Socrates taking poison
- Place of origin:
- Materials and Techniques:
Engraved gemstone, carnelian, chalcedony, microquartz
- Credit Line:
Given by R. C. Lucas
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
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. Here the engraver depicts the famous scene of Socrates taking his own life (399 BC), surrounded by his disciples. The philosopher had been tried in Athens for corrupting youth and denying the existence of the ancestral gods. He was offered exile and the renunciation of his teaching life, or death by poisoning. He chose to drink hemlock and die - 'the unexamined life is not worth living' - and the scene at his death was described by his pupil Plato.
Horizontal oval intaglio. Red translucent carnelian. Depicting Socrates, bearded and partly bald, naked except for a loose draped garment sitting on a low platform to which shackles are attached, facing left in profile and raising a drinking vessel up in his left hand. Four other draped male figures, two to left and two to right, stand and sit around him, the two outer figures weeping, those nearest to Socrates gesturing.
Place of Origin
Materials and Techniques
Engraved gemstone, carnelian, chalcedony, microquartz
Marks and inscriptions
Spurious signature of Greek gem-engraver
Width: 48.5 mm, Height: 31.5 mm
Object history note
Ex Poniatowski Collection. Given by the British neo-classical sculptor Richard Cockle Lucas in 1865. Cockle Lucas' gift comprised twenty-two ivory carvings, twelve waxes, seventeen gems seven of which were from the Poniatowski collection, a marble group and a portrait in plaster. This gem 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 1209), 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 44). 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.
Intaglio, oval carnelian, depicting Socrates taking poison, Italy, 1820-30
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Inventory of Art Objects acquired in the Year 1865. Inventory of the Objects in the Art Division of the Museum at South Kensington, arranged According to the Dates of their Acquisition. Vol. 1. London : Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., 1868, p. 30
Machell Cox, E., Victoria & Albert Museum Catalogue of Engraved Gems. London, Typescript, 1935, Part 2, Section 1, p. 179
The Beazley Archive (online), Gems, The Poniatowski Collection database, Ref. T1186
Catalogue des Pièrres Gravées Antiques de S.A. le Prince Stanislas Poniatowski, 1830-33, VIII.2.26.
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, 1186
Spuriously attributed to Apollonides
Attribution note: Red translucent chalcedony
Carnelian; Gemstone; Chalcedony; Microquartz