Saturday, May 11, 2013

Another Poniatowski gem rediscovered

It has been a while since I last posted to my blog.  So here I will catch up with a few new posts, on more Poniatowski gems that I have purchased, starting with this beauty, which was lost, and now is found.
Engraved Carnelian in gold swivel setting.
Above is the gem, and engraved carnelian agate, here shown with the light going through it, allowing one to see the masterful engraving, an three dimensional image done in reverse, intaglio.  What we see is a young serious woman, hair drawn back into a simple bun, indication of robes at the bottom of her neck, and a large inscription along the left side, reading "POLLA ARGENTARIA".

Here you see the gem in its setting, in reflected light.

Above is the gem seen in its setting, with the light reflecting off the surface.  What isn't evident from this image is that the surface shows some minor wear with some small scratches.  This becomes important in its identification.

The research of this gem took several stages.  Its first rate quality indicated to me that I may well find it somewhere, and be able to identify its engraver even.  First I went to Lippold's Gemmen und Kameend des Altertums et der Neuzeit, published in 1922.  One reason it is such a great resource is to be found it its title, Gems and Cameos from Antiquity to the New Age, roughly translated, the literal German is more poetic, referring to antiquity as the High Period, i.e., superior, with which I would agree.  Lippold illustrates hundreds of the more admired gems both from the ancient periods to modern gems, as collectors in the 19th Century collected and were interested in the best of both times.  In Lippold I found the nearly identical female bust, which is signed by L. (Luigi) Pichler, one of the greatest gem engravers from the late 18th into the early 19th Century.

From Lippold, the Pichler gem.
The images on these two gems are nearly identical, with minor differences in the drapery at the bottom of the neck and the profile, but seem to be by the same hand they are so close.

The next phase of my research was to google the name engraved on the gem, Polla Argentaria, who turns out was the wife of Lucan, the well known poet who lived during the Julio Claudian period and had the patronage of Nero, and as typical in this period, lost favor, was discovered to have subsequently plotted against the emperor and was force to commit suicide, which he did by opening a vein and as he bled to death, he recited poetry.  He was only 25, and had accomplished a lot in his short life.  Nothing is known about Polla Argentaria but that she was his wife, then widow.  No ancient depictions of her exist, or are known.

Then of course my mind wandered to the Poniatowski gems, as there are many gems of famous Romans, which because there are no ancient representations of subjects, are identified, sometimes with cryptic initials, by rather large inscriptions. The inscriptions on the known and illustrated portrait gems in the Poniatowski collection matched the style of the inscription on mine.  Looking up Polla Argentaria in the Beazley Archives Poniatowski gem section, I found that indeed, there was a gem depicting her in the collection, but it had no impression, no illustration of what it looked like.  But, given the very quality of this gem, the slightly roughed up surface, matching the other gems in the collection, the style of the inscription and that it depicts an obscure but literary figure in Roman history, I thought, you know what, this may the be the lost gem cataloged.  I sent images to Clauda Wagner, who is managing the Beazley Archives database and is perhaps the person who knows the most about the Poniatowski collection, and she confirmed that yes, it is the Poniatowski gem on the website, which until I made the connection, had been lost to scholarship. 

This gem is the 5th re-discovery I've made of gems listed as lost on the Beazley Archives, 2 from the Marlborough collection and now 3 Poniatowski gems.  I intend to keep looking, and hopefully I will make more rescues of lost gems from these great collections.

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