Skip to main content

Guido beyond the Cenci

Melville was keenly interested in other works by Guido than the so-called Beatrice Cenci. On his visit to London in 1849 he took note of Guido’s St. John Preaching in the Wilderness at the Dulwich Gallery and his Massacre of the Innocents at the National Gallery, now thought to have been painted by Raphael (NN J 20, 42, 362-63). In Redburn in 1850 he described a fanciful London palace in which “you spied in a crimson dawn, Guido’s ever youthful Apollo, driving forth the horses of the sun” (NN R 228). This passage reads very much like an allusion to the celebrated fresco in which Guido’s Aurora leads the horses of Apollo across the ceiling of the Rospigliosi gallery in Rome (NN J 109), but Melville had submitted the manuscript of Redburn to his English and American publishers before sailing to London in October 1849, so he must already have become aware of that work in New York through his reading or from seeing a tolerable copy of it in a print shop or gallery.

During his visit to London in 1849, Melville saw one painting by Guido that would have been stamped strongly in his imagination even though he did not specifically mention it in his journal. The one painting by Guido that Melville would have seen among the “superb paintings” in the private gallery of Samuel Rogers on December 19 and again on December 22 was Ecce Homo, now known as Head of Christ Crowned with Thorns (fig. 3; Pepper, cat. 87). This canvas may be a copy of one of several versions of this subject painted by Guido, but when Melville saw it in 1849 it was considered to be one of the “gems” of Rogers’s collection. Anna Jameson in 1844 had called it "an epitome of the mind and manner of the painter" (no. 20, p. 390). Guido's Head of Christ is one of the works that Rogers bequeathed to the National Gallery in 1855, and Melville is likely to have seen this painting again, along with Titian’s Noli me Tangere, in April 1857, a few weeks after having seen Guido’s Aurora and the Beatrice Cenci in Rome and his Samson Victorious and many other Guidos in Bologna (NN J 107, 108, 116, 499; Cowen, 11: 344-50; Valery, 240-41).

cat 112 fig 3.jpg

Figure 3. After Guido Reni. Head of Christ Crowned with Thorns, oil on wood, c. 1640-1749. National Gallery London, bequeathed by Samuel Rogers in 1855.

The Ecco Homo attributed to Guido Reni that Melville saw for the first time at the home of Samuel Rogers in 1849 had originally belonged to the painter Benjamin West. This painting had been engraved by William Sharp as Head of our Saviour Crowned with Thorns in 1797 (fig. 4), six years after Sharp had engraved the Saint Cecilia thought to have been painted by Domenichino (CAT 112). In 1847, a review of “The Collection of Samuel Rogers” in London’s Art-Union noted that Guido’s painting of the head of Christ in this collection was already “well-known by the beautiful engraving by W. Sharp.” Even so, no engraving is “capable of imparting the sublimity of sorrow in this divine head, which is a perfect work by the master, painted in his best or silvery manner” (85). If Melville needed a tactile reminder of the painting he had seen during his visits with Rogers in 1849, and presumably again at London’s National Gallery in 1857, he probably had access to Sharp’s engraving in the libraries and print shops he patronized in New York while writing his poetry and building his print collection.

William Sharp after Guido Head of Crist Crowned with Thorns NG of Scotland.jpg

Figure 4. William Sharp after Guido Reni. Head of Christ crowned with Thorns, etching and engraving, 1797, London. National Galleries Scotland.

Melville’s next fictional allusion to a painting by Guido after returning from his first trip to London in early in 1850 came in chapter 55 of Moby-Dick. Ishmael uses Guido’s Perseus and Andromeda to represent the sins of all those Old Master painters who would foist off on us “Monstrous Pictures of Whales,” asking “Where did Guido get the model of such a strange creature as that?” (NN MD 261). The likely model for this allusion to Guido is the copy of his Perseus and Andromeda that Melville would have seen on one of this three visits to London’s National Gallery in 1849. Inspired by the story in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, that painting was presented to the National Gallery by King William IV in 1836. The London painting is now thought to be a copy of Guido’s original painting at the Pallavincini-Rospigliosi Collection in Rome, where Melville was later to see it—along with Guido’s ceiling fresco of Aurora (see Pepper, cat. 158a and 158b). The copy at London’s National Gallery is now so dark that one can hardly make out the “monstrous” shape of the whale. It is much easier to see in a reproduction of the original painting Melville was to be seeing at in Rome in 1857 (fig. 4).

cat 112 fig 4.png

Figure 5. Guido Reni. Perseus and Andromeda, oil on canvas, c. 1635. Pallavincini-Rospigliosi Collection, Rome.

