Classically Inclined

July 24, 2022

Discoveries: The Great Cameo of France

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 3:37 pm

As I mentioned at the start of the summer, one project I’m currently working on is the Dorling Kindersley illustrated history of Rome. One of the reasons this has been great fun is that it’s given me an opportunity to brush up on areas of Roman history that I don’t usually play around with, and that means I’m getting to encounter some fantastic things, particularly in terms of material culture, that are either completely new to me or, let’s be honest, may have gone across my desk when I was an undergraduate and I didn’t appreciate at the time. I’m planning to do a couple of posts over the summer about these discoveries, simply because they are rather good fun and I though they were worth sharing.

My first example is the Great Cameo of France, a whopping huge gemstone currently held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, carved during the reign of Tiberius. This gem had quite an afterlife, moving from the imperial Roman treasury to the Byzantines, then somehow going to France, where it stayed with the royal family (bar a brief period of being used as insurance on a loan made by the Pope), and eventually went into the Cabinet des médailles, a museum in Paris, during the French Revolution to protect it.

A cameo gem, with three tiers of action described in the blog post. The figures are white, with details like hair and clothes shown in brown. There is also fine engraving to add extra detail, like folds on a dress.
The Great Cameo of France, Janmad on basis of the picture by Jastrow.

While I’ve been around enough to recognise the basic building blocks of Julio-Claudian imperial iconography, the Great Cameo was completely new to me, and what an extravagance it is.

In the top tier we have members of the family who have died or become gods, including Augustus, who is reclining and holding a staff, and Aeneas, identified by his Phyrgian cap, who gets to be there by virtue of being the mythical founding ancestor of the dynasty from whom Augustus claimed descent. The bottom tier contains captured and enslaved people from Germany and Parthia – you can tell the Germans by their shaggy hair, and the Parthians by their distinctive headgear and shields. I’m not sure which nation the woman cradling an infant at the front is meant to represent, but she’s very much in the general spirit of representing conquered nations through captive women and their children, which the Romans do on their coins a lot.

The middle tier contains the living members of the imperial family. There’s some uncertainty about precisely which moment is being commemorated here – it could be the moment when Germanicus was about to set off to the east, or it could be a commemoration of Caligula’s formal adoption as Tiberius’ heir. However you read the scene, Tiberius and his mother Livia dominate it, occupying the centre of the tier and the gem itself on their thrones; a young armoured man stands before them, whoever he is, seeking their favour before doing whatever it is he’s off to do. The couple behind the thrones are thought to be Tiberius’ first wife Vipsania and their son, while the other figures with the young man in armour are variously identified depending on which moment you think is being commemorated here.

The amount of work that went into this cameo is breathtaking. In order to be able to say something sensible about it, I ended up learning far more about cameo technique than I ever thought I’d need to know, which was revealing. This cameo is in five layers. Most of the cameos that survive from the empire are only in two. The carver has managed to use the multiple layers of the gem (which is sardonyx) to create the dark background to the picture overall, pick out the figures in white, and use the dark colour to add clothes, hair and other details. What’s more, they’ve then gone over the figures to add more detail with engraving, never breaking through the white layer to let more of the dark colour through. The mind boggles at how long this took.

So that’s what so remarkable about this object. I’m less wowed, I think, by the iconography and its message of imperial continuity – that’s a staple of statues and other art in this period, and it is (to some extent) what you’d expect. What bowled me over is the sheer statement of wealth and excess that this makes, given just what an accomplished and difficult piece of art it is. I’m very glad to have learned so much about cameos and how they are made, because it’s given me a new appreciation of the technical difficulty involved in this kind of piece, and the talent that lies behind it.


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