Cameos from Ancient Greece and Rome: Small but precious treasures

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Dr Robert Sturm (Austria)

When talking about precious or semi-precious gemstones, most people think of the diamonds they cannot afford or rubies, agates and similar well-known minerals. But, only a few people know that gemstones have been subjected to various carving techniques since ancient times, making from them small but marvellous works of art. Basically, the most commonly applied technique of gem carving is the so-called cameo, which, in most cases, features a raised relief and, therefore, differs from the so-called intaglio that has an engraved or negative image.

Ancient cameos date back as far as the third century BC and were first produced in Greece, where they mainly served as jewellery for the Hellenistic kings and their retinues. In ancient Rome, cameos and similar works of art were highly popular, especially in the family circle of the Emperor Augustus (27 BC to 14 AD), who developed a great affection for this kind of art. Roman cameos generally continued Hellenistic styles and were marked by only very few innovations. The extremely high quality of gem carving (which will be discussed more in detail below) was maintained until the end of the second century AD, but, with the beginning of the third century AD, it was subject to a sharp decline that can also be seen in other fields of art.

During the European Middle Ages, cameos were highly appreciated by the aristocracy, but, nevertheless, the production practices developed in the ancient world found their application only in very rare cases, which nearly caused the extinction of this wonderful mineral working technique. However, a revival of the cameo took place from the early Renaissance and again in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In this context the Neoclassical Period in France, combined with Napoleon’s support of the glyptic (carved stone) arts has to be mentioned.

Modern cameos are not exclusively made by hand, but are also carved with the aid of an ultrasonic mill, underlining the industrial aspect of engraved gem production. However, machine-made cameos are characterised by very specific textures and the lack of any undercutting.

Techniques used to produce cameos

The cutting of mostly semi-precious gems was achieved using abrasive powders (made from harder stones) in conjunction with a hand-drill. It is assumed that the hand-drill was set in a lathe to achieve the highest possible working precision. Gem cutters of ancient Greece commonly used emery mined on the island of Naxos as abrasive powder.

Most works were probably carved without any magnification devices, such as magnifying lenses, which shows just how skilful those early craftsmen were. Byzantine gem cutters used a drill fastened onto a flat-edged wheel for their intaglio work. On the other hand, gem cutters of the Carolingian period developed round-tipped drills, with the help of which the production of very fine reliefs was achieved. Besides the cutting technique itself, the craftsmen also wanted to enhance the colour of the gemstones. This was achieved by several artificial methods, among which the application of heat, sugar and dyes were the most common.

Gemstones used for cameos

In ancient times, cameos were already being produced from various semi-precious gemstones, among which agate, onyx and sardonyx (all of them specific variations of the mineral quartz) found the widest distribution.

During the Roman period the cameo technique was additionally applied to artificial glass blanks. This artificial material was used to imitate objects being engraved in agate or sardonyx. This development clearly shows that cameos were not restricted to the highest classes of the Roman society, but were also increasingly desired by patrician families. The production of glass cameos was carried out between 25 BC and 50/60 AD, representing the period from Augustus to Claudius and, in the later empire, from the middle of the third century AD to the middle of the fourth century AD. Unfortunately, glass breaks very easily, so only about 200 fragments and 16 complete pieces have been found. During the early Roman Empire, glass cameos were composed of a blue glass base and a white overlying layer, while cameos produced in the later period had a colourless background, which was covered with a translucent coloured layer.

Besides semi-precious gemstones and glass, shell also found an occasional application for cameo carving in Roman times. However, the earliest common use of this marvellous material was during the Renaissance. Such cameos are typically white on a greyish background. The raw materials – mussel or cowry shells – were collected in tropical regions. Since the middle of the eighteenth century, other shell varieties were also used for glyptic arts, in particular, helmet shells (Cassis tuberosa) from the West Indies and queen conch shells (Eustrombus gigas) from the Bahamas and the West Indies. The discovery of these new raw materials allowed the production of shell cameos to be carried out on an industrial scale, thereby fulfilling the increasing demands of the growing middle classes after 1850.

Fig. 1. Selected cameos from the Greek period and early Roman Empire, exhibited at the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna.

Important examples of ancient cameos

The Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna contains the greatest collection of ancient cameos produced from different materials, and I want to refer to some extraordinary examples exhibited there. Within the group of cameos dating back to the Greek period and the early Roman empire of Augustus and Tiberius (14 AD to 37 AD), three marvellous pieces should be mentioned here (Fig. 1). The first one is the so-called Ptolemy Cameo, which was produced sometime between 278 BC and 270/269 BC. It consists of 11 layers of onyx and shows the Egyptian king, Ptolemaeus II Philadelphus in the foreground wearing an attic helmet, into which a bundle of lightning (the attribute of Zeus), a snake (representing the Uraeus snake found on the helmets of the Egyptian pharaohs), and the head of the Egyptian god Ammon are engraved. The sister and wife of Ptolemaeus (Arsinoe II) are seen in the background, wearing a crown covered by a veil. It is assumed that the cameo was an official wedding gift.

