1902 Encyclopedia > Cameo


CAMEO, a term of doubtful origin, applied to engraved work executed in relief, on hard or precious stones, on imitations of such stones in glass called " pastes," or on the shells of molluscous animals. A cameo is thus the converse of an intaglio, which consists of an incised or sunk engraving executed in the same class of materials. The word cameo is generally regarded as being derived from the Arabic camea, a charm or amulet ; but a number of other derivations have been suggested, among which a highly allegorical origin of the word from the Arabic camaut, the camel's hump, implying any object in relief, has been maintained by an eminent authority. Canieo-cutting is an art of much more recent introduction than the sister art of intaglio-engraving. The earliest known traces of any attempt at cutting gem-figures in relief are seen in certain Phoenician and Etruscan scarabei, in which the back of the beetle has been utilized for the faint delineation of another and quite different figure. One of the most ancient known cameos, of which the date can be fixed with certainty, consists of a sardonyx of three layers with portrait heads of Demetrius Soter and his wife Laodice, which must have been engraved between the years 162 and 150 B.C.

The materials which ancient artists used for cutting into cameos were chiefly those siliceous minerals which, under a variety of names, present various strata or bands of two or more distinct colours, and properly the name cameo should be restricted to work executed in relief on such banded stones. The minerals, under different names, are essentially the chalcedonic variety of quartz, and the differences of colour they present are due to the presence of variable proportions of iron and other foreign ingredients. These banded stones, when cut parallel to the layers of different colours, and when onlytwocoloured bauds—white and black, or sometimes white and black and brown—are present, are known as onyxes, but when they have with the onyx bands layers of carnelian or sard, they are termed sardonyxes. The sardonyx, which was the favourite stone of ancient cameo-engravers, and the material in which their masterpieces were cut, was procured from India, and the increased intercourse with the East by the way of Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great had a marked influence on the development of the art. Cameo-cutting attained the zenith of its pristine perfection in Borne during the first two centuries of the Christian era, the chief works being portraits of the reigning families, and allegorical illustrations of their glories. Contemporaneously with the production of the finest works in Oriental precious stones, pastes or imitations in glass were made in incredible numbers to meet the requirements of the classes who could not afford the other necessarily rare and costly luxuries. Both in perfection of material and in artistic merit these imitations were, in the best period, of extra-ordinary merit. The Barberini or Portland vase in the British Museum is a rare example of the skill of both the glass-worker and engraver on glass of ancient times.

The two most famous examples of this art which have come down to the present day are the Great Agate of the Sainte Chapelle in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, and the Augustus Cameo in the Vienna collection. The formel was pledged among other valuables in 1244 by Baldwin IT. of Constantinople to Saint Louis. It is mentioned in 1344 as " Le Camahieu," having been sent in that year to Borne for the inspection of Pope Clement VI. It is a sardonyx of five layers of irregular shape, like all classical gems, measuring about 13 inches by 11 inches. During the Middle Ages the subject was supposed to be the triumph of Joseph in Egypt; but it is now known to represent on its upper part the apotheosis of Augustus, the centre being occupied with the reception of Germanicus on his return from his great German campaign by the Emperor Tiberius and his mother Livia. The lower division is filled with a group of captives in attitudes expressive of woe and deep dejection. The Vienna gem (Gemma augustea), an onyx of two layers measuring 9 inches by 8, is a work of still greater artistic interest The upper portion is occupied with an allegorical representation of the coronation of Augustus,—the emperor being represented as Jupiter with Livia as the goddess Boma at his side. In the composition Neptune and Cybele, with several members of the family of Augustus, are introduced, and on the exergue or lower portion are Boman soldiers preparing a trophy, barbarian captives, and female figures. The history of this inestimable treasure has been traced from the time of the Crusades, and it came into the possession of the Emperor Rudolph II. in the 16th century for the enormous sum of 12,000 gold ducats

While these and other similar monuments of antiquity, which have come down to us only mellowed and not injured by time, have intrinsically a priceless value as the expres-sion of the most perfect artistic culture and feeling of the age to which they belong, they possess at the same time equally great significance to the student of the history, civilization, morals, and manners of the period. They supply the most authentic means of confirming the infer-ences to be drawn from classical sources as to beliefs, usages, dress, domestic and public habits, and pursuits of the people with whom they deal, and by means of such gems not only are the prevailing features of an ancient race accurately delineated, but the actual portraits of many of the most prominent personages in the world's history have been faithfully preserved, and can be identified beyond the shadow of a doubt.

