The popularity of portraiture in ancient Rome extended from large-scale sculpture to objects of personal adornment. Indeed, the noted Victorian art critic John Ruskin commented that “cameos...are miniature sculptures, not engravings”. These intricate works of art were executed in low relief on stones valued for their beauty and rarity, and 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. Here, for instance, the artist has used the darker blueish-black layers of the stone as a background to contrast with the shining white silhouette of the female portrait.
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, brooches and pendants, increased. The present necklace is a fine example of this ornate style, the gold chain no less less impressive than the carved cameo itself. The setting is cut with a repeated motif reminiscent of stylized lotus buds and the chain is formed of linked, symmetrical seed-like elements, topped at either end by a decorative sphere; en masse, these produce a striking visual impact. Careful attention has also been paid to the chain terminals, which are hammered with a scroll design. This necklace type is particularly well known from Roman Egypt but was also found throughout the Eastern Roman Empire.
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 cameo 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.
Private Collection (S. K.), Germany, 1960s