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Cameo - Cleopatra with the asp at her breast

Cleopatra with the asp at her breast

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Italy (made)

  • Date:

    1750-1800 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Engraved gemstone

  • Credit Line:

    Townshend Bequest

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

The art of engraving gemstones has been admired since the early days of the Roman empire. It was revived in Europe during the Renaissance, and again in the 18th and 19th centuries. Cameos and intaglios were prized and collected, sometimes as symbols of power and 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. The first century historian of Rome, Plutarch, described the death of Cleopatra (68-30 BCE), Queen of Egypt, in the form that became accepted. Rather than face defeat at the hands of the emperor Augustus she committed suicide by snake bite.

Physical description

Vertical oval cameo. White over milky brown layered agate. Depicts half figure of Cleopatra, naked, facing right and holding the asp to her breast. Set in a gold ring.

Place of Origin

Italy (made)


1750-1800 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Engraved gemstone


Height: 21 mm approx., Width: 17 mm approx.

Object history note

This gem was part of the collection of the Reverend Chauncy Hare Townshend (1798-1868), who bequeathed his important collection to the South Kensington Museum in 1869. Although the gemstone collection is not as comprehensive as that found at the Natural History Museum, it is of particular historic interest as its formation pre-dates the development of many synthetic stones and artificial enhancements. All the stones were mounted as rings before they came to the Museum. Some are held in the Sculpture Section, other more elaborately mounted ones in the Metalwork Section.

As well as being a clergyman, collector and dillettante, the Reverend Townshend wrote poetry. He met Robert Southey in 1815 and through him the Wordsworths, the Coleridges and John Clare. He was a friend of Charles Dickens and dedicatee of his novel 'Great Expectations'.

Historical context note

Engraved gemstones based on classical models were widely produced and collected in Italy in the eighteenth century. Many were brought back by British Grand Tourists, and important collections were formed.

Descriptive line

Cameo, layered agate in two strata, set in gold ring, depicting Cleopatra holding the asp to her breast, Italy, 1750-1800

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

List of Objects in the Art Division, South Kensington, Acquired During the Year 1869, Arranged According to the Dates of Acquisition. London: Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., p. 126
Machell Cox, E., Victoria & Albert Museum Catalogue of Engraved Gems. London, Typescript, 1935, Part 2, Section 1, p. 160

Production Note

Attribution note: White over milky brown chalcedonies.


Layered agate; Gemstone; Microquartz; Chalcedony



Subjects depicted

Serpents (animal)


Jewellery; Sculpture; Myths & Legends; Cameo; Gemstones


Sculpture Collection

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