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Intaglio - Apollo pursuing Daphne, who is partly transformed into a laurel tree
  • Apollo pursuing Daphne, who is partly transformed into a laurel tree
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Apollo pursuing Daphne, who is partly transformed into a laurel tree

  • Object:

    Intaglio

  • Place of origin:

    Italy (made)

  • Date:

    1820-30 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Engraved gemstone

  • Museum number:

    947-1853

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

The art of engraving gemstones can be traced back to ancient Greece in the 8th century BC and earlier. Techniques passed down to the Egyptians and then to the Romans. There were major revivals of interest in engraved gems in Europe during the Byantine era, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and again in the 18th and 19th centuries. At each stage cameos and intaglios, these skillful carvings on a minute scale, were much prized and collected, sometimes as symbols of power mounted in jewelled settings, sometimes as small objects for private devotion or enjoyment. This gem is in the neo-classical style popular in the late 1700s and early 1800s, when taste in the arts echoed the subject matter and style of the Greek and Roman masters. Thousands of gems were made in this style in Italy and brought back by British Grand Tourists, who went there to visit the newly-discovered classical antiquities and archaeological sites. It once belonged to the collection of Prince Stanislas Poniatowski (1754-1833), a wealthy collector who commissioned about 2500 engraved gems and encouraged the belief that they were ancient. Many even bore the signatures of the most celebrated Greek and Roman engravers. The collection was sold in 1839 following Poniatowski's death, and later the scandal of its true background emerged and many gems subsequently changed hands for very low prices and were widely dispersed. The Poniatowski affair is often credited with causing a loss of confidence in the market for engraved gems, and the subsequent decline in the art from the mid nineteenth century onwards. Nowadays, ironically, the Poniatowski collection is of increasing interest as most of the gems were the work of a small group of neo-classical gem-engravers in Rome, including most probably the great Luigi Pichler (1773-1854),and have come to be regarded as important works of gem-engraving. The engravers of the Poniatowski gems took their subjects from classical literature, especially the works of Homer, Virgil and Ovid. Two identifications can be made of the scene depicted in this gem, both involving nymphs in flight from seduction. The first is second is that it shows the god Apollo in his pursuit of the nymph Daphne, who rejected his advances. As Apollo gained on her she appealed to her father Peneus, who took pity on her and changed her into a laurel tree. The second is that it shows the mythical hero Peleus in his attempt to rape the nymph Thetis, with whom he eventually married and fathered Achilles. Thetis is in the act of transforming herself into a tree to escape his advances.

Physical description

Vertical oval intaglio. Red translucent carnelian. On the right a male figure, probably Apollo, naked except for a cloak, reaches left to clasp the figure of a naked female, probably Daphne, who is being transformed into a tree. She faces left, her feet and arms sprouting branches. Set in a gold filigree mount with a line of black enamel.

Place of Origin

Italy (made)

Date

1820-30 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Engraved gemstone

Marks and inscriptions

Greek inscription
Pyrgoteles
Spurious signature of Greek gem-engraver

Dimensions

Height: 36 mm approximate, Width: 32 mm approximate

Object history note

This gem, in its original gold Poniatowski mount, is one of eighteen intaglios owned by the Museum which come from the Poniatowski collection. These were all included in the Poniatowski sale catalogue of 1839 (Christie's sale 29 April-21 May, 1839, Catalogue of the ...collection of antique gems of the Prince Poniatowski, this gem lot 1409), but purchased privately and withdrawn from the sale. They were then in the collection of John Tyrrell who purchased around 1200 in total. They subsequently passed into the collection of Lord Monson. In 1853 these gems were sold by the executors of Lord Monson, along with over two hundred similar Poniatowski gems (Christie's sale 18 May, 1853, Gems from the Poniatowski Collection, this gem lot 172). Eleven were bought at that stage by the Museum, and seven were subsequently given in 1865 by Cockle Lucas.

Historical significance: Engraved gemstones of all dates were widely collected in Italy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many were brought back by British Grand Tourists, and important collections were formed.

Historical context note

Prince Stanislas Poniatowski (1754-1833) was a wealthy collector who commissioned about 2500 engraved gems and encouraged the belief that they were ancient. Many even bore the signatures of the most celebrated Greek and Roman engravers. His collection was sold in 1839 following his death, and later the scandal of its true background emerged and many gems subsequently changed hands for very low prices and were widely dispersed. The Poniatowski affair is often credited with causing a loss of confidence in the market for engraved gems, and the subsequent decline in the art from the mid nineteenth century onwards. Nowadays, ironically, the Poniatowski collection is of increasing interest as most of the gems were the work of a small group of neo-classical gem-engravers in Rome, including most probably the great Luigi Pichler (1773-1854),and have come to be regarded as important works of gem-engraving. Claudia Wagner of the Beazley archive is working on assembling online as complete a list as possible of all the Poniatowski gems, including images, and this is available to consult as a Work in Progress.

Descriptive line

Intaglio probably depicting Apollo pursuing Daphne, who is partly transformed into a laurel tree, oval carnelian in gold filigree mount; Italy, 1820-30

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Inventory of Art Objects Acquired in the Year 1853. In: Inventory of the Objects in the Art Division of the Museum at South Kensington, Arranged According to the Dates of their Acquisition. Vol I. London: Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., 1868, p. 40.
The Beazley Archive (online), Gems, The Poniatowski Collection database, Ref.T819
Machell Cox, E., Victoria & Albert Museum Catalogue of Engraved Gems. London, Typescript, 1935, Part 2, Section 1, p. 176-7.
Catalogue des Pièrres Gravées Antiques de S.A. le Prince Stanislas Poniatowski, 1830-33, V.102.
Prendeville, James, Explanatory Catalogue of the Proof-Impressions of the Antique Gems possessed by the Late Prince Poniatowski and now in the possession of John Tyrrell, Esq., 1841, 819?

Production Note

Spuriously attributed to Pyrgoteles

Attribution note: Red translucent chalcedony. The frame of the mount is of a different shap to the carnelian with its border. It would appear to have been swapped for another in the same group at some point. J Whalley May 2009.

Materials

Carnelian; Chalcedony; Gold; Enamel; Microquartz; Gemstone

Techniques

Gem-engraving

Subjects depicted

Tree

Categories

Jewellery; Sculpture; Myths & Legends

Collection

Sculpture Collection

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