Painting in ‘stone’ – sculptural relief appeared on many buildings in ancient Greek and Roman antiquity and was eventually transposed into jewelry (jewellery) to wear in the form of what we now know as a Cameo, where gems of all kinds, as well as glass is cut back to form a raised profile or portrait.
A cameo is without doubt one of the most intriguing technical developments of ancient times, both as a fanciful curiosity and as a miraculous union of art and nature.
The technique employed to create a cameo is both sophisticated and costly, because producing a cameo is labour intensive. Being able to carve back layers of marvelous materials such as rock crystal, sardonyx, agate and others such as lava and the more modest glass paste, to produce a pictorial sculptural relief takes a great deal of skill, time and patience to perfect and perform well. Subjects range from personal or political portraits to portrayals of deities and mythological episodes.
Unlike an intaglio, a gem cut in negative relief, the cameo could not be used as a seal – a cameo was meant to be purely decorative.
Cameos first emerged as miniature works of art during the Hellenistic period, which prevailed following the journeys and death of Alexander the Great in 323, BCE and evolution of the powerful precinct of ancient Rome by the 1st century. This is the time when ancient Greek cultural influence and power reached a zenith in Europe and Asia following on from the brilliance of the Greek classical era (5 – 4 BCE).
There is the remains of one stunning cameo, which was probably originally part of a bigger one scholars conclude, depicting the Roman Emperor Augustus wearing a sword-belt symbolizing his military authority. We know this because it is embellished with portrait of Minerva, who, like her Greek Counterpart Athena was Goddess of War. The jewelled headband was added later, thought to have been out of respect for his amazing accomplishments.
As an important aspect of the Alexander the Great exhibition on show at the Australian Museum in Sydney in 2013 the Gonzaga Cameo was shown off in a ‘magnifying glass’ case, attracting much attention with the awesome beauty of its form.
The Gonzaga Cameo, which is entirely breathtaking in reality, dates from some three centuries before the Christ event according to most scholars. Although Professsor J.J. Pollitt, Sterling Professor of Classical Archaeology and History of Art from Yale University has argued that it’s sharply defined quality of ‘neo classical’ workmanship might indicate a later date.
He embraces the concept that the ‘visual arts in Greece’ were primarily vehicles of creative expression. In all his publications he relates formal development to social and cultural history and refers frequently to the literature of the period where objects like the cameo were shaped by many influences, including those that are intellectual, philosophical, social, cultural and religious.
Reputedly made at Alexandria, an anonymous carver created what is an outstanding triple layered sardonyx jewel, popularly believed to portray the portraits of the royal couple Ptolemy II Philadelphus and Arsinoe II 285–246 BCE. If it is Ptolemy II he was the second King of Egypt’s Greek period and the first Hellenistic ruler to marry his sister. The attribution helps to keep ongoing the controversy that continues to surround and follow it wherever it goes.
Academics have argued about whom the pair of people depicted on the Gonzaga Cameo are for centuries. They admire it not only because of the beauty and the artistic qualities of the piece, but also because it represents a high point in craftsmanship of a very special kind, sculpture in miniature.
The depth of its layered beauty is quite astonishing and it would have taken a very long time to carve. It has also accordingly passed through the hands of many celebrated European rulers and famous collectors in history who have all contributed to conserving it so that we still have it today to study. The female figure appearing on the rear of the cameo is wearing a laurel wreath, as is the man in the foreground. This is an attribute of Alexander the Great.
The man is also bearded in the Greek fashion and he wears an amulet depicting a Gorgon head, used as a pendant by Greek Olympian deities Athena, the Goddess of War and Zeus, supreme of all Gods. Romans were generally clean-shaven; the Greeks however allowed a beard to grow once it had developed, so that beardlessness on any image usually signified that the person was not yet a fully-grown man.
