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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Antique Engraved Gems and Renaissance Collectors

Fine gemstones have been perceived as objects of value and appreciated for their beauty and rarity since antiquity. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus narrates that when Amasis, king of Egypt, asked Polykrates of Samos (535–522 B.C.) to single out his most treasured possession, he chose an emerald, a carved signet set into a gold ring, the work of the artist Theodoros, son of Telekles of Samos.

Numerous ancient authors wrote about precious and semi-precious stones and their natural, supernatural, and even magical qualities. Antique sources reveal many details of the function and place of gems and engraved ring stones in the life of ancient societies.

Carved gemstones, minutely engraved with official or personal insignia, were used in antiquity as signets and seals. Impressed in clay or wax, they were employed to establish ownership, to ensure authenticity on legal documents, or to safeguard the privacy of rooms, cupboards, and letters. And while carved gems frequently functioned as signatures and means of identification for their owners (81.6.28), they were also treasured as magical amulets and used as personal ornaments.

Inventories of the treasuries of famous temples of ancient Greece reveal that carved gems, together with various sorts of jewelry, were presented as votive offerings to the gods. This practice indicates their significance and value in Greek society. Engraved gems were also sought after by wealthy collectors who appreciated not only the beauty of the stones themselves, but also the craftsmanship and skill of the artists who cut images on them (81.6.9). The Hellenistic king of Pontus, Mithridates the Great (134–63 B.C.), was fascinated by gemology and assembled a renowned collection of gems, the first recorded in the history of gem collecting. Upon Mithridates’ defeat by the Romans, his rich dactyliotheca (cabinet of gems) was transferred to Rome and Pompey presented it as an offering to the Capitoline Temple. According to Pliny the Elder, the arrival of these treasures from the East prompted the passion for the luxury art of gem cutting in Rome (81.6.100). The fashion of collecting carved gemstones spread rapidly among wealthy Roman patrons. Julius Caesar (100–44 B.C.), himself a discriminating collector, was said to have deposited six cabinets of gems in the temple of Venus Genetrix.

Greek and Roman artists mastered the art of gem engraving and also cameo carving to extraordinary levels. Throughout the Middle Ages, in the Byzantine East and in the Latin West, numerous exquisitely cut ancient gemstones survived the ravages of time. The gems were preserved in royal collections or ecclesiastical treasuries. Despite their profane and pagan iconography, many were set as decorative elements into religious and devotional objects, such as shrines, reliquaries, and book covers of precious metals.

By the beginning of the fifteenth century, when a new interest in the classical past and its relics arose among Italian humanists and collectors, Greek and Roman engraved gems and coins became part of every antiquarian collection. Almost daily, specimens of antique cameos, carnelians, sardonyx, and other varieties of hardstone intaglios were recovered from the ruins of ancient Rome, while other pieces reached the hands of Western collectors from the classical sites of the eastern Mediterranean.

The Venetian Cardinal Pietro Barbo (1417–1471), who became Pope Paul II in 1464, amassed in his Roman palace an impressive array of precious objects, consisting of gems, cameos, coins, icons, tapestries, and bronze statuettes. His vast collection of antiquities, gathered avidly over the years with great expenditure, was among the largest in all of Europe at the time. A manuscript inventory begun in 1457 accurately describes Barbo’s possessions, including—between cameos and engraved gems—more than 800 antique stones. The inventory classifies the cardinal’s holdings into distinct groups: cameos, gems carved with portraits of emperors and other illustrious men, intaglios with heads of empresses and other famous women, and gems engraved with full-length figures. Many of Barbo’s gems and cameos were displayed on precious silver tablets gilded and decorated with the cardinal’s coat of arms. At Barbo’s death, his collection was dispersed and the gems acquired by other collectors, among which were the Medici of Florence, the Gonzagas of Mantua, and the Grimani of Venice.

The Italian merchant and antiquarian Cyriacus of Ancona (1391–1454/55) was also among the earliest Renaissance collectors and connoisseurs of antique carved gems. In a letter of 1445, Cyriacus described in great detail to a friend a rock crystal intaglio signed by the first-century B.C. artist Eutyches, the son of Dioskourides. Cyriacus’ letter reveals not only his attentive study and observation of the ancient crystal, but also his admiration for the technical virtuosity of the ancient master: “When you hold up the thick part of the gem right toward the light, where the breathing limbs are seen to shine out in wondrous beauty with complete solidity, and with luminous crystal shadows in the hollows, we learn who the maker is of such a splendid thing by the Greek letters—very ancient ones, too—carved above.”

Ancient intaglios were collected and cherished throughout the Renaissance in Italy and in the rest of Europe. The provenance of a small group of engraved gems in the Museum’s collection can be traced back to the cabinet assembled by a late sixteenth-century collector from Nuremberg, Paul von Praun (1548–1616). Praun belonged to an important mercantile family and resided for much of his life in Bologna, where he presumably acquired the largest portion of his vast art collection. Praun owned more than 1,000 intaglios and cameos, including works by ancient (81.6.31; 81.6.102) and contemporary artists.

The interest taken by Renaissance patrons in collecting ancient gems stimulated the revival of the art of gem cutting among contemporary artists. According to the Florentine writer and painter Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), very few modern masters were able to surpass the delicacy of carving and design of their Greek and Roman predecessors. Yet sixteenth-century gem engravers such as Valerio Belli (1468–1546), Giovanni Bernardi da Castelbolognese (1496–1553), and Matteo del Nassaro (ca. 1490–1547) attained high reputation and their works were worth considerable sums of money.

During the sixteenth century, ancient gems and cameos circulated widely among collectors, directly or by means of impressions and metal casts. Learned connoisseurs exchanged ideas and opinions on the authenticity of the gems, their value, and the meaning of their often obscure iconographies. Soon after 1551, the artists Battista Franco (ca. 1510–1561) and Enea Vico (1523–1567) undertook the preparation of two series of engravings illustrating a selection of carved gems and cameos from the cabinet of the Patriarch of Aquileia, Giovanni Grimani (1501–1593). The Patriarch’s rich collection, housed in the family palace at Santa Maria Formosa in Venice, had been previously owned by his uncle and brother, the cardinals Domenico and Marino Grimani. The engravings representing the Grimani gems are one of the earliest attempts to illustrate in print the content of a glyptic collection (41.72(2.169)) and anticipate the proliferation of sumptuous illustrated catalogues of gem collections published in the following centuries.

The passion for collecting antique intaglios continued long after the Renaissance period and, in fact, a newly revived enthusiasm for engraved gems and the art of stone cutting would emerge in the eighteenth century.