The Hellenistic Greeks were the first to excel at carving small hardstones with figures in relief, often in the images of deities or other talismanic signifiers. The practice seems to have been rooted in the ancient Mesopotamian stones that were carved for use as identifying seals. Until roughly the fifth century B.C., gems were carved only in sunken relief, or intaglios (from the Italian verb intagliare, to carve into or to engrave). The motifs on intaglios are not always immediately discernible because their forms recede from the eye, but when impressions are taken from them, they become sharper and more legible. Inscriptions and signatures on intaglios are, therefore, carved in mirror image. About the fifth century B.C., the Greeks introduced stones engraved in projected relief—the antecedents of cameos. Whereas the relief in intaglios is cut into the stone by the drill, in the cameo process the drill cuts away the stone to raise the composition in relief.
Ancient cameos are often hard to date accurately owing to the reuse of many compositions, particularly Hellenistic ones. They manifest such consistency and conviction in the shaping of their stately rhythms that all later classical revivals would try, with varying success, to emulate their authoritative designs. And because they mine much the same repertory of images as scenes in other media, it is sometimes possible to reconstruct the compositions of cameos based on fragments.
Ancient methods of hardstone engraving were based on principles still in play today. The pieces were worked by manipulating various drills (in antiquity made of relatively soft metal, eventually replaced by iron) against them. The actual cutting was accomplished not with the point of the drill itself but by using the drill to rub powders into the stone. At all times the stones must have been gripped fixedly to prevent their shattering. When magnifying glasses were introduced into the art is unclear; today they would be virtually indispensable. In the nineteenth century, new methods, including the intervention of photography, allowed greater verisimilitude and accuracy of line.
The glyptic arts have known various ups and downs, reaching a veritable apex during the mid-nineteenth century. Neoclassicism, whose elegant simplifications were perfectly expressed in cameos, reigned supreme during this period. The heart of the Museum’s collection consists of Neoclassical pieces that bear witness to the heroic, concentrated revival of ancient art that took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The nineteenth-century French school briefly rivaled the Neoclassical creative center of Rome in the quality of its output, greatly motivated by official encouragement. From the Second Empire to the end of the nineteenth century, cameos increasingly rich in painterly atmospheric effect competed with works of greater size for attention at the Salon in Paris.
But this rebirth was followed by a crash. By the 1860s, Neoclassicism was waning. A diminution of artists’ creative impulse and technical prowess, as well as counterfeiting and repetition of ancient designs, contributed to the decline in interest. The art was sporadically revived, but without ever recapturing the authority or the mystique of Neoclassical creations.
“To engrave is . . to decorate a surface with furrows,” Victorian critic John Ruskin states, and “cameos . . are miniature sculptures, not engravings.” The three-dimensionality of cameos, which are usually quite tiny, is attained through intensely concentrated work at close range. Cameos were, and still are, especially prized when the artist manipulated the strata of the stone in relation to the design, exploring the stone’s depths to enhance its visual impact. This was often achieved by playing a pale layer against a dark ground, achieving a strong contrast. Gradually, depending on the complexity of the stone itself, more bands of color were engaged in the design, sometimes even prompting the inclusion of hints of landscape.
Cameo makers have historically used a wide range of stones. Softer stones such as chalcedony and harder ones such as jasper can all be carved in relief, but inevitably evoke less fascination than cameos carved from polychromatic hardstones. In the best hands, these hardstones seem almost to combine the effects of painting and sculpture and have always been coveted both as fanciful curiosities and as miraculous unions of art and nature. Shell, an alternative material, is easier to carve, with only two strata to explore; it has not enjoyed the same prestige as hardstone.
Cameos have long been used to complement jewelry. Typically mounted in gold and often set in rings, these private adornments attained cultic significance in classical antiquity. Roman wearers used cameos both to advertise their taste and wealth and to profess their devotion to gods or political forces. Ancient cameos themselves have held up better than their settings, which have frequently been melted down. While the amuletic potency of the stones themselves waned in later years, the settings crafted for later cameos have fared better than their classical counterparts.
