CAT 15. Allesandro Mochetti after Francesco Staccoli. Achille in Sciro. Plate XVII of vol. V in Il Museo Pio Clementino. Rome: Luigi Mirra, 1795. E. Barton Chapin Jr. Family Collection.
Francesco Staccoli (d. 1815) was a watercolorist who specialized in copying works from the old masters. His depiction of Achille in Sciro was copied from a Roman sarcophagus in the Pio Clementino Museum in the Vatican that had been unearthed near the Porta Maggiore gate in Roma Vecchia. This image was one of several that were engraved by Allessandro Mochetti (c. 1760-c. 1812) for the fifth volume of Il Museo Pio Clementino, a monumental effort to provide a comprehensive visual record of the ancient sculpture and reliefs that had been unearthed, acquired, and displayed in the Vatican museums under the leadership of Popes Clement XIV and Pius VI in the late eighteenth century. Staccoli and Mochetti had also collaborated in creating The Death of Penthelisa, in which Achilles is confronted by the Queen of the Amazons, for the same volume of Il Museo Pio Clementino.
In March 1857, Melville visited the Vatican museums on three consecutive Mondays he identified as “Vatican days” in his journal. He would have walked past the sculptural relief of Achille in Sciro more than once, whether or not he consciously registered its imagery when there was so much else to see and to quickly notate in his journal; among the highlights he did briefly record were “Loggie of Raphael & Sistine Chapel,” the “Hall of Animals,” and “statues in Vatican.” At the end of his first “Vatican day,” he was “fagged out completely, & sat a long time by an obelisk, recovering.” Back home in the United States later in the same year, Melville gave a series of Lyceum lectures on “Statues in Rome” in which he imagined the Roman Coliseum as “a great green hollow” to be “repeopled” with all the statues in the Vatican (NN J 108, 110, 112, 158, 191). In the print collection he assembled later in New York City, Mochetti’s Achilles in Sciro was matched by another large-scale engraving from the Vatican museums, an image of Raphael’s Loggia at the Vatican that had been engraved by Volpato, Mochetti’s teacher, as the frontispiece for Volume 1 of Giovanni Ottaviani’s Loggia di Rafaele nel Vatican published in the 1770s under Pope Clementi XIV (see CAT 108).
The engraving Melville acquired of Achille in Sciro depicts one of the best-known Achillean adventures that Homer did not include in the Iliad—that of Achilles and the daughters of Lycomedes. The generic elements of this ancient story are easily seen in Mochetti’s engraving: “Knowing her son was destined to die if he went to fight in the Trojan war, his mother disguised him as a woman and entrusted him to King Lycomedes, in whose palace on the isle of Scyros he lived among the king’s daughters. Ulysses and other Greek chieftains were sent to fetch Achilles. They cunningly laid a heap of gifts before the girls—jewellry, clothes, and other finery, but among them a sword, spear, and shield. When a trumpet was sounded Achilles instinctively snatched up the weapons and thus betrayed his identity” (Hill 3-4). This is the moment Staccoli and Mochetti have depicted in the engraving that is called Achille Reconosciuto (Achilles Recognized) in the original 1796 publication. This cross-dressing, comic attempt by Achilles’s mother to protect him from his fate contrasts delightfully with Homer’s more heroic handling of this stage of their relationship in the Iliad. In his copy of Chapman’s Homer, Melville marked the dramatic lament that Achilles’s mother “poured out in tears: ‘O me, my son,’ she said, / ‘Why brought I up thy being at all, that brought thee forth to be / Subject of so hard a fate?’” (Sealts no. 277; Cowen 6:33-34; MMO 277, 1.015).
As the sculptural relief of Achilles in Sciro was being displayed in the Vatican Museums in the late eighteenth century, and engraved for volume 5 of Il Museo Pio Clementino, that same story was becoming increasingly popular in opera houses throughout Europe. In 1736 Pietro Metastasio’s libretto Achille in Sciro received its operatic premiere in Vienna with music by Antonio Caldera to celebrate the marriage of Queen Maria Theresa. One year later the same libretto was set to music by Domenico Sarro to inaugurate the Royal Theater of San Carlo in Naples, soon to become the most prominent opera house in Europe, home to composers Rossini and Donizetti. This elegant, capacious theater was celebrated for the horseshoe design in which six tiers of balconies rose high above the royal box on both sides of the hall. Melville visited the Theater of San Carlo at 10 p.m. on February 19, 1857, after two strenuous days of sightseeing in and around Naples (which included a trip to Pompei to gaze down into the fiery core of Vesuvius). Melville called the Theater of San Carlo a “fine house” at the end of his journal entry.
One year earlier, Melville had written more expansively about that celebrated opera house when visiting it only in his imagination from his Arrowhead home in Pittsfield. The Theater of San Carlo comes into play at the end of “The Piazza,” the sketch with which Melville introduced the collection of stories he called The Piazza Tales. The story itself is about as far as you can get from the magic and vocalism of opera. Melville’s autobiographical narrator takes a journey high up one side of Mount Greylock to visit a spot that had always appeared magical when perceived from the piazza he had built on the side of his house facing the mountain. Arriving there, he finds instead a dilapidated cottage inhabited by Marianna, a young woman living entirely alone in rural poverty. Back home at the end of the story, he now sees his piazza as “my box-royal; and this amphitheater, my Theater of San Carlo. Yes, the scenery is magical—the illusion so complete. And Madam Meadow Lark, my prima donna plays her grand engagement here. . . . But every night, when the curtain falls, truth comes in with darkness. No light shows from the mountain. To and fro I walk the piazza deck, haunted by Marianna’s face, and many as real a story” (NN PTO 12).