Ishmael in chapter 55 of Moby-Dick moves seamlessly from the monstrous whale in Guido’s Perseus and Andromeda to its equally preposterous successor in Hogarth’s Perseus Descending (fig. 5), whose “distended tusked mouth” he then compares, even more improbably, to “the Traitor’s Gate leading from the Thames by water into to the tower” (NN MD 261).

cat 112 fig 5.jpg

Figure 6. William Hogarth. Perseus Descending, etching, 1730. Illustration to Lewis Theobold, Perseus and Andromeda, as performed at the Theatre Royal in Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields, London, 1730. British Museum.

Ishmael’s seamless pictorial transition from Guido’s monstrous whale to the mouth of Hogarth’s equally improbable creature to the mouth of Traitor’s Gate in London “leading from the Thames by water to the Tower” is much less surprising when one sees the vignette of Traitor’s Gate, Tower of London that Edward Goodall engraved after the watercolor by J. M. W. Turner for the 1834 edition of Samuel Rogers’s Poems. One can easily imagine young Herman Melville, during one of his two visits to the private collection of Samuel Rogers in December 1849, mentioning the “monstrous” depiction of the whale he had seen in Guido’s Perseus and Andromeda during one of three visits to the National Gallery, this perhaps prompting Rogers to mention the equally monstrous depiction of the sea creature by Hogarth in Perseus Descending, before pivoting from the “tusked mouth” of Hogarth’s creature to the open mouth of Traitor’s Gate leading in from the Thames that Rogers had commissioned from Turner and Goodall for the 1834 edition of his Poems, an imaginative leap that Rogers might then illustrate by bringing to his breakfast table for the young American novelist to see his own first impression, on the finest India paper, of the engraved vignette he had commissioned from Turner and Goodall in 1834 (fig. 7; Wallace, Melville and Turner, 319-21).

cat 112 fig 6.jpg

Figure 7. Edward Goodall after J. M. W. Turner. Traitor’s Gate, Tower of London, line engraving on paper, engraved on steel for Samuel Roger’s Poems, 1834. Tate Gallery London.

After having created a fictional version of Aurora leading Apollo and his horses into a sunrise as part of the décor of Aladdin’s Palace when writing Redburn in 1849, it is not surprising that Melville was attentive to Guido’s extraordinary depiction of that scene when beholding the original fresco on the ceiling of the Casino at the Pallavincini-Rospigliosi Collection in Rome in 1857. What an introduction this Aurora would be to the amazing group of original paintings by Guido he would be seeing three weeks later at the Bologna Pinacoteca (Pepper, cat. 40). Up on that ceiling in the Casino in Rome, Aurora does indeed, in Melville’s words, “float over head like sun-dried clouds” (fig. 8; NN J 109).

cat 112 fig 7.jpg

Figure 8. Guido Reni. Aurora, ceiling fresco in Casino dell’Aurora, Pallavincini Collection, Rome, c. 1635.

In the landscape beneath Aurora to the right, the sun is rising above a deep blue sea. Beneath Apollo to the left, the gracious Horas representing the hours of the day are stepping forth in sequential motion as horses led by Aurora power the celestial. Guido in Italy in the early seventeenth century, like Flaxman in Italy in the later eighteenth century, modeled many of his mythical figures on ancient Greek models—as one can see by comparing the celestial horses in Guido’s Aurora fresco with those in Flaxman’s Le Reine Atossa in Melville’s copy of Reveil’s engraving for the 1833 French edition of The Persians (CAT 3).

Melville was not the only English speaking, 19th-century, largely maritime artist keenly interested in Guido’s mid-16th century ceiling fresco of Aurora. The Turner Bequest to London’s National Gallery in 1856 included hundreds of sketchbooks from Turner’s travels throughout the British Isles and the Continent. Among them all, the longest written account Turner ever entered in response to a single painting was his two-page entry on Guido’s Aurora in sketchbook CXC111 during his first visit to Rome, at age forty-four, in 1819, the year Melville was born (see fig. 9).

cat 112 fig 8.jpg

Figure 9. One page of J. M. W. Turner’s Notes on the ‘Aurora’ by Guido Reni in the Palazza Pallavicini-Rospigliosi, Rome, 1819, in Sketchbook CXCIII-3. Accepted by the National Gallery as part of the Turner Bequest in 1856. Tate Gallery London.