As might be expected during an age of intense spirituality, most medieval cameos have religious subjects. The greatest repositories of medieval carvings were the treasuries of churches and monasteries, where they adorned venerated liturgical and devotional objects. Medieval religious institutions also housed extensive amounts of classical cameos. Magnificent engraved stones were preserved in precious reliquaries, often alongside more mediocre ones. It was the Quattrocento’s collectors who began distinguishing among these ancient cameos, isolating the most artistically and iconographically valuable specimens. Pope Paul II‘s prestigious holdings were acquired by the Medici after his death in 1471. By inscribing his gems with the abbreviated Latin form of his name, Lorenzo de’ Medici hoped to involve himself indelibly and intimately in their history and glamour. When he died in 1492, the inventory of his collections in the Palazzo Medici valued his greatest cameos at several times over his best Botticelli paintings.
By the late fifteenth century, copies of the most admired cameos were reappearing everywhere, whether carved in enlarged versions on portals or painted in the borders of illuminated manuscripts. Before the printing press, images on hardstones circulated in three-dimensional copies. Bronze plaquettes cast from carved gems motivated the designs of many a Renaissance artist. And in their own right they comprised a new, affordable species for collectors.
Contemporary creation of cameos was still flourishing in this period. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, gem carvers followed the lead of painters and sculptors in devoting themselves to the reintegration of classical subject matter and form. As they viewed the natural world around them with ever greater curiosity, they selected a colorful variety of hardstones that allowed them to give new expression to old genres. Later, Baroque cameos favored large, vigorously muscular forms and splashy effects, often for religious subjects. But this period also consolidated the learned taste for certain classical cameo types, notably busts of the Caesars, that would extend into the nineteenth century.
Despite these periodic bursts of achievement by contemporary master carvers, sixteenth-century collectors continued to favor ancient cameos; this trend continued far into the nineteenth century. The seventeenth century witnessed the consolidation of the collections of the French and Austrian crowns, while many of the upper-class British collectors of the eighteenth century were introduced to their treasures in Rome on the Grand Tour. Scholars codified the study of gems with increasing science and sensitivity. In 1724, Baron Philipp von Stosch published all the gems with Greek signatures known to him, and his own remarkable collection was published in 1760. This increase in scholarship, however, had an undesirable side effect: the eighteenth century spawned widespread glyptic fakery that continued far into the nineteenth.
Cameos gained steadily in popularity over the eighteenth century, evidenced by their occurrence as motifs on objects of all sorts. The Staffordshire firm of Josiah Wedgwood sold innumerable copies and imitations. One of his more successful items was of the “Marlborough Cameo,” a sardonyx cameo from the first century B.C. depicting the marriage of Cupid and Psyche that was owned by Peter Paul Rubens before it entered the collection of Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel, sometime before 1727. In 1899, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, bought the cameo from the auction of the fabled collection of gems that had been formed in the eighteenth century by George Spencer, fourth duke of Marlborough. The Marlborough sale was a central event for American museums, which were just beginning to compete in the international art market. Some of the Metropolitan Museum’s finest cameos derive from the Marlborough hoard.
While New York merchant Milton Weil was far less rich than J. Pierpont Morgan, the Museum’s greatest benefactor, Weil had the good sense to specialize. It was he who founded the twentieth century’s most important collection of cameos. Weil’s treasures became the foundation of the Museum’s holdings. At Weil’s death in 1934, his obituary in the Herald Tribune announced: “Milton Weil, 59, Cameo Expert, Financer, Dies.” The subheads “Had Stock Exchange Seat” and “Sold it within Two Years at Profit of $125,000” were followed by a quote from Weil: “‘And that,’ he told his friends after retiring to pursue his hobby, ‘is a lot of cameos.'”