Alexander would have been beardless when he entered public life at the age of 16 and perhaps even at the time of the assassination of his father in 336 BCE, which forced him to take control of the kingdom of Macedonia aged just 20 years. A snake crowns his laurel wreath, which suggests the uraeus, a symbol of rule in ancient Egypt over whom the Hellenistic Ptolemy dynasty reigned.
The qualities of the agate, in three layers were so superb that they enabled the engraver to create a unique example of spectacular ‘painting in stone’. Its wonderful characteristics of delicate colour transition and a striking contrast seem to be inherent within the material itself.
And, what a journey through history it has had. It is first mentioned in a 1542 inventory of the possessions of Isabella d’Este, wife of the Duke of Gonzaga, for whom it is named.
When he was young during the Renaissance in Europe a very young painter named Peter Paul Rubens, who was in the employ of the Duke of Mantua at the time, admired the Gonzaga Cameo as the ‘finest in existence.
It was preserved in Vienna until looted and carried off to Prague Castle from where it was again looted to grace the imperial treasure of Sweden. Queen Christina thought it might have been Alexander the Great and his mother Olympias.
It’s no surprise when we learn that Queen Christina was a great admirer of Alexander the Great, but sometimes all the wishing in the world will not make it so. It was sold off as part of her art collection following her death.
It became part of Pope Pius VI’s collection at the Vatican in 1794 and the French under Napoleon’s command looted it and took it home. The Empress Josephine, ex wife of Emperor Napoleon had it in her possession at her Chatéau Malmaison.
She presented it to visiting Russian Emperor Alexander 1 (1777-1825). Since then, perhaps weary of all its travels it has found a permanent home at St Petersburg where it continues to intrigue all that visit the Hermitage museum
The ancient cultural mosaic was shattered between the fourth and sixth centuries after the Christ event as the extensive borders of the Roman Empire collapsed. Today fragments of the ancient Greek, Etruscan and Roman cultural mosaic are spread throughout our world.
There have been many wonderful objects found in all sorts of places, especially the extraordinary tombs in which the aristocrats or elite of each society were buried. However all these treasures are but a small sample of what researchers and archaeologists have established as part of the immense resources of the ancient world.
The use of Cameos in pendants of as settings for rings gradually became more common, especially during the early imperial age at Rome, and wearing them as pendants too became widespread during the 1st century ACE.
The so-called Gemma Augustea depicts Tiberius’ victory over the Dalmatians.
It depicts Augustus posing and dressed as Jupiter, holding a sceptre and augur staff. On his right is Roma, patroness of the city of Rome.
Between the heads is Capricorn, the personal constellation of Augustus.
To the left of the throne are allegorical figures: Oecumene (the inhabited Earth), Oceanus (the rivers of the world), and Italia with a cornucopia (the horn of plenty) and two boys.
Next to Roma stands Augustus’s great nephew, Germanicus, as well as his stepson and successor to the throne, Tiberius, who is shown descending from a war chariot driven by Victoria.
The lower scene shows the erection of a victory monument. Surrounding it are Roman soldiers and the defeated barbarians.
The whole scene depicts the victory of the Romans over the Dalmatians. On 6 January 10 AD, Tiberius, the supreme military commander of the Roman troops, entered Rome.
As victor he stands before his Emperor.
The cameo was first documented in 1246 as part of an inventory of the Cloister Saint Sernin in Toulouse.
The largest ancient Roman cameo surviving is engraved in twenty-four layers and is known as the Grand Camée de France known first in the inventory of the treasure of the Sainte Chapelle at Paris before 1279.
It asserts the continuity and dynastic legitimacy of the Julio-Claudian dynasty of Augustus and its manufacture was integral to the propaganda campaign that promoted the imperial family in all their achievements with political iconography in particular.
After the fall of the Roman Empire this splendid cameo was preserved throughout the Middle Ages until 1791 in the Sainte-Chappelle at Paris because it was thought to have a Biblical significance, the images perhaps representing Joseph before Pharaoh, the real interpretation of the scene still open to question.
