Head of a Roman emperor
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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. This cameo may be intended to represent a particular Roman emperor. It bears resemblances to portraits of Vespasian, Tiberius, and Titus on their coinage. However it may equally well be an amalgamation of all these likenesses, and others, resulting in a generic Roman emperor type.
Vertical oval cameo. Pale orange-brown over pale yellow-brown mottled jasper. Depicts the head of a Roman emperor, clean shaven and wearing a laurel wreath, facing left. Set in a gold ring.
Place of Origin
Materials and Techniques
Height: 26 mm approx., Width: 18 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 significance: This cameo may be intended to represent a particular Roman emperor. It bears resemblances to portraits of Vespasian, Tiberius, and Titus on contemporary coinage. However it may equally well be an amalgamation of all these likenesses, and others, resulting in a generic Roman emperor type.
Historical context note
Engraved gemstones based on classical models were widely produced and collected in Italy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many were brought back by British Grand Tourists, and important collections were formed.
Cameo, oval layered and mottled jasper set in gold ring, depicting the head of a Roman emperor, possibly Vespasian, Italy, 1780-1820
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. 163
Attribution note: Pale orange-brown jasper over pale yellow-brown mottled jasper.
Layered jasper; Gemstone; Microquartz; Gold
Jewellery; Portraits; Sculpture; Gemstones