The popularity of portraiture in ancient Rome extended from large-scale sculpture to objects of personal adornment. Sometimes described as miniature sculptures, cameos were intricate works of art executed in low relief on stones valued for their beauty and rarity. The most prized designs were those in which the artist manipulated the strata of the stone according to the composition, exploring the stone's depths to enhance its visual impact.
From the time of Alexander the Great, whose conquests in the east brought new gems such as garnet, nicolo, emerald, plasma, moonstone and jasper to the Mediterranean, the polychrome effects created by juxtaposition of gold and stones became central to jewellery designs. This was particularly true of the Roman period, when the popularity of gems as centrepieces in elaborate jewellery settings, such as rings, pendants, and earrings increased. The present pair of earrings is a fine example of this ornate style. Each earring depicts a draped bust of a woman in profile, her hair arranged in the distinctive helmfrisur style, folded back at the nape of the neck with a central plaited section. When worn, the women would have ‘faced’ each other, as if in conversation. The cameo is set into a sheet-gold pendant featuring a border with regularly spaced impression marks, surmounted by an attachment loop.
In contrast to intaglio gems, where the image is engraved into the stone in sunken relief, ostensibly to be used as a seal, cameos performed a uniquely ornamental function and were highly valued for their precious materials, quality of workmanship, and decorative visual appeal. They were often very personal, and carried individual significance for the wearer. Not only did they advertise the personal wealth and taste of the owner, but they could also be used to demonstrate allegiance to the political ideology and ruler of the day. The most famous Roman cameo, the Gemma Augustea, whose iconography focuses on peace in the empire and the continuation of Augustus’ dynasty, is a prime example of this type of work of art in miniature employed as a propaganda tool to spread the imperial message. In a similar vein, the bust of a young noble woman depicted on the present cameos could be a member of the imperial family, professing the wearer’s loyalty to the empire. Alternatively, it may be an image of the wearer herself, as we know that cameos depicting portrait busts were given as love tokens or apotropaic talismans; the first century BC Roman poet Propertius, for example, describes his exasperation at his girlfriend’s request that he buy her gemstones, and the writer Pliny the Elder extols them for their protective powers and magical properties.
H. B. Walters, Catalogue of the engraved gems and cameos, Greek, Etruscan and Roman in the British Museum (London, 1926).
G.M.A. Richter, Engraved Gems of the Romans, A Supplement to the History of Roman Art (London, 1971).
M. Henig, The Content Cameos (Oxford, 1990).
J.D. Draper, Cameo Appearances (New York, 2008).
Propertius, The Elegies, Book II, 16a.
Private Collection B.Y.B. Zurich.
with Numismatic Art & Ancient Coins, Zurich, prior to 1985.
Private Collection, New York, 1986-2016.