in Beatrice Cenci, engraved by Biondi from the portrait attributed to Guido, with that in Saint Cecilia (CAT 112), engraved by William Sharp from the portrait attributed to Domenichino, one pair of female lips being attributed to a saint, the other to the “double-hooded” symbol of incest and parricide. Because of its resemblance to certain sybil figures painted by Guido, the “so-called Beatrice Cenci” is now thought to have been painted by one of his assistants such as Elizabeth Sirati or Guido Cagnacci. Ironically, the canvas by which Guido was best known in the nineteenth-century is now entirely absent from modern catalogues of his oeuvre. The Barberini canvas was no longer mentioned even as a reject in Pepper’s Complete Catalogue of Guido’s works in 1984.

In 1878, two years after Melville published Clarel, M. F. Sweetser published the first full-length biography of Guido Reni in the United States. Sweetser’s highly readable book for a general audience drew heavily on the work of Malvasia, Guido’s first biographer, but Sweetser also absorbed and effectively deployed the findings subsequent biographers and interpreters. Sweetser believed that the Beatrice Cenci attributed to Guido was a “marvelous” painting, but he reluctantly devoted seven closely argued pages, drawing on the findings of four recent critics, to clearly establish that Guido was not in Rome at the time the Cenci was executed, that “the Barberini picture is not” in fact “a portrait of Beatrice,” and that the portrait could not have been done by Guido in his later years because by then the appearance of the actual Beatrice had been clearly established. Since Malvasia and those early authorities who had known Guido’s work most closely had not themselves attributed the portrait Guido, Sweetser attributes the persistence of that “legend” in the mid-nineteenth century to the play by Shelley that had established the portrait ostensibly of Beatrice, by the painter thought to be Guido, as a “visible symbol” of "the pathetic story of the Cenci [which] was in all hearts” (34-41).

Sweetser’s 1878 biography of Guido Reni is not among those books which have been documented as part of Melville’s library. But it was published in Boston by the Houghton firm that also published the 1878 Fitzgerald edition of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and the 1886 edition of Elihu Vedder’s edition of the Rubáiyát that Melville did acquire (Sealts nos. 391, 392). This book was part of a uniform series of artist biographies for a general readers that would have been widely available in New York bookstores and libraries. Sweetser in his Preface acknowledged that “at the present day Guido is out of fashion” owing to influential critics such as John Ruskin who has elevated pre-Raphaelite painters at the expense of Guido, his Bolognese contemporaries, and their Italian Renaissance predecessors. Undeterred, Sweetser has “felt at liberty to follow the hearty admiration of Malvasia and my own preferences, rather than the present vogue and the opinions” of Guido’s current detractors. Sweetser has been reluctant to reject, after consulting “hundreds of books pertaining to Roman history and art,” the attribution of the “so-called Cenci portrait” to Guido, but he delights in the opportunity of showing his reader that the fame of this noble and heroic” artist “does not rest on one or a dozen pictures,” and therefore “needs no false honors” (3-4).