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Salandri’s Persian Queen and Minerva from Melville’s copy of The Handbook of Engraved Gems.


MBB 1.1. E. Salandri, Persian Queen (no. 11) and Minerva (no. 12). Copper-plate engraving in Charles William King, The Handbook of Engraved Gems (London: Bell and Daldy, 1866), facing p. 357. New York Public Library—Gansevoort-Lansing Collection (Sealts no. 308).

Like Melville’s 1816 London print featuring Persian and Greek Medals (CAT 1), the 1866 edition of C. W. King’s Handbook of Engraved Gems (that he gave to his wife Elizabeth as a Christmas present in 1874) is full of cross-cultural comparisons from the ancient world. King’s comprehensive compendium of “Glyphic Art” includes “antique gems” from all the periods represented by the Greek and Persian medals in Melville’s print collection. As seen by the sub-heading on page 357 below, Salandri’s copper-plate engravings in King’s book feature “Portraits, Mythological and Historical, and Other Subjects, illustrating every Period of the Art” (fig. 1). 

Among the twelve engraved images facing page 357 in the image below, those of the Persian Queen (no. 11) and Minerva (no. 12) are of particular interest in relation to the Persian and Greek Medals in CAT 1. King describes the “Persian Queen” in no. 11 as “the most carefully finished work of the Sassanian school that has ever come under my notice. The legend commences with ‘Metoudochti’— 'Queen Metou.’ The ear pendant, of three enormous pearls, is very conspicuous.” Facing her from a much later period in history is the Greco/Roman “Minerva: her helmet and cuirass entirely formed out of masks, comic and satiric; all of them full of expression and minutely finished. The whole character of the composition is that of the Renaissance, to some eminent hand of which school it must be assigned” (King 358).


Fig. 1. Page 357 and copper engravings on facing page, Handbook of Engraved Gems, 1866.

Another of the cross-cultural juxtapositions in this section of King’s book likely to have caught Melville’s attention is the one featuring the Head of Marcus Aurelius, Melville’s favorite Roman emperor, and Hermes, his namesake Greek god (nos. 38 and 39, fig. 2). Aurelius is himself “wearing the modius of Serapis, the horn of Ammon, and the rays Phoebus, and thus combining in his own person the powers of these three beneficent deities: each of whom . . . stands for the Sun at a different season of the year” (366). This attention to solar effects has a pictorial counterpart in Melville’s copy of Piranesi’s Arch of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, an intaglio print in which the sharp shadow of the afternoon sun is one of the most prominent features (see CAT 79). A similar emphasis on solar effects pervades Melville’s poem “The Age of the Antonines,” which presents the age of the Roman Empire under emperors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius as the “summit of fate,” the “zenith of time,” and the “Solstice of Man” (NN PP 286-87).

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Fig. 2. Copper engraving of Head of Marcus Aurelius (no. 38) and Hermes clad in Asiatic costume (no. 39), Handbook of Engraved Gems, p. 366.

The above image of Hermes from King’s book differs greatly from the traditional way in which the Hermes/Mercury figure was depicted by ancient Greeks and Romans as the swift messenger of the gods. King notes that this Hermes is “clad in Asiatic costume.” In his right hand is “a lotus-flower, an attribute commonly carried by the later Persian queens. . . . The little wings attached to his buskins admit no doubt as to the divinity here represented: though the intaglio being executed under Persian influence and by some Assyrian engraver, the costume of the god is purely Oriental not Hellenic.” This small gem was presumably “the signet of some tributary prince of Asia Minor.” As was fitting for a monarch, it was “engraved . . . in the finest sapphirine calcedony.” The gem representing Aurelius was itself carved in “intaglio of the best Roman manner, in a fine sapphirine calcedony: or jaspis aërizusa” (366). King indicates that most of the copper engravings reproduced in his book are twice the size of the original object.

King’s reproduction of Silandro’s small engraving of an even smaller gem depicting Hermes clad in Asian costume presumably would have given Melville a pleasure similar in kind, if not in scale, to the discovery of a second-century, life-size sculpture of Hermes at Olympia in Greece in 1877 that he celebrated in his poem “Disinterment of the Hermes” in 1891. The first stanza of the poem applies as well to the obscure Asian intaglio gem as to the revered Greek marble sculpture: “What forms divine in adamant fair-- / Carven demigod and god / And hero-marbles rivalling these, / Bide under Latium’s sod” (NN PP 312, 853).

  • Works Cited:
  • King, Charles William. The Handbook of Engraved Gems. London: Bell and Daldy, 1866 (Sealts no. 308).
(MBB 1.1) Salandri’s Persian Queen and Minerva from Melville’s copy of The Handbook of Engraved Gems.