Skip to main content

Raphael’s Saint Cecilia in Melville’s copy of Nancy Bell’s Raphael

saint cecilia new 032221.jpg

MBB 2.3. Engraving of Raphael’s Saint Cecilia Listening to the Angels, facing p. 58 in Herman Melville’s copy of N. D’Anvers (Nancy Bell), Raphael, 2nd ed. New York: Scribner and Welford, 1880. Houghton Library, Harvard University (Sealts no. 55).

The 205 engravings in Melville’s copy of the American edition of Lucy Baxter’s The Renaissance of Art in Italy (1883) provided an excellent supplement for the prints by Italian Renaissance artists that Melville collected. So did the twenty-three engravings his copy of the American edition of Nancy Bell's Raphael (1880). Such engravings can vary highly in quality even within a single book. Often, no names of the actual engravers are given. Sometimes the publisher’s unnamed engraver foists upon the reader the equivalent of those “monstrous pictures of whales” lamented by Ishmael in chapter 55 of Moby-Dick. Even a poor or mediocre engraving, however, might help Melville recall details from a painting he had seen—or relish a superior engraving of the same in his own collection.

The engraving of Raphael’s Saint Cecilia reproduced from the 1880 book in his collection would have reminded him of the original painting he had seen in Bologna in 1857, that Goethe had seen in Bologna in 1786, and that Francia, opening a package from Raphael himself, had seen in Bologna in 1517. In Melville’s print collection, this engraving of Raphael’s Saint Cecilia would have looked back to his colored lithograph of Francia’s Marriage of Cecilia and Valerian (CAT 106) as well as ahead to his black-and-white engraving of Saint Cecilia attributed to Domenichino, a seventeenth-century Bolognese artist influenced by Francia and Raphael (CAT 112). The text facing the Raphael engraving in Melville’s book captures a decisive moment in art history as well as in Cecilia’s legend: “her organ is slipping from her hands as she recognizes how feeble are its melodies compared with the celestial harmonies” (Bell 58). In the words of Roettgen, Raphael’s Saint Cecilia was not only “the first emissary to Bologna from the Rome of the popes. . . . It was Raphael’s painting of her that would establish a kind of painting more concerned with the timelessness of heaven than the progress of the seasons, leaving behind the charmingly decorative, but more innocent religious idylls of the Cecilia cycle in Bologna” (427).

In addition to his own direct memory of Raphael’s brilliant painting from his visit to Bologna in 1857, Melville had access to a number of striking commentaries in many of the handbooks he consulted and books he owned. One of the most eloquent appears in the copy of the 1852 edition of Valery’s Travels in Italy that Melville acquired in Florence en route to Bologna in March 1857 (Sealts no. 533; see fig. 1). Melville drew a long marginal line along the entire paragraph in which Valery described the visual riches awaiting those fortunate enough to visit the principal art museum in Bologna:

Among the beautiful productions of the Bolognese school are some masterpieces of other schools: such is the immortal St. Cecilia. There is a vast difference between the pious enthusiasm, the mystical frenzy of this patron of musicians and the profane charms of Euterpe. Music, like speech, seems really a gift of God, when it appears under such an emblem. How shall I describe the perfections of such a painting? the ardour, the triumphant joy of the seraphim singing the sacred hymn to heaven, the purity and simplicity of the saint’s features, so well contrasted with the frivolous and coquettish air of Magdalen? Worthily to render all these beauties, one must be able to exclaim with Correggio, when he first contemplated this work: Anch’ io son pittore! [I too am a painter!]” (Valery, 241; underlines and marginal markings by Melville; fig. 1).
MBB 2.3 fig 1 Valery p 241 raphael markings.jpg

Figure 1. Melville's underlines and marginal markings about Raphael's St. Cecilia on p. 241 of Valery's Travels in Italy.

The following description of Raphael’s painting in the 1853 edition of Murray’s Handbook for Central Italy is equally eloquent, with the added virtue of identifying the four principal figures flanking Cecilia herself. After declaring that Raphael’s “immortal” Saint Cecilia is “without doubt the great treasure of the Bologna gallery, Murray provides his own extensive quote from Nancy Bell:

St. Cecilia is represented with a lyre, held by both hands, carelessly dropped; the head, turned up towards heaven, with a beautiful pensive countenance, having an expression concentrated and exalted feeling, as if devoting the best faculties and gifts of God to God, is deeply and touchingly impressive; her drapery is of finely enriched yellow, thrown over a close-drawn tunic; St. Paul, a superb dignified figure, fills one corner; St John, drawn with a greater expression of simplicity and delicacy of form, is next to him; St. Augustine, another grand figure, and Mary Magdalene, like sister of the heaven-devoted Cecilia, stands close by her. All the figures are in a line, but so finely composed, and the disposition of the lights and shades such, as to produce the effect of a beautiful central group, consisting of Santa Cecilia, Mary Magdelane, and St. Peter. Musical instruments, scattered on the foreground, fill it up, but without attracting the eye; a pure blue element forms the horizon, while high in the heavens a choir of angels, touched with the softest tints, is indistinctly seen. (Murray, Central Italy, 1853, 32)

Nancy Bell’s words in Murray’s 1853 Handbook, supplement by the words and engraving she supplied in the 1880 edition of her book that Melville acquired, further supplemented by Melville’s memory of having seen Raphael’s actual Saint Cecilia face-to-face in the Bologna gallery, gave Melville one concentrated example of those “books, pictures, and face[s] of nature” that Hazlitt had declared to the only pleasures “pure and lasting” in the passage Melville marked in the copy of Criticisms of Art he acquired in 1870. In this case those pleasures would have been intensified by the prints he acquired of the Saint Cecilia that Francia had painted a decade before Raphael (CAT 106), and the one attributed to Domenichino a century later (CAT 112).

One final tribute to Raphael’s Saint Cecilia comes from the passage in Melville’s copy of Lives of the Most Eminent Masters in which Vasari suggested that the very sight of that painting caused Francia to die of “grief and vexation”: “The picture of Raphael was, indeed, divine—not painted, but absolutely alive; he had executed and finished it to such a perfection that among all the admirable works performed by him in his whole life, though every one is beautiful, this one may well be called the most exquisite” (2:304-05).