- Robert Macpherson's Vatican Sculptures:An Iconographic Source for Herman Melville's "After the Pleasure Party"
"By these monuments I'm schooled." Celio in Clarel (12:39;1.12.134)1
In May 1866 Herman Melville received a somewhat mysterious gift from Italy: a slender volume titled Vatican Sculptures, Selected, and Arranged in the Order in Which They Are Found in the Galleries, Briefly Explained by Robert Macpherson, Rome.2 Published in London in 1863 and quite rare today—only two dozen or so copies are listed in OCLC—this unprepossessing little guidebook consists of a short introduction by the author, 136 woodcuts of statues in the Vatican museum, and a concluding advertisement for 305 of Macpherson's photographs of Roman scenes that a reader could purchase for five shillings apiece. What makes this gift mysterious is the front inscription: "Mr Herman Melville from the author Rome May 4 1866."3 Nowhere in his extant writings does Melville refer either to the book or the author, nor have I found any record that Melville ever met or even heard of Macpherson. Macpherson is not mentioned in Hershel Parker's extensive biography of Melville or any other biography I have consulted, nor have scholars assessed the significance of Vatican Sculptures in Melville's writings. Melville, who was in the habit of marking his books, left no marginal scribbles in Vatican Sculptures, although until now there was some question as to whether a faint mark in the inner margin of Plate VII, "Faun," had been inserted by Melville. Merton M. Sealts, Jr., and Walker Cowen independently examined Melville's copy in the Houghton library with Sealts listing it as "marked (?)" and Cowen reproducing it in his own hand and comparing it to the Greek letter theta.4 A comparison between the digitized copy in Google Books and a printed text from Colorado State University, however, shows the identical mark in each one. In other words, it is a minor printing error and cannot substantiate Melville's familiarity with the book, let alone with Macpherson.5 [End Page 40]
When scholars seek to assess sources and influences in a writer's work they often encounter dead ends such as this one. As a historicist myself, I decided to pursue the matter further, hoping to find connections to this volume through Melville's acquaintances and experiences. His many references to classical art have been expertly catalogued by Gail Coffler, and his lecture on "Statues in Rome" shows that he especially prized Roman statuary and monuments and found political, moral, historical, as well as literary and aesthetic lessons in them. He gave sixteen lectures on this subject from November 23, 1857 to February 23, 1858, plus one in the following season (9:723).6 The lectures seem to have been constructed entirely from recollections of his three weeks in Rome from February 25 to March 21 1857, particularly his four visits to the Vatican museum. He called these his "Vatican day" visits (March 2, 3, 9, 16) and was initially so overwhelmed by the museum's extensive collections of statuary that he had to sit down in St. Peter's square to recover from the experience: "Fagged out completely, & sat a long time by the obelisk, recovering from the stunning effect of a first visit to the Vatican" (15:108). His telegraphic notes specifically mention a few paintings and frescoes, yet the only sculptures he names are in the Hall of Animals: 'Wolf & lamb, paw uplifted, tongue—fleece. Dog on stag, eying him. Lion on horse. – But Playing goats—the goat & kid—show a Wordsworthian appreciation of the gentle in Nature" (15: 110). He makes no note of the monumental statues in the adjoining Braccio Nuovo and Chiramonte galleries that comprise most of Macpherson's illustrations, and in general his journal comments more on paintings in other museums and palaces than on statues. While this evidence demonstrates his passion for Vatican art, the details are insufficient to tie it to Macpherson.
Of course Vatican Sculptures, first published in 1863 and not available to Melville until 1866, could not have been a source for "Statues in Rome." Either Melville had other sources for...