These large and specially commissioned cameos must have originated with the court at France but there is still no idea as to their intended use, or how they were presented. We can only admire them for themselves.
It was stolen during the French revolution and was later recovered in Amsterdam without its original gold frame and today it resides at Paris in the Bibliotheque Nationale.
In ancient Rome many wealthy citizens had collected carved gems and cameos, which were highly prized due to the skill required to create them and they were considered among the most popular luxury goods.
An extraordinary vase, that survives still, was an outstanding example of Roman cameo-cut dark blue glass, which has in sculptural relief white glass figures. It is thought to have been made between AD 5 and AD 25 BC and became one of the most celebrated antiquities in late eighteenth century Europe.
It first came to light when mentioned in a letter of 1601 from a French scholar Nicolas de Peiresc to painter Peter Paul Rubens who we know was very interested in cameos and their technique of manufacture.
It passed into the Italian Barberini family where it remained for some 200 years until Sir William Hamilton purchased it in 1778 through a Scottish art dealer. He sold it on by private sale to the English widow of the 2nd Duke of Portland in 1784 and she passed it on to her son the 3rd Duke in 1786. The 3rd Duke of Portland took it to the by now renowned potter Josiah Wedgwood (1730 – 1795) for him to copy it so that he could display the copy and secure the original against harm.
It took Josiah Wedgwood between three and four years to bring forth what artist Sir Joshua Reynolds observed as a ‘correct and faithful imitation’. Josiah exhibited the vase in his London showrooms to the nobility and gentry who applied for admission tickets. Wedgwood’s ‘first edition’ copies number 45 made during the potter’s lifetime.
The original was then placed into the British Museum where its owner hoped it would be safe. Alas, after having been shattered by a madman it was put back together with the aid of Wedgwood’s wonderful copy, although until this century there were many shards left over.
Taken apart for the third and final time in the 1980’s computers aided its complete restoration including all the remaining shards. The newly conserved Portland Vase was returned to display and, except for light cleaning, it should not require major conservation work for many years.
The cutting of semi precious stones in the tradition of cameos from antiquity was rare in the Middle Ages, and it is difficult today to ascertain where and when some surviving examples were made.
This French Cameo with the head of a woman saint wearing a wimple, the type of veil worn by nuns, is thought to be late 13th century. It is made from Chalcedony, a variety of quartz that many believe has special ‘healing properties’. It is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
As Europe emerged out of the Middle Ages and the rebirth of Humanism, or what we know as the Renaissance period in Italian history began, the people began to look back on their past achievements and men began searching through the ruins of antiquity in hopes of finding lost treasure.
As the cameo technique had also been an important aspect of their heritage, collecting them was revived by the heads of influential families such as the Medici family of Florence, who wished to once again not only honour their heritage but also to elevate their own status through national pride in the considerable achievements of their ancestors.
Cameos from antiquity began to be searched for, found and conserved in many private collections as well as artists
This stunning Lapis Lazuli Cameo was made between 1567 – 1569. It is a portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici (1519-1574), the Duke of Florence and Grand Duke of Tuscany and was made in his Grand-ducal workshops at Florence.
The Medici family, beginning in the middle of the 15th century, became outstanding collectors over the course of three centuries and the ‘Medici treasure’ contained some of the most extraordinary works of art that stayed in the family until its extinction, when the dynasty ended with the death of Anna Maria Luisa in 1743.
She left all of the family’s property to the state of Tuscany.
A late sixteenth-century cameo by Alessandro Masnago (active c1560 died in 1620) depicts a sleeping shepherdess in a moonlit landscape.
He was working with a three-inch-high piece of variegated agate and he created an atmospheric pastoral scene with a city in the background.
It is an extraordinary object, a work of art that does not cease to amaze all those who visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and spend time gazing on its great complexity.
The Lady in the Veil, now in the V & A Museum at London was made c1550 – 1580 of Sardonyx in either Italy or France.
This bust has been cut entirely from the dark upper layer of the layered agate, using the white lower layer as a contrasting backdrop.