The Eagle Cameo, produced in the year 27 BC, consists of a two-layered onyx and shows an eagle (the symbol of Roman imperial might) standing on a palm branch with outspread wings. Its left fang clasps an oak garland. The subject relates to the honours Octavianus received on 16 January 27 BC for the rescue of the Romans from the chaos of the civil war. This was accompanied by the grant of the title ‘Augustus’ and the attachment of an oak garland – the corona civica – above the door of his house.

The third notable cameo is the so-called Glass Cameo of Herophilus. It was produced in 20 AD and exhibits a portrait of Augustus, and either his son, Drusus maior, or his other son, Germanicus. The cameo is not an engraved gemstone, but an ancient copy after the original of Herophilus, which imitates turquoise with its blue, slightly greenish colour.

Another group of cameos (Fig. 2) dates from the early Roman Empire of Caligula (37 AD to 41 AD) and Claudius (41 AD to 54 AD). The first one shows Emperor Caligula and beside him the goddess Roma. It is cut into a two-layered sardonyx and was produced between 37 AD and 41 AD.

The emperor wears a laurel-wreath and a pallium covering his lower part of the body and his left shoulder. His left hand loosely clasps a sceptre, while his upraised right hand holds a double cornucopia. The goddess Roma is clad in a chiton and a pallium, while a helmet with a triple plume covers her head. With her right hand, she clasps a shield and her left forefinger points to the sky, while she engages the emperor in conversation.

Fig. 2. More cameos from the early Roman Empire, exhibited in the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna.

Another cameo shows Emperor Claudius in front view. It is cut into a bright grey-coloured chalcedon and can be dated to the period between 41 AD and 54 AD. The emperor is clad in a tunica (Roman underwear) and a toga. A laurel-wreath and sceptre are displayed as the symbols of his honour. His face reflects his typical characteristics – lack of authority, unsteadiness and grotesque behaviour.

Another highlight of the glyptic arts is the so-called Gemma Claudia from the year 49 AD. It is cut into a five-layered onyx and shows two imperial pairs above two symmetrically opening horns of plenty. On the left side is the Emperor Claudius and his fourth wife Agrippina, the Younger, and on the right side are the parents of the bride, Germanicus, brother of the emperor, and his wife Agrippina, the Older. It is commonly supposed that the cameo is a wedding-gift for Claudius and Agrippina, the Younger, who is shown as Cybele, the goddess of fruitfulness.

Leaving the best for last, I want to introduce two more cameos of extraordinary beauty. The first one is undoubtedly the most impressive cameo exhibited in the Kunsthistorische Museum and is called the Gemma Augustea (Fig. 3).

It is cut into a two-layered Arabian sardonyx and can be linked with the legendary Roman gem cutter, Dioskurides. It dates back to the period between 9 AD and 12 AD, the final imperial period of Augustus. The upper row shows Augustus himself on the throne, who is clad and posing like Jupiter. To his right is Roma, the guardian goddess of the town. Between the heads of both is Capricorn, the constellation of Augustus, and beside his feet is an eagle.

On the right side is a group of allegoric figures: Oikumene, the occupied earth, Okeanus, the personification of the sea, and Italia, with the horn of plenty and two boys. Beside Roma is Germanicus, the grandnephew of Augustus, followed by Tiberius, Augustus’ stepson, in a chariot driven by the goddess Victoria. In the lower row, gods (or possibly plebeians) erect a tropaeum, a monument of victory, to which captured barbarians are lead. The cameo has to be understood as a symbol for the glorification of a victory achieved by Augustus and Tiberius, which resulted in the pacification of the whole ancient world.

Fig. 3. The Gemma Augustea (9 AD to 12 AD), besides the Great Cameo of France (23 AD) – one of the most impressively engraved cameos ever made.

The last example is the so-called Lion Cameo, originating from the middle of the first century AD (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. The Lion Cameo from the middle of the first century AD.

It was cut into a three-layered sardonyx and shows a lion lying at the entrance of his cave and clasping some game with its paw. Above the entrance sits a raven. Lions and ravens had religious significance and may be linked with the ancient cult of Mithras, so the cameo probably originally had a religious function. The frame of the cameo is from the year 1651 and includes symbols of the Habsburgian emperors.

Ancient cameos, and especially those produced in semi-precious gemstones such as agate, onyx or sardonyx, have not lost their fascination. Furthermore, they are good evidence for the immense skills the gem cutters had to develop in ancient times, a skill that has never been exceeded in later times.

Further reading

Boardman, John (1968). Archaic Greek Gems, London, GB.

Brown, Clifford M. (ed) (1997). Engraved Gems : Survivals and Revivals, Washington, USA.

Draper, James (2009). Cameo Appearances, New York, USA.

Jarrett, Diana (2009). Cameos Old and New, 4th Edition, Woodstock, USA.

Scarisbrick, Dianna (2003). Classical Gems: Ancient and Modern Intaglios and Cameos in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, GB.

Walters, H.B (1926). Catalogue of the Engraved Gems and Cameos, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman in the British Museum, London GB.

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