Turner’s commentary begins by noting the play of the sky “rather yellow . . . on a Dark red ground” before turning to the effect of the “light lilac” on the “orange drapery,” all of which affects the “aerial quality of the sky.” He then moves to the “Dark figure with golden Hair and light Blue Drapery,” which is “beautiful as to form, color and design,” with “the Drapery [being] the lightest color in the picture.” After moving through the robes and drapery of the remaining figures, Turner turns to the “dark Blue” sea. All this careful notation was helping to prepare him for a major change in his landscape style from the late 1820s through the mid-1840s as he addressed subjects from Ancient Roman and Italian history such as The Golden Bough (1834), Ancient Rome (1839), and Regulus Leaving Carthage (1828, reworked in 1837), all of which Melville was to acquire in engravings published in the 1850s (CAT numbers to be assigned). Melville, who was thirty-seven years old on his first visit to Rome and its galleries in 1857, began to make a similar change in his aesthetic when researching and writing Clarel, much of whose imagery derived from his visit to Italy and his subsequent activity as a print collector.

On March 7, 1857, Melville visited “the Quirinale Palace of Pope” immediately after seeing Guido’s Aurora on the ceiling of the Casino of the Rospigliosi gallery. There he took note of “Guido’s Annunciation,” the amazingly tender oil painting Guido had created as the altarpiece for the Pope’s private chapel. The Annunciation altarpiece was surrounded on all sides by the frescoes and lunettes of the Scenes from the Life of the Virgin Guido and his assistants had painted there in 1610 (Pepper, cat. 33). Three weeks later, Melville saw the unrivalled collection of original Guido canvases at the Bologna Pinocoteca. There he took note of Samson Victorious in addition to marking Valery’s commentary on that painting, the Madonna della Pietá, Christ in his agony, and The Massacre of the Innocents in his newly acquired copy of Travels in Italy (NN J 109-10, 116; see CAT 112, fig. 7). Valery’s book was to remain a rich resource for remembering the galleries he had visited and the paintings he had seen in Italy.

By the time M. F. Sweetser published Guido Reni in 1878, it was getting even easier for a traveler and collector such as Melville to keep track of exactly which paintings by Guido he had encountered in which museums in England, France, or Italy. Sweetser’s “List of the Chief Paintings of Guido Reni, and their Present Location” included 54 locations in England with paintings attributed to Guido. Among those collections Melville is known to have visited, Sweetser listed nine paintings, including Ecco Homo and Perseus and Andromeda, at the National Gallery; seven paintings, including Saint Sebastian and five which are “dubious,” at the Dulwich Gallery; and three paintings, including Judith and the Head of Holofernes, at Hampton Court. At the Louvre in Paris, Sweetser listed 24 paintings, including Ecce Homo, Penitent Magdalen, and Mater Dolorosa. In Italy, Sweetser listed twenty different cities with paintings by Guido. The bulk of the paintings and collections were in Rome, Florence, and Bologna, but collections Melville visited in Turin, Genoa, Milan, Padua, and Naples were also listed. Among the collections known to have been visited by Melville in Rome, Sweetser listed the Vatican Gallery, the Capitoline Gallery, the Corsini Palace, the Sciarra-Colonna Palace, the Barberini Palace, the Borghese Palace, the Doria Palace, the Rospigliosi Palace, the Quirinal Palace, and Santa Maria Magggiore; he also listed the paintings of Saint Cecilia at Saint Cecilia in Trastevere and at San Luigi del Francesi that Melville appears not to have visited. In Florence, the Uffizi Gallery and the Pitti Palace were rich in Guidos, as was, of course, the Pinacoteca in Bologna, where Sweetser listed nine Guidos in addition to the four marked by Melville in his copy of Valery (151-58).

Together, Melville’s Saint Cecilia not actually by Domenichino and his Beatrice Cenci not actually by Guido presented a fascinating double-sashed window into the early seventeenth-century style that had came to be known as Roman Bolognese classicism. Melville would have been interested in two informative, provocative books published by Yale University Press slightly more than a century after his death. At the end of our previous entry, we looked at Elizabeth Cropper’s The Dominichino Affair: Novelty, Imitation, and Theft in Seventeenth-Century Rome (2005). Here we can briefly consider Richard Spear’s The ‘Divine’ Guido: Religion, Sex, Money, and Art in the World of Guido Reni (1997).

