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December 10, 2008

Carvers and Collectors:
The Lasting Allure of Ancient Gems

At the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa
March 19 – September 7, 2009

“For a great many people, a single gemstone alone is enough to provide the highest and most perfect aesthetic experience of the wonders of Nature.”
-- Pliny the Elder, Natural History 37.1 d. A.D. 79

LOS ANGELESCarved gemstones have captivated connoisseurs and collectors of every age, from antiquity to the present.  Carvers and Collectors: The Lasting Allure of Ancient Gems, on view from March 19 – September 7, 2009, at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa, brings together remarkable intaglios and cameos carved by ancient master engravers along with outstanding works by modern carvers they have inspired. 

The exhibition will display ancient gems together with items from later periods that illustrate the importance of gems through the ages.  Illuminated manuscripts, rare engravings from early catalogues, and cabinets designed to house collections of gems as well as other works of art in diverse media will also be included.

“Greek rulers, Roman emperors, medieval and Renaissance popes and potentates, and 17th–19th-century monarchs and aristocrats all sought to possess these precious markers of culture, taste, and status,” said Kenneth Lapatin, associate curator of antiquities. “This exhibition truly illustrates the lasting allure of these masterpieces in miniature.”

Semi-precious hard stones, like carnelian, chalcedony, amethyst, and agate, have long been carved with decorative patterns and figural designs. Skilled craftsmen in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt as well as Greece, Rome, and Etruria used hand-powered drills and lathes to cut images into stone to create exquisitely carved gems. 

Ancient gem forms called intaglios––from the Italian “to cut in”–– were produced through a technique that used negatives to create positive reliefs, or impressions, when pressed into a soft material, such as wax or clay. 

Around 400 B.C., a new technique developed alongside intaglios––the making of cameos.  Carvers created relief images that were produced by cutting away the stone surrounding the figure.  By exploiting the different colors of banded stones, which could be artificially enhanced, artisans created the illusion of depth with multi-colored compositions.

Engraved gems have been valued not only for their distinctive carving, but also for the intrinsic qualities of their stones. In the Middle Ages and early modern period, ancient intaglios and cameos were reused not only as rings and pendants, but also were mounted in reliquaries, book-bindings, and altar pieces.  Rulers, noblemen, and wealthy merchants sought and traded gems, and modern carvers produced replicas and forgeries.

Ancient gem carvers occasionally signed their works, but very few are recorded in ancient literature.  However, unsigned intaglios and cameos have in many cases been attributed to known masters through their shared characteristics.

Master carvers on display in this exhibition include Solon, active about 70–20 BC, who worked in Roman imperial circles.  Recently, one of his signed gems was found in excavations at Pompeii.  His carvings gained great popularity in the 18th century due to the exceptional quality and design of his “Strozzi Medusa” gem, which appears in the exhibition.

Also included are gems attributed to Dioskourides, a Greek master from Aigeai, mentioned by several Roman authors as the carver of the Emperor Augustus’ personal seal.

Carvers and Collectors: The Lasting Allure of Ancient Gems is curated by Kenneth Lapatin, associate curator in the Department of Antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

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Desiree Zenowich
Getty Communications

Melissa Abraham
Getty Communications

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