Thursday, March 10, 2011

The subject of a gem finally identified!

Engraved banded agate, 20mm long

I have owned this gem for years; an intaglio carved of a domed banded agate, depicting an athletic young man holding a discus in his lowered left hand and an strings in his raised right. When I bought it it was unset, and I put it in a ring of my own making, with a heavy 22k gold bezel around the stone on a silver ring. Unfortunately the stone is cracked, but it is otherwise complete and quite beautiful in quality. The detail of the musculature is remarkably fine and precise for such a tiny image, and the intensity of the gaze is remarkable in how readable it is even though on such a tiny scale. This is a masterpiece of the glyptik arts, but what exactly are we looking at? What is this beautiful young man doing, and is this ancient or a Neo-Classical gem inspired by antiquity?

The impression taken with Sculpey

The first bit of information I got was when researching for parallels, I found an almost exact one in Lippold, Gemmen und Kameen des Altertums et der Neuzeit, published by Julius Hoffman Verlag, Stuttgart, 1920, illustrated with a photo of the impression, described as: "Athlet, Diskos in der Rechten, Riemen in der Linken, Romisch. Petersburg. A.G. XLIV, 30"

illustration of impression in Lippold, plate LV, number 14

So the gem in Lippold's book, which he dates as Roman following his citation of Furtwangler's Die Antiken Gemmen, is almost exactly like mine, so much so that for awhile I was wondering if mine was not the one in Lippold. But of course in Lippold the gem illustrated is said to be in St. Petersburg, which would mean in the collection of the Hermitage, which remains intact as far as I know.

A year or so after buying this gem, I was lucky enough to handle a collection of rings from David Daniels, including the one on the xerox below, which I took from the inventory at the time I had the group on consignment.

Xerox of inventory page for the garnet ring.

While hard to see, I think you can tell that the image is again, almost identical. This is unquestionably ancient as it is in its original massive and very beautiful gold ring. So far two close parallels, both accepted as ancient and hard to distinguish from mine. However for years I left it at that, put the ring in my safe and didn't think much about it. I didn't want to wear it, as the raised dome makes it more vulnerable and the crack made it even more so. However, inspired by some recent purchases of gems at the Miami Beach Antiques show, I revisited the gem.

A word about Gem collecting in the 18th into the 19th Century. Those of my readers unfamiliar with the world of engraved gems may wonder at the dim photographs of impressions from old books and the uncertainty as to dating and wonder what is this all about. The first thing to know is that gems were one of the most highly regarded and emulated of the ancient arts. There are several reasons for this, their survival in relatively high numbers and their reuse as embellishments for state and religious jewelry and objets d'arts. Some gems may never have been buried, as when the barbarians sacked Rome on multiple times, one of the targets was the treasury of the Capitoline Temples, which had a huge gem collection given to it by various benefactors over the Centuries. Small, of durable materials and highly portable, they were dispersed across Europe. When I went to Basel and visited the Cathedral Museum there, I was struck by seeing ancient gems set in reliquaries from the 10th to 14th Centuries, sometimes in very odd an inappropriate ways. For example I was surprised to see a gilt silver relief of the Virgin Mary where the face was a Roman agate cameo of none other than the Gorgon herself, Medusa. How wrong is that, the woman who can turn men to stone at a glimpse of her, on the body of the most benevolent of all female Christian figures? I suspect that the medieval artisans simply saw a female face, and recognized its age and preciousness, but not the subject since the Renaissance was centuries away, and simply put it where it seemed to fit. Personally, I love seeing that kind of reuse, since it in fact preserved many ancient pieces that who knows what would have become of them if they weren't highly regarded.

By the Renaissance though, when scholars were re-discovering the ancient texts and looking afresh at ancient art, gems were highly regarded and sought after. One reason for this is that alone of all the arts, gems survive complete and as they were intended, if devoid of their original settings. In other words you see complete scenes and figures, unlike the usually fragmentary survival of larger sculptures and architectural remains. And scholarship of them could be easily disseminated, they lent themselves to line drawings that could be turned into engravings, and you could take impressions of them, make casts of them, and once the skills of the artisans progressed, make new ones. In the Renaissance copying ancient gems was not their purpose, the artists of the day were interested in making art inspired by antiquity but they believed they could improve upon it so did their own thing with it. But by the 18th Century, with the wealth of the aristocracy pursuing everything ancient, and the taste being informed by the new archeological discoveries of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the gem engravers got very skilled at copying the style of the antique and making new gems inspired by the antique that fooled the people of the day.

Information was widely disseminated by the use of plaster casts of impressions and glass casts of the gems. A Scotsman James Tassie (1735-1799) developed a way to make very sharp detailed casts in colored glass and eventually developed a catalogue of of 15,000 of them, which only a very few of the wealthiest collectors bought in its entirety, Catherine the Great being one of them. The V&A is one of the few places with the complete impressions of the entire body, and Oxford got permission to take photos of the complete set, and it is all online now at the Beazley Archives along with the complete scan of the Raspe catalogue.

