Saturday, May 19, 2012

A lost Poniatowski Gem

Gem with scene of the drunk Silenus on an ass, lead by Dionysus. Note the Greek signature below the ground line.
Dear Readers,

Again, it has been a long time since I last posted.  But I just purchased this beautiful intaglio, and it is another discovery.  It was at an eclectic jewelry store in NYC, and despite its humble silver setting, suspended from a strand of tiny garnet beads and pearls, and broken condition, I recognized right away the quality of the carving.  I thought it was most likely a Poniatowski gem, but also, of course, held out hope that it might be ancient.  The price was reasonable, evidence that the seller did not recognize what they had, always a good thing for me, and I committed to purchase it even though I did not have the money at that moment.  I was finally I was able to pay for it and just received it yesterday.  I took photographs and emailed them to my email friend, Ittai Gradel, who is extremely knowledgeable about ancient gems.

I am sure I've told the story of Prince Poniatowski, so if so forgive me for recapping it.  Prince Poniatowski (1754-1833) was a Polish prince, living in Rome, who was famous for his collection of engraved gems, numbering somewhere around 2,500.  He was also infamously guarded and hardly anyone was allowed to see his collection so it was known by repute.  He himself published a catalog of his gems in 1830, and 1833.  After his death the collection was sold by Christie's London in 1839.  Only later were they recognized as not being ancient, and indeed it is generally now believed that the entire collection was made of gems commissioned by the Prince from the most talented gem engravers of the day.  There are features that all of them have in common;  they tend to be large elongated ovals, with a strong ground line and illustrate mythological scenes that until then, were unknown in ancient art and, almost all have Greek signatures.  Often the images include multiple figures and have strong diagonals in their composition.  Another feature of neo-Classical gems in general and shared by these, is that they have a lot of empty space, which ancient gems generally do not have, the entire field is filled.  However the airier composition of the neo-Classical gems allowed for clearer illustration of the myths.

This gem has a more generic Dionysiac scene, Silenus on an ass (donkey) drunk and supported by a satyr, the ass is lead by the god Dionysus himself brandishing a thrysos over his head as if he was going to beat the poor ass.  The carving is remarkably unfussy but well done, and reminds me very much of ancient engravings, but the highly visible signature, which Ittai recognized as by that of Pemallios, is known from 11 examples from the Poniatowski collection in the Beazley archives at Oxford.  I went to the website and voila, there is an image of a plaster impression of my gem!  It had been purchased by John Tyrrell, Esq., who purchased many of the Poniatowski gems at the Christie's sale, and had impressions taken of them and sent to those interested in gems.  That the Beazley Archives only has an image of the impression means that the original cornelian gem is lost to scholarship.  Not anymore, I have found it and have sent photos to the Beazley Archives so that they now have another rediscovered gem to add. 

One of the best quotes I've found relating to the Poniatowski gems is that of Ernst Heinrich Toelken, who was the director of the Antiquarium in Berlin, who in 1832 was shown a set of plaster impressions of some of the Poniatowski gems. He said, "The impressions are indeed the most beautiful you can expect to see in art."  But he became suspicious of the antiquity of the gems because of the signatures, all of engravers known from the Greek and Roman world working centuries apart, yet the gems were all of a uniform style, which would be impossible. "Thus, we have here,--and I am extremely sorry to give this hard judgement!-- in works and words a scientific deceit of such dimensions never seen in art history before."

Some have suggested that Poniatowski purchased the gems from unscrupulous sources passing new gems off as ancient, but it is more likely, that he commissioned the gems himself, and presenting them as ancient to the world.  Regardless it was one of greatest scandals in art history, and set back the collecting of gems, effectively ending their desirability.  Only now are these gems being re-appraised, mostly because, in addition to their beauty and mastery, but because they are so original.  None copy any other art in any other media, they illustrate myths and ancient tales in novel ways.  They are now recognized as worthy works of art in their own right, deserving of study.

Different lighting to better show the scene.

The image above shows the beautiful engraving of the ass, which even has genitals as do all the figures, which is true to the ancient prototypes.  However the scene has much more space between the two figures on either side than any ancient gem would have had.  But an attempt was made to fool, the surface has wear on it as if it were ancient, and the style is remarkably like that on ancient gems.   I generally think of the 18th Century gem engravers as being more fussy than the ancient ones, although that is not always true, no one ever engraved better than the famous ancient Greek gem engraver, Gnaios for example.  But they got pretty good in the 18th Century.  This Pemallios is to my eye, a remarkably good gem carver.

T276 from the Beazley Archives, Oxford

The above is from the Beazley Archive website, the impression is part of the Tyrrell collection of impressions taken from the gems he purchased.  It shows the gem before it was broken, so God only knows where my gem has been for two centuries.  The gem was listed in Catalogue des pierres graves antiques de S.A. le Prince Stansislas Poniatowski, 1830 and 1833, II.58, and also in the catalogue of the impressions of the antique gems in the collection of John Tyrell, Esq., 1841, number 276

The quality of the gem can be seen in the detail photos taken with my digital microscope.

detail of Dionysus brandishing his Thyrsos. Note the beautiful carving and his beauty.

The poor,, long suffering Ass, so well carved.

The drunk Selinus supported by his Satyr companion.

The signature in Greek: PEMALLIOY, i.e. Greek genetive of Pemallios (thank you Ittai)

1 comment:

Andrew Evans said...

A wonderfully detailed accounting for the gem. I enjoyed the read.