Matt and polished areas suggest textures of flesh, fabric, hair and jewellery.
It is once thought to have been in the gem collection of Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel, who lost his head for betraying Elizabeth 1 and a portrait of her does survive in cameo format made c1757-80.
Jewels like this one were important diplomatic and courtly gifts to supporters at home and abroad. It was also a statement of both Elizabeth 1’s virtues and powers.
She is depicted wearing one in a portrait showing her holding a sieve, whose symbolism is attached to life of the Vestal Virgin Tuccia.
According to various ancient writers the ‘virgin was miraculously able to carry water from the river Tiber to the temple of the Vestal Virgins in a sieve to prove her chastity.
It appears as an attribute of Queen Elizabeth in a number of the painted portraits of her, which are collectively known as ‘Sieve’ Portraits.
They all date from 1579 onwards and according to William Camden, the contemporary historian of Elizabeth’s reign, were her favourite device. A device was a secret language in symbols the aristocracy invented among themselves to send messages to each other in secret.
Aristocratic men had them fashioned into brooches and attached them to their hats and those whom the message was for were the only ones to understand the reason.
The cameo alludes both to her virginity, through which she was able to offer herself wholly to the path of duty and empire, and to her powers of discernment of good from bad.
In the 17th century in England so much disappeared from view as the English struggled with the whole idea of royal succession, removing the head from King Charles 1 and embracing the commonwealth ideals of Oliver Cromwell.
However this temporary madness did not last and Charles II arrived back in town full of new ideas from the new experiences he had enjoyed on the continent of Europe while in exile.
There he had seen first hand how others lived and he had also embraced the ideas and art from many cultures.
When young men of the next generation after Charles started travelling into Europe on part of their grand tour, one of the objects they began to collect were cameos.
They were small, portable and it was easy to bring a few in your hand luggage and build up a miniature collection of these ‘portraits in stone’, that others admired when admitted into great country houses to be shown around by the housekeeper.
If you could not afford the real thing from antiquity casts made from glass paste were also on offer and often framed as miniature art works to put on display.
By the end of the eighteenth century the ‘real deal’ cameos were well and truly back in favour.
If they were ‘antiquities’, real cameos made in ancient times all the better, and at this time many of these that were discovered were mounted in the contemporary jewellery settings of their age. Many were mounted in rings for men to wear.
New ones carved in Italy for a burgeoning tourist trade also began to come on the market.
The French revolution and the coming to power of Napoleon Bonaparte in Europe dramatically changed, not only the political and social scene, but also the world of costume.
Napoleon recovered most of the French crown jewels that had been stolen during the rupture of the revolution and his Empress Josephine had some of them remade.
She wore them during an official visit to Belgium when he was first consul.
The fashion for cameos and intaglios began soon after Napoleon’s Italian campaign of 1796 when cameos were brought back to France from Italy.
Their beauty and perfection fascinated Napoleon who had some mounted for himself and gave many away as gifts.
Josephine also had cameos fashioned into jewelled settings and as she always took her jewellery with her wherever she travelled she helped disseminate what we call the Empire style abroad.
Napoleon also promoted the foundation of a school of gem engraving in Paris were fine workmanship was established, occasionally in precious stones like emerald, more often in hard and semi precious stones, such as agate, cornelian, jasper and, to satisfy the lower end of the market cameos began to be made also in more modestly priced shell.
The vogue for neoclassical architecture affected the designs of costume… the imitation of the antique in its spirit, principles and maxims, which Napoleon’s architects Percier and Fontaine declared belonged to all times.
Cameos became so popular they were set in all sorts of jewels such as tiaras, necklaces, bracelets and earrings, usually mounted in simple gold collets. The feminine ideal was to emulate the classical purity of Greek statues; dresses were of flimsy material, dampened to cling revealingly to the body.
