CAT 181. Drawn and engraved by J. R. P. Litoux. Porte du Palais Ducal à Venise. Salon de 1880. L’Art. Paris: A. Salmon. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.
Melville’s copy of J. R. P. Litoux’s etching of the entrance to the Ducal Palace in Venice from the Salon of 1880 was published as an illustration for Paul Leroi’s essay “Eux-fortes nouvelle” in the Fall 1880 issue of L’Art. The ragged edges of Melville’s copy make one wonder if he had ripped it right out of the French-language publication. This would be in keeping with a rave review of this volume of L’Art that was published by The Nation in New York City in February 1881. Even though the image is given a full folio page measuring 12 x 17 inches, the reviewer feels that this etching “seems to plead for removal from the book, and a more adequate display with special margins.” As for the image itself, the reviewer considers it to be “a tenacious sequence of detail, half photograph, half Piranesi” (“L’Art,” The Nation, p. 120).
Jean René Pierre Litoux was born in Nantes in 1839. He entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1857 and became an architect. Because he was relatively unknown to the printmaking world, Leroi solicited information from him for the Fall 1880 issue of L’Art. Litoux indicated that he had tried to paint on earthenware and porcelain with little success, but a friend suggested that he take up etching and offered to help him prepare the plates. He also declared that he has had no master, nor any previous experience with the burin, and that he has so far made only a few etchings, but that he hopes to get better. Leroi was so taken with this image of the entrance to the Ducal Palace in Venice that he persuaded his publisher to give it a full page in the Fall 1880 issue (210-11).
The seventeen-inch height of the folio page of L’Art allowed Litoux’s Porte du Palais Ducal à Venise to be fourteen inches high. This, in addition to his training as an architect, allowed him to give minute attention to the kind of detail Piranesi had included in Melville’s copy of The Arch of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 1762 (CAT 79). This is also the kind of minute attention John Ruskin had given the drawing he made of the Loggia of the Ducal Palace in 1849-50 in advance of publishing The Ducal Palace as volume 2 of his Stones of Venice in 1853 (fig. 1).
Figure 1. John Ruskin. Loggia of the Ducal Palace, Venice, watercolor over graphite, 1849-50. British Museum.
The above drawing by Ruskin looks out toward the space depicted by Litoux from inside the Gothic arches seen on the far right of Litoux’s image. A good verbal orientation to the complex spatial orientation of the Litoux’s etching is found in the description the British Museum provided to the copy of that work in its collection: “The entrance to the Doges’ Palace in Venice: monumental gateway (Porta della Carta, or ‘Paper Gate’) decorated in the Gothic manner and opening onto the palace’s courtyard and the Scale dei Giganti; part of the palace’s loggia is visible on the right” (Litoux).
Melville knew the Ducal Palace very well from the week he spent in Venice in April 1857. His hotel was close to St. Mark’s Plaza, the physical and spiritual anchor of his visit, bordered by the entrances to St. Mark’s Basilica and the Ducal Palace and the stairway leading to the top of the Campanile, or Bell Tower. After becoming acclimated to environs of St. Mark’s Plaza on the evening he arrived, Melville went straight to the Ducal Palace the next morning before exploring the Basilica, the Rialto, the Campanile, and the Grand Canal during the rest of the day. In the evening he returned to the courtyard of the Ducal Palace to meet the young guide to who would lead him to more distant parts of the city and its environs the next few days. On April 5, his last full day in the city, Melville glided with his guide from the Lido through the Malamocco Passage to the churches of Santa Maria Salute and S. Giorgio Maggiore. They then glided up to the façade of the Ducal Palace, with its “colonade like hedge of architecture,” before landing “at steps of Ducal palace under Bridge of Sighs” (NN J 117-19). For a detailed account of Melville’s adventures in the vicinity of the Ducal Palace in 1857, see our discussion of “Melville and Turner in Venice” in the Parting Thought on Renaissance Artists following CAT 110.
In 1891 Melville returned in his poetic imagination to Venice and its palaces. “Venice” was the first of eighteen poems he published as “Fruit of Travel Long Ago” in Timoleon. In a short eleven-line poem that he may have begun soon after returning home from the Mediterranean in 1857, Melville’s drew upon Darwin’s study of coral insects in the Voyage of the Beagle and Ruskin’s tribute to Venetian architects in The Ducal Palace to create a compact, expansive comparison between two “unlike things” that here “meet and mate.” In this poem, Melville contrasts the “Pantheist energy” of the “little craftsman” who “Up-builds his marvelous gallery” in “the Coral Sea” with those human architects, “advanced in a kindred art,” who “proved Pan’s might / When Venice rose in reefs of palaces” (NN PP 291; see the section on "Melville's Venice" in CAT 110 PT).
When Melville wrote that the “prouder agent” who erected Venice’s palaces was “Laborious in a shallower wave” than the coral craftsman “Strenuous in the blue abyss” (291), he implied a certain shortcoming in Venice’s “reefs of palaces” that one can also feel in Litoux’s loving depiction of a palace without inhabitants, a portal without people. Beyond its minute attention to surface detail, and the play of light over its vertical expanse and into its recessional depth, one of the most striking features of Litoux’s etching of the entrance to the Ducal Palace is the absence of human life. Unlike in Piranesi’s depiction of The Arch of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, there are no people walking into this entrance to the Ducal Palace, or climbing its interior stairway, or peering out of the dark arches of the Loggia on the right. Unlike Ruskin’s drawing from inside the Loggia of the Ducal Palace, Litoux’s image looks from light into darkness, rather than from darkness into light. Ruskin’s mid-century drawing gives a stronger sense of the Loggia whose colonade Melville’s poem celebrates as a “marvelous gallery” of “marble garlandry,” whereas Litoux’s 1880 etching conveys more of the weight of a glorious past now shadowed with darkness. For this, Litoux’s medium of etching is very well suited.
The reviewer of The Nation in New York declared that “this particular quarterly volume” of L’Art demonstrates the surprising ability of “etching to match almost the whole gamut of color and range of style proper to painters.” Furthermore, this French journal continues to improve “in the treatment of strictly technical problems in the art of etching. . . . There is no periodical now appearing which at all approaches L’Art in the success of translating, by the method of copper, grandmaster pieces of oil-painting on a scale that conserves their breadth and sweep instead of degrading them in pettiness” (120). In his attention to contemporary French art periodicals, as well as to contemporary French painters and engravers, Melville was state-of-the-art through the last half of the 19th century.