Inspired by the recent acquisition of a magnificent jasper carving of the head of Medusa by Benedetto Pistrucci, the exhibition traces cameo carving from Greco-Roman antiquity to the nineteenth century, highlighting the Metropolitan's splendid holdings of Neoclassical Italian cameos by the great gem carvers Pistrucci, Girometti, and Saulini. It also considers related subjects such as cameo glass, illuminates the differences between cameos and intaglios, and discusses fakery.
Cameos are carved in relief on stones such as onyx, sardonyx, or agate, and arranged in variegated light- and dark-colored strata, or layers. In general, hardstone cameos are more prized than those carved in seashells, which are softer and easier to make. Carvers often manipulated the strata so that figures of two or more colors would emerge. One atmospheric example in the exhibition is a late sixteenth-century cameo by Alessandro Masnago. Working with a three-inch-high piece of variegated agate, the artist created a pastoral scene of a shepherdess and her flock resting in a moonlit landscape with a city in the background.
In the Greco-Roman world, the art of cameo carving reached its peak in the first century A.D. under Emperor Augustus. The Italian Renaissance ushered in a revival of cameo carving, and the avid collecting of classical as well as contemporary cameos continued well into the nineteenth century. Included in the exhibition is a magnificent Renaissance lapis lazuli carving of Cosimo I de' Medici. Based on a portrait-medallion, it was first documented to be in the Medici inventory in 1588. Equally illustrious is a 1550 jugate portrait of Charles V and his son Philip II. It was carved by the great Milanese sculptor, Leone Leoni (1509–1590), as documented in a letter by the artist to Cardinal Granvella.
Cameos were often, but not always, made to be worn as jewelry. Among the highlights of the exhibition is a nineteenth-century cameo set consisting of a tiara, brooch, and necklace, carved by Luigi Saulini (1819–1883) in onyx and mounted in gold. Cameos often depicted classical subjects, which in this example include copies after antique sculptures—the Discobolos and the head of the Apollo Belvedere—and an original composition based on a classical theme, depicting the Toilet of Nausicaä. The Pistrucci Head of Medusa is based on the ancient marble mask known as the Rondanini Medusa. Commissioned by a rich London dentist, it was created by Benedetto Pistrucci (1783–1855). The Italian-born Pistrucci carved so accurately that he became head of the London mint.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many gem carvers had studios near those of contemporary sculptors such as Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen, and they created miniature copies of the sculptors' works in cameos. A fine example is a delicate carving of Nessus and Deianira (1815–20) by Giuseppe Girometti (1779–1851), after a large marble bas-relief by Thorvaldsen that was acquired recently by the Metropolitan Museum and can soon be viewed in the Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court.
The core of the Metropolitan's collection of cameos, and of the exhibition, is the world-class collection amassed by the financier Milton Weil, who died in 1934.
The exhibition is made possible by The David Berg Foundation.