Gemmae Antiquae, Part I

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on September 1, 2009

From the Getty Villas’s website:

Carvers and Collectors: The Lasting Allure of Ancient Gems

Getty Villa, Los Angeles, 19 March – 7 September 2009


Jeffrey Spier, Ancient Gems and Finger Rings: Catalogue of the Collections (Getty Museum, 1993), ISBN 978-0-89236-215-8 ($70)


Gems from the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum (For individual identifications, click on the image)

The beauty of carved gemstones has captivated collectors, connoisseurs, and craftsmen since antiquity. Precious markers of culture and status, gems were sought by Greek and Roman elites as well as modern monarchs and aristocrats. This exhibition features intaglios and cameos carved by ancient master engravers along with outstanding works by modern carvers and works of art in diverse media that illustrate the lasting allure of gems. . . .

In antiquity, gems were engraved with personal or official insignia that, when impressed on wax or clay, were used to sign or seal documents. Carved gems were valued not only for their distinctive designs, but also for the beauty of their stones, some of which were believed to have magical properties. From the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, rulers, nobles, and wealthy merchants sought and traded classical gems, and carvers produced replicas and forgeries.

Augustin de Saint-Aubin after Charles-Nicolas Cochin II French Engraving in François Arnaud, Description des principales pierres gravées du cabinet de S.A.S. Monseigneur le duc d'Orléans... (Description of the Principal Engraved Gems in the Cabinet of His Serene Highness, the Duke of Orleans...) (Paris, 1870) Research Library, The Getty Research Institute 85-B16748

Augustin de Saint-Aubin after Charles-Nicolas Cochin II, engraving in François Arnaud, Description des principales pierres gravées du cabinet de S.A.S. Monseigneur le duc d'Orléans. . . (Paris, 1870) The Getty Research Institute 85-B16748

Sumptuous engraved catalogues of gem collections were published in the days before photography. Like the gems they illustrated, these volumes functioned as luxury objects. The engravings in these books sometimes improve upon the already excellent carving of the gems themselves. Louis Philippe d’Orléans (1725–1785), the great-grandson of King Louis XIV of France, published his gem collection in an elaborately engraved volume dedicated to his cousin King Louis XVI. The frontispiece, shown here, depicts the duke himself and also represents the superiority of gems over other art forms: in the foreground, two cupids inspect the contents of drawers pulled from a large gem cabinet, while symbols of architecture, sculpture, and painting are relegated to the upper right and lower left corners. . . .

Since the Renaissance, gem carvers have attempted to equal and surpass their ancient counterparts. Because of the high demand for classical gems, some carvers, dealers, and collectors sought to pass off modern works as ancient. Some even forged the signatures of famous Greek and Roman carvers. No scientific method exists for proving the antiquity of gems, and quality is no proof of authenticity. Thus it is usually some deviation in style or imagery that reveals a piece to be modern. . . .

Engraved Gem, signed by Giovanni Pichler; or Luigi Pichler, ca. 1750-1850

Engraved Gem, signed by Giovanni Pichler or Luigi Pichler, ca. 1750-1850

Austrian carver Antonio (Johann Anton) Pichler worked in Rome in the 1700s copying ancient gems. His son Giovanni also became an accomplished gem carver, as did Giovanni’s half-brothers Giuseppe and Luigi and Giovanni’s son Giacomo. Luigi was the most renowned: he received commissions from the Vatican and the French and Austrian courts to carve both classical and contemporary subjects. This intaglio is modeled after a famous relief of Antinous (the beloved of the Roman emperor Hadrian) housed in the Villa Albani, Rome. The fact that the gem is signed “Pichler” in Greek indicates no intention to deceive but rather an emulative spirit, the artist vying with his ancient predecessors.

[Text and images from the Getty Villa exhibition website]

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