Empress Josephine’s favourite diadem of the time was made of shell inlaid with cameos. It was carved from a single shell and given to her by Joachim Murat, Marshal of France and Grand Admiral or Admiral of France who was the 1st Prince Murat and Grand Duke of Berg from 1806 to 1808 and then King of Naples from 1808 to 1815. When Napoleon fell from power and was exiled anything and everyone associated with him and those of his court fell from favour, including ‘Empire style dresses’ and cameos, and they became unfashionable once more.
Their fashion revival would be part of the great La Belle Époque, the so-called beautiful era that embraced the former Baroque ‘grand manner’ and opulence as well as the symbols of former empirical wealth.
Again for many it was all about status.
A superb cameo, carved and mounted in England by two of nineteenth centuries great Italian craftsmen, Carlo Giuliano, who executed the gold mount with white enamel, and carver Benedetto Pistrucci, depicts the grim, mesmerizing visage of the ‘guardian or protectress’ from Greek mythology Medusa.
She was a Gorgon, generally described as having the face of a not very attractive female, although that could have also been because her hair was made of snakes. She was the Gorgon decapitated by the Greek hero Perseus, who then used her head as a weapon until he gave it to the goddess of war Athena who placed it on her shield.
Medusa was a favorite motif in classical antiquity that was frequently invoked in later periods. Pistrucci also cut dies for the coinage of the Royal Mint in London. However he had a falling out with them and the Roman-born artist returned with undiminished success to his original occupation, cameo carving.
A London dentist Samuel Cartwright, whose calling is reflected in Carlo Giuliano’s frame incorporating the wings and snakes of Mercury’s caduceus the emblem of the medical profession, commissioned Pistrucci to carve this piece.
Let’s hope he didn’t see whoever he had it made for as a modern day Gorgon!
Cameos sporting subjects from mythology and the heroes of ancient times, such as this wonderful cameo, will always remain popular.
Combined with pearls and diamonds and fashioned with an eye to form it is an object of great beauty and very appealing with its mythological subject of lovers, exemplars of truth and faithfulness. It was made during a period when there was a mounting interest in archaeology, the Hellenistic age and the soul being pursued by desire. The lady is a virtuous woman, symbolised by surrounding her with pearls, a sign of purity. More than one Cupid is also present, endeavouring to use the power of love to disarm her strength and to transform her soul. Its a great piece of love jewelry.
The industrial revolution of the nineteenth century would have a considerable impact on mid to late century cameo production. With the advent of commerce and the increasing realization that time = money, to cater for the ever burgeoning middle class market, merchants had carvers work their magic in much shallower relief than say a century before. Demand and the commercial market dictated the terms.
It is one aspect of determining an 18th century cameo made for the upper class market, from those produced for the mass market, although there are always exceptions to any rule.
When determining if you own an ‘antique’ cameo, or a cameo from antiquity, you need to seek advice from an antique jewellery dealer who belongs to a reputable and well recognized association of antique dealers, or from a curator in a museum.
During the troubled 20th century cameos traveled far and wide, into museums and also on the road with those escaping the war torn countries of Europe. They were portable wealth that could be sold when their owners reached freedom in America, Australia and Canada and were sewn into seams and hems to help them survive.
In the 21st century through knowledge we are now free to admire a Cameo for what it is and originally was meant to be a superb work of art in miniature.
We also understand now that they require a great deal of skill and craftsmanship to produce by hand from quality material, for it is the hand worked cameos that will always be admired as an integral aspect of human creativity.
It’s really nothing to do with ‘Empire’, where those wanting to keep them to themselves as an aspect of status, hijacked them throughout history.
They are an object that everyone can admire and enjoy to look at because they now know that what a Cameo was first and foremost, about the beauty of imagination in our world. They also represent our cultural and social development; recording our adventures in art, beauty, design and style.
Fashion after all is ‘more than a frock’ and all about wearing what suits you and wearing it well. I love my cameo made from sardonyx, surrounded by a simple gold frame. I wear it whenever I can.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012 – 2015