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History of cameo

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Cutting in cameo is an ancient craft, with its origins deep in history. Each cameo is a work of miniature sculptural art, cherished by collectors since the fourth century b.c. Ancient cameos reveal the manners, customs, philosophies, beliefs, social and historic events that have marked our past. Only quite recently have we come to associate the name "cameo" with endless profiles of pretty females, sometimes quite badly carved, produced to satisfy consumer tastes. In actual fact, the range of subjects that are still available carved "in cameo" is enormous. If you read on, you will learn about the development of the cameo from its earliest beginning to the modern day. A fascinating tale of skills that have been handed down through the ages, and sometimes nearly lost.

The earliest known engraved stone, as far back as 15,000 b.c., were petroglyphs, scratched into rock to record and communicate. These developed into ideographs – symbols representing ideas, and pictographs, which recorded events in picture form. Writing and all other art forms developed from these early recording skills. The next step towards the cameo was the seal, examples of which have been found from 3,000 to 4,000 b.c. Made from a variety of materials, including wood, ivory and stone, the inscribed, or intaglio, design was pressed onto soft clay or wax, to seal a letter, cask, jug or doorway. As long as the seal was unbroken, the contents were seen to be safe. The seal itself was worn as an amulet, or charm, for good luck, and to protect against evil. The most well known ancient seal is the Egyptian scarab. The image of the beetle was carved on the domed top of the stone and the flat base engraved with symbols of luck and good fortune, prayers for the dead, spells and names. Ancient scarabs were carved from soapstone, alabaster, and serpentine. Later they were made from faience(is a glazed non-clay ceramic material. It is composed mainly of crushed quartz or sand, with small amounts of lime and either natron or plant ash. This body is coated with a soda-lime-silica glaze that is generally a bright blue-green colour due the presence of copper) which is soapstone and powdered quartz, with a fired glaze made from copper compounds. Only when grinding tools were constructed were they made from the harder chalcedony, cornelian and onyx.

The art form found its way from Egypt, through Assyria and into the Mediterranean countries through trade. Although the Egyptian craftsmen were productive, there was little creativity in their work. The Phoenicians, Etruscans, Greeks and Romans developed the art of gem engraving to the point that their seals became collectors items.

The Mycenaean civilisation in Greece, Crete and Cyprus refined the craft to a high standard, but in the 12th century BC Mycenae fell and the art of carving gemstones declined and was nearly lost. Revived by the Greeks between the 11th and 8th centuries b.c., the scaraboid, a plain topped semi-oval, engraved only on the flat underside, appeared, at first crudely made. The craftsmen did not have the ancient Egyptian grinding tools and had to work the hard stones by hand.

By the Golden Age of Greek classical art, from the 5th to the 4th centuries b.c, the engravers had surpassed the skills of the Mycenaean culture. They worked in hard precious and semi-precious stones, choosing them for their colour and the ability to transmit light. They used, amongst others, chalcedony, jasper, cornelian, turquoise and malachite.

Then, in the 3rd and 2nd century b.c., the cameo, a carving in relief, was developed because of the introduction of many coloured, multi layered sardonyx from India and Arabia, at first thought to be synthetic. The cameo made a picture in the lighter, upper layers of the stone, standing out boldly from the lower darker layers. They used simple belt driven drills, carving finer details with hand held bronze or iron gravers. Although ancient myths and legends were still used as subjects, the portrait now found its way into the repertoire of the cameo sculptor. However, famous men, such as Alexander the Great, were depicted as classical gods, and their real likenesses are unrecorded. As with any art, the talents of the artists varied, and there were good and bad examples of cameo and intaglio carvings, some of which were made as jewellery. A most remarkable piece of bas-relief work in sardonyx is the Farnese Cup, named after the family who acquired it in the fifteenth century. Made about 150 years before the birth of Christ, probably symbolising the bounty of the Nile Valley, its finer interpretation is still debated. Under the cup is depicted the head of the Gorgon Medusa, with snakes in her hair. It was said that such a likeness on a plate or cup prevented death by poison.

After the death of Alexander the Great, the shift of power moved from the Greeks to the Romans, and much of Greek art, literature and philosophy became part of the Roman culture. Many rich Romans had Greek slaves who were skilled lapidaries, or stone and gem carvers and encouraged them to use their skills. The art of cameo carving became much more important, and cameos were widely used in rings and jewellery, as well as larger ones as portraits and to decorate wealthy homes. Hundreds of Greek artisans came to Italy to satisfy the desire for cameos of all kinds. Again, artisans were not equally skilled and all degrees of craftsmanship, from master to mediocre can be seen in the cameos of this era. Fine examples of the art from that time are the Gemma Augustea, carved to honour the Emperor Augustus and the Grand Camee de France, carved by Dioskourides in 25 b.c., measuring 13 by 9 inches.