After having published a complete catalog of Domenichino’s paintings in 1982, Spear decided to address the life and work of Guido in a more flexible way. The ‘Divine’ Guido is divided into thematic chapters which attempt to explore those unresolvable psychological questions within and behind Guido’s artistry which make so many of his paintings so alluring the viewers today. Is the ideal beauty of so many of his male figures owing more to Greek idealism or to male desire? Do the anatomical anomalies of certain female figures result more from physical aversion or lack of access? Is the unworldly purity of certain Madonnas and virgins a sacred gift or a profane denial? How, in the language of Melville’s “Art,” are such “unlike things” able to “meet and mate / And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart, / To wrestle with the angel—Art” (NN BBO 280)? Melville in his late career addressed such questions by creating the pilgrims in Clarel, Billy and Claggart in Billy Budd, Urania in “After the Pleasure Party,” and the psyches of those painters who “wrestle” over the “picturesque” in “At the Hostelry.”

Melville’s interest in the gossipy and profane side of art history is shown in the one mention of Guido Reni in “At the Hostelry.” This comes after Fra Lippi, during the first open debate among the artists assembled for supper, invites Spagnoletto to provide his own idea of the “Picturesque” in painting.  

The man invoked, a man of brawn
Though stumpt in stature, raised his head
From sombre musings, and revealed
A brow by no blest angel sealed,
And mouth at corners droopt and drawn;
And catching but the last words, said
‘The Picturesque? Have ye not seen
My Flaying of St. Bartholomew?’

Amidst the “ironic jeers” Spagnoletto had provoked by praising his own work in such a self-serving manner, Lippi intentionally provoked him by asking:

           ‘Why not Guido cite
In Herod’s Massacre?’ weening well
The Little Spaniard’s envious spite
Guido against, as gossips tell.

As Lippi probably expected, “The sombrous one igniting here / . . . Flared up volcanic” (NN BBO 154-55).

Spagnoletto was the name by which Juseppe de Ribera, the Spanish painter born near Valencia (1591-1652), was known in Naples, where he lived most of his professional life. Melville would have seen Spagnoletto’s Flaying of Bartholomew (fig. 10) at the Pitti Palace in Florence a few days before seeing Guido’s Massacre of the Innocents (fig. 11) in Bologna in March 1857 (NN J 114, 116, 490-91, 499; Valery 240-41). By including these two paintings near the beginning of “At the Hostelry,” Melville acknowledged that cruelty and sadism could be seen by some as “picturesque.” Melville would have read about “the Little Spaniard’s envious spite” against both Guido and Domenichino in Valery’s account of how each was treated by Spagnoletto at the Chapel of the Cathedral of Saint Januarius in Naples. Valery suggested that Spagnoletto and Belasario Corenzio had “tried to poison” each of these artists from Bologna, causing him to declare that “the hatred and passions of artists appear, especially in Italy, more violent and irritable than the self-love of literary men” (450-52). 

CAT 112 fig 10 Ribera Martyrdom of St Bartholomew Art Resource NY.png

Figure 10. Jusepe de Ribera. Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, oil on canvas, c. 1828-30. Pitti Palace, Florence.

CAT 112 fig 11 Guido Massacre of the Innocents Bologna Artstor SCALA.jpg

Figure 11. Guido Reni. Massacre of the Innocents, oil on canvas, c. 1610-12. Bologna Pinacoteca.

Spagnoletto’s “envious spite” for Domenichino lasted until the latter’s death in Naples in 1641, possibly by poisoning. Because Domenichino had yet to complete his fourth and last altarpiece celebrating Saint Gennaro (Jenuarius) in the Chapel of the Royal Treasury, Spagnoletto was able to get that final commission for himself. The assigned subject was the legend of Saint Januarius Emerging from the Furnace. In Spagnoletto’s altarpiece, the executioners who had expected Januarius to have been consumed by fire fall back in awe before the saint who had returned unscathed. Melville would have seen that altarpiece, surrounded by frescoes by Domenichino on all sides, during his “very fine” visit to “Cathedral of Saint Januarius” on February 21, 1857 (NN J 103, see figure 6, CAT 111, lower left).