The most notorious case of modern gems being passed off as ancient was the case of the collection of Prince Stanlislas Poniatowski (1754-1833), a Polish prince, who settled in Rome and built up a large collection of gems starting with a small collection he had inherited from his uncle the King of Poland. The prince restricted access to the collection and it built up a mythic reputation. He published a catalog of it in 1830, and after his death it was sold at Christies in London in 1839, with collectors paying vast sums to acquire the gems. Within a few years though, doubts that had been percolating for years finally came to a head, when scholars could finally examine the gems. It became clear that the Prince had commissioned the 2600 gems from the foremost artists of his day, creating glyptich illustrations of Ovid, the myths of Hercules, and portraits of almost every ancient mythical or historic personage. Based on no ancient or contemporary works of art, these were original creations, if they were deceptively presented. By the mid-19th Century when the scandal had played its course, the mania for gems was essentially over, and gem carving declined in quantity and quality.

Burned by being duped by Poniatowski, scholars became ever more skeptical and this attitude has persisted to this day. One good thing however is that the "modern" gems were highly regarded as works of art on their own and many books on gem engraving such as Lippold and the Tassie impressions have it all, the ancient and the modern. This allows for one to educate ones eye, and chance upon cases where scholars may have been too conservative and put into the modern category a possible ancient piece or visa versa.

This brings me back to my athlete gem. Now re-interested in gems I started to research anew. One thing that changed since I last was researching this gem is the web, and the Beazley Archives from Oxford, which has done my world a great service by putting several entire catalogs of gems and impressions on the web. And then there is Google, which is busy digitizing books, many very obscure, which once could only be gotten in a few places in the world. I found the motif again in the Beazley Archives, mentioned before, see below:

Here is the screen grab of the photos that Oxford took of the Tassie impressions in the V&A. The number corresponds to their entries in the catalog by Erich Raspe, printed in 1791 in both English and French. The entry for the gems above is below:

I at first assumed that Number 7963 is the one in Lippold, and here, while no collection is given for it, the material is, Chalcedony. But since Lippold was early 20th Century, it may not be the same gem, as each is so similar that in these not so great images taken of impressions, are very hard to judge precisely. One point of difference is the position of the upraised arm, even in the dark and blurry images, they do appear to be held at a slightly different angle so they may not be the same gems. The second example, number 7964, is damaged but while a little different in the direction of the gaze of the athlete, very similar in pose and physique. Oddly enough, from a totally random source, I purchased a glass cast of number 7964, and because at first glance it appeared crude to me, I just stuck in on a shelf. However its closeness to the gem I put in a ring I remembered and brought it down to look at. It is much better than I remembered, with the musculature well rendered, and readable. There is a little bubble though in the face, and other tiny flaws resulting from its being a cast, see below:

Pretty remarkable actually, to have stumbled across this from a small dealer at some antique fair, although to be honest, I don't remember who or where now it was so long ago. It is irrefutably of Raspe's number 7964, the damage and pose are identical, and that gem has long been accepted as being ancient.

However, the subject of the gem remained unknown, it has been variously described as, athlete with reins, a discobolus, even a quoit player. Here enters a new friend, a pen pal really since our relationship has to date been exclusively through email correspondence, whose name is Ittai Gradel and who is known from a book he wrote a book on Emperor worship among the Romans. He first contacted me about the Athena Cameo, and I sent him images of another gem, the Hostilianus, and he was enormously helpful in figuring out what it was and who it represented, see my post about it: story of a gem...
Given Ittai's interest and knowledge of gems, and at his request, I sent him a photo of the Athlete. He was enthusiastic in his response to it, but of course the questions are, what is this athlete doing, i.e. what is the subject, and also is this ancient. Based on style and closeness to accepted ancient examples, we both agreed it is likely to be ancient. Ittai then turned his attention to the subject and in a triumphant email to me wrote this:

So your athlete is a *pentathlete* who has just thrown the javelin, and is now about to throw the discus. The reins/strap/thong he holds is indeed what I mentioned before, connected with javelin throw - e. g. described here (from wikipedia s. v. javelin throw):
'The one major difference between the javelin of the ancient games and the javelin of more modern times is a leather thong, called an ankyle that was wound around the middle of the shaft. Athletes would hold the javelin by the thong and when the javelin released this thong unwound giving the javelin a spiraled flight.'
(The Ancient Olympic Games by Judith Swaddling is the obvious ref here for further study)
Add to this that the pentathlete was in fact considered the ideal type of athlete (again from the excellent perseus site given above):
'Aristotle describes a young man's ultimate physical beauty: "a body capable of enduring all efforts, either of the racecourse or of bodily strength...This is why the athletes in the pentathlon are most beautiful." (Aristotle,Rhetoric 1361b)'

This explains the focus of the gaze of the young man, he has just thrown his javelin and has the discus for his next feat. It also explains the extraordinary physique of this athlete, he is meant to be so as a pentathlete, the ultimate athlete. I think Ittai is correct and he has figured out something no one else has in over two hundred years. Remarkable bit of sleuthing and insight on his part.

You can see why engraved gems are so engaging, they are beautiful, and when you start looking at them and researching them, offer a remarkable depth of knowledge to be acquired. And because they are fairly well documented often, you can find parallels, and in earlier catalogs sometimes even their history. In our time they have been neglected which means you can make discoveries, not only buying things that are unrecognized for what they are, but making new discoveries about them as Ittai did with the Pentathlete.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My elderly aunt has plaster casts of 471 of the Poniatowski gems. I have been researching these to see what significance they have. She has beautifully handwritten catalogues and descriptions. An appraiser I brought to her home told me that these should be in a museum. I see that you have a indepth knowledge of these gems and wonder if you could advise me of their worth. Thank you