The art of cameo-engraving waned in the early part of the 3d century, after the death of the Emperor Severus, but under the first Christian Emperor Constantine it enjoyed a brief period of revival. Many very beautiful cameo portraits of Constantine are extant; and it was during or shortly after his reign that Christian Scripture subjects began to appear on cameos. That class of subjects con-stituted the staple of such work—generally rude and artistically debased—as continued to be cultivated under the Byzantine empire down to nearly the epoch of the Benaissance. From the Byzantine period downward one peculiarity of gem-engraving becomes noticeable. Cameo-work as compared with intaglios in classical times was rare and infrequent, but now and onwards the opposite is the case, intaglio-sinking having almost died out, and cameos being chiefly produced. Commercial intercourse with the East still secured for the engravers a supply of magnificent sardonyxes, although blood-stone and other non-banded stones were very commonly used for works in relief. Cameos during the long dark ages were used chiefly for the decora-tion of reliquaries and other altar furniture, and as such their designs were purely ecclesiastical or scriptural. To this period also belongs the class of complimentary or motto cameos, which, containing only inscriptions and an orna-mental border, executed in nicolo stones, were used as [personal gifts and adornments.

In mediaeval times antique cameos were held in peculiar veneration on account of the belief, then universal, in their potency as medicinal charms. This power was supposed to be derived from their origin, of which two theories, equally satisfactory, were current. By the one they were held to be the work of the children of Israel during their sojourn in the wilderness (hence the name Pierres d'Israel), while the other theory held them to be direct products of nature, the engraved figures pointing to the peculiar virtue lodged in them.

The revival of the glyptic arts in Western Europe dates from the pontificate of the Venetian Paul II. (1464-71), himself an ardent lover and collector of gems, to which passion, indeed, it is gravely affirmed he was a martyr, having died of a cold caught by the multiplicity of gems exposed on his fingers. The cameos of the early part of the, 16th century rival in beauty of execution the finest classical works, and, indeed, many of them pass in the cabinets of collectors for genuine antiques, which they closely imitated. The Oriental sardonyx was not available for the purposes of the Benaissance artists, who were consequently obliged to content themselves with the colder German agate onyx. The scarcity of worthy materials led them to use the backs of ancient cameos, or to improve on classical works of inferior value executed on good material, and probably to this cause must also be assigned the introduction of shell cameos, which are not supposed to have been made previous to this period.

Among the means of distinguishing antique cameos from cinquecento work, the kind of, stone is one of the best tests, the classical artists having used only rich and warm-tinted Oriental stones, which further are frequently drilled through their diameter with a minute hole, from having been used by their original Oriental possessors in the form of beads. The cinquecento artists also, as a rule, worked their subjects in high relief, and resorted to undercutting, no case of which is found in the flat low work of classical times. The projecting portions of antique work exhibit a dull chalky appearance, which, however, fabricators learned to imitate in various ways, one of which was by cramming the gizzards of turkey fowls with the gems. Another index of antiquity is found in the different methods of working adopted in classical and Benaissance times. The tools employed by the Benaissance engraver were the drill and the wheel, both fed with oil and diamond or emery dust. The drill was simply the common instrument known by that name, and the wheel was a small metallic disc, which cut by its periphery being made to rotate in a vertical plane. Antique gems of the best period were cut or scratched (yXviptiv, scalpere) with the diamond point (splinters either of corundum or sapphire), with the aid of the drill, which the artists possessed in common with their modern successors.

In the early part of the 18th century great confusion was introduced into the study of this department of art, by the fraudulent insertion on a wholesale scale of names in Greek, purporting to be those Df the engravers of the gems, bearing them. In reality the insertion of his name by any artist, on cameos especially, was an exceedingly rare occurrence. An invariable and unfailing test of the authenticity of any signature on a cameo is " that it be always in relief, which is a sure evidence that it was cut at the same time with the rest of the composition." Another fraud practised in Italy during the revival consisted in engraving on unnamed portrait gems a name supposed to suit the aspect of the individual.

In our own day the engraving of cameos has ceased to be pursued as an art. Roman manufacturers cut stones in large quantities to be used as shirt-studs and for setting in finger-rings; and in Rome and Paris an extensive trade is carried on in the cutting of shell cameos, which are largely imported into England and mounted as brooches by Birmingham jewellery manufacturers. The principal shell used is the large bull's-mouth shell (Cassis rufa), found in East Indian seas, which has a sard-like underlayer. The black helmet (Cassis tuberosa) of the West Indian seas, the horned helmet (C cornuta) of Madagascar, and the pinky queen's conch (Strombus gigas) of the West Indies are also employed. The famous potter Josiah Wedgwood introduced a method of making imitations of cameos in pottery by producing white figures on a coloured ground, this con- stituting the peculiarity of what is now known as Wedgwood ware. (j. PA.)

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries