Inspired by the recent acquisition of a magnificent jasper carving of the head of Medusa by Benedetto Pistrucci, the exhibition traces cameo carving from Greco-Roman antiquity to the nineteenth century, highlighting the Metropolitan's splendid holdings of Neoclassical Italian cameos by the great gem carvers Pistrucci, Girometti, and Saulini. It also considers related subjects such as cameo glass, illuminates the differences between cameos and intaglios, and discusses fakery.
Cameos are carved in relief on stones such as onyx, sardonyx, or agate, and arranged in variegated light- and dark-colored strata, or layers. In general, hardstone cameos are more prized than those carved in seashells, which are softer and easier to make. Carvers often manipulated the strata so that figures of two or more colors would emerge. One atmospheric example in the exhibition is a late sixteenth-century cameo by Alessandro Masnago. Working with a three-inch-high piece of variegated agate, the artist created a pastoral scene of a shepherdess and her flock resting in a moonlit landscape with a city in the background.