Saturday, February 27, 2016

Another Poniatowski Gem

Bulgari Necklace set with a carnelian intaglio

I  recently returned from Florida, where I went to the big Miami Beach Antiques Show, which bills itself as the worlds largest indoor antique show, and it is big. I’ve been going for a few years now, I actually exhibited a few years ago but found my time was better spent as a buyer, rather than trying to sell there.  Early on, now more than 20 years ago, I went there with a friend, and discovered a Bulgari necklace set with an important Roman cameo portrait bust of Tiberius, which I was able to sell to the British Museum. So ever after, I’m on the look out for unrecognized ancient gems set in modern settings, or old ones for that matter.  The fair has grown if anything since years ago, they have added a whole jewelry annex with another several dozen dealers displaying.  This year, after having done the main rooms for several days I finally made it into the annex and there I found this necklace, set with an swivel set engraved carnelian gem.  I could tell at a glance it was something of interest to me. 

It is a Bulgari necklace of 1980’s vintage, emblematic of the time. A heavy gold chain that weighs a lot, has suspended from it in a swivel setting an engraved gem, with a small cabochon sapphire suspended from it.  The normal Bulgari necklace of this type has an ancient Greek or Roman coin, which would be bronze, silver or much more rarely gold. Generally the coins are of middling quality, it was more about the idea of an ancient coin and the flashy heavy gold chain necklace it was suspended from. It was a type which could almost appear tacky but was worn by high New York Society or European women.  I’m sure you’ve all seen the type, Bulgari or not, there were many imitators of this type.  However this necklace has suspended from it a gem of another order of quality.

Of course I’m always hoping to discover another ancient glyptik masterpiece that I can research and sell well.  When I was able to more closely look at this gem, it was apparent that while this is no ancient gem, it is still of enormous interest, it is a Poniatowski gem!  

Carnelian engraved gem depicting the Apotheosis of Hercules
Several things struck me looking at the gem; it is large for an engraved gem, over an inch across, beautifully carved, has a slightly worn surface, with a tiny but clear Greek signature.  All of these things are characteristic of Poniatowski gems.  But I couldn’t identify the subject, which has a muscular bearded man riding a large eagle with outspread wings.  The first assumption is that it might be Zeus on his eagle, although Zeus is the eagle, he doesn’t ride it, at least not that I’ve ever seen.  However, a few minutes back in my hotel room online was all it took to find the exact reference, thanks to the ongoing Oxford project on their Beazley Archives.  As referenced before on my blog, Oxford is attempting to recreate digitally the Poniatowski collection that was dispersed in 1839.  I have rediscovered a few so far myself, and blogged about them here.  This would be my fifth rediscovery and the sixth Poniatowski that I currently own.  Online I found the gem once I put eagle in the search box. See below:

screen grab from the Beazley Archive website
-->The subject is totally unexpected, “The Apotheosis of Hercules, who is seated upon an eagle, and bearing a figure of Victory”.  The gem was listed in Poniatowski's catalog of his collection, Catalogue des pierres graves antiques de S.A. le Prince Stanlislas Poniatowski, 1830 or 1833, II.378, and sold at Christie's sale in 1839, lot number 420.  The subject as depicted here does not exist in antiquity. Certainly the apotheosis of Hercules was depicted, but he is generally seen in the company of the Gods,  to indicate his divinity, but never seated on an eagle, nor is anyone else in Greek art.  The closest one comes to anyone born aloft by an eagle, is the found in the depiction of the abduction of Ganymede, where the eagle takes the boy in his claws and carries him up to Mt. Olympus.

Ganymede and the eagle earrings, gold,  Greek 4th Century B.C., Metropolitan Museum, NY
In Roman art however, Emperors are sometimes depicted riding on the back of an eagle, in their apotheosis.  The most famous example of that is in the center of the interior of the Arch of Titus, had has Titus on the back of the eagle seen from below, where the viewer stands.  

Detail from the Arch of Titus, Rome, late 1st Century A.D.
--> In the relief from the Arch of Titus, which is somewhat damaged, you only see the head and shoulders of the Emporer behind the spread winged eagle who bears him aloft to the heavens.  He is not sitting astride the eagle as Hercules in this gem.

The Apotheosis of emperors and members of the imperial family is also depicted on gems, and on some famous cameos, particularly the one now in the Biblioteque National in Paris, see below a photo I took when I was there last. There Germanicus is seated across the back of the eagle, as if in a chair with one foot appearing under a wing.  Rather improbable, but the message is conveyed effectively.  

Apotheosis of an Germanicus, agate cameo, Biblioteque National Paris
For depictions of the subject of the Apotheosis of Hercules more contemporary to that of my engraved gem, a famous example is that found in Versailles in the Hercules room on the ceiling by Francois Le Moyne in 1736.  There Hercules is standing in a chariot, born aloft into the clouds to join the Gods above. No eagle is apparent, and he certainly isn’t riding one. 

detail of Apotheosis of Hercules, by Le Moyne, Versailles

I cannot recall or find a similar depiction of the Apotheosis of Hercules from the period contemporaneous with this gem.  If anyone knows of one, or comes across this subject, do let me know.

What this search for sources for this gem reinforces for me is the originality of the Poniatowski gems. Even if the intent was to deceive people into thinking they were ancient, the are real works of art worthy of appreciation in their own right.

No comments: