By Gemma Sena Chiesa. With contributions by Alessandra Magni and Gabriella Tassinari and an appendix by Margherita Superchi and Antonello Donini (Collezioni e Musei Archeologici del Veneto 45). Pp. ix + 249, pls. 66. Giorgio Bretschneider, Rome 2009. €188. ISBN 978-88-7689-259-2 (paper).
This is another splendid catalogue edited, and with an introduction by, the doyenne of Italian glyptic studies, whose catalogue of gems in the National Museum at Aquileia published in 1966 (Gemme del Museo Nazionale di Aquileia [Aquileia]) can be said to have initiated the study of gems as archaeological object; it was certainly this reviewer’s bible when he was working on his doctorate dealing with gems discovered in Britain during the following three or four years.
As with the Aquileia collection, those in Verona are not the products of scientific excavation; indeed, many are the residue of an 18th- and early 19th-century collection assembled by Count Jacopo Verità (1744–1827), a curator of the Museo Lapidario Veronense, although others, including many modern gems and pastes, were acquired for the Verona City Museum later. Although not one of the ancient gems has a known findspot, it is quite clear, by studying the close stylistic links between the engraved examples and those from Aquileia, that they were found locally; many of the engraved examples can be assigned to the workshop groups suggested by Sena Chiesa. The main catalogue and descriptive texts are written by Magni, who describes the ancient gems, and Tassinari, who is concerned with the modern ones. Both are thoughtful, fully referenced, and important contributions to glyptic studies. There is also a short appendix (indeed, rather too brief) on the gemmology by Superchi and Donini.
As far as the Roman intaglios are concerned (there are no cameos), relatively few are distinctive, individual works of art. One or two examples dating to the Republican (the satyr, cat. no. 198) and Augustan periods (Amymone, cat. no. 531; Medusa, cat. no. 534) stand out. From the Imperial period, there are especially a number of gems depicting Oriental deities, of which the two jaspers depicting the deities of Ascalon (cat. nos. 332, 333) are particularly remarkable. In addition, what may be evidence for a local cult of Silvanus-Saturn is represented by a few gems, one of which (cat. no. 311) is of fine quality and engraved with the owner’s initials, “ME.” However, the greater number of intaglios represent the products of mass production by artisans working for a popular market. This can be seen in the close correspondence in style as well as in iconography in 27 intaglios depicting Jupiter enthroned (cat. nos. 1–27), mainly cut on milky chalcedony.
This is even clearer in the case of some of the red jaspers close to Sena Chiesa’s officina dei diaspri rossi, notably the two types of Bonus Eventus (cat. nos. 447–49, 452–56), representations of Ceres-Fides Publica (cat. nos. 460–64), and intaglios depicting Theseus with the sword of his father (cat. nos. 512–14). These and others, notably the representations of Mars Gradivus (esp. cat. no. 131), can be quite closely dated by comparison with other intaglios, very close in style, from the Roman Jeweller’s Hoard from Snettisham, Norfolk, in eastern Britain, which was associated with coins of ca. 150 C.E. (C. Johns, The Snettisham Roman Jeweller’s Hoard [London 1997]). However, the Snettisham gems seem likely to have been carved on-site by a traveling workshop, whether or not the gem cutters originated in Italy, and so, without denying that Aquileia was a major center for craftsmanship in North Italy, we cannot by any means rule out the production of gems in many other towns in Italy and beyond, and given the likely provenances of so many of these stones, why not Verona itself among them?
Unlike the cut stones, the molded glass gems, or at least those of the first century B.C.E., have a closer relationship to refined art. They make up about a quarter of the ancient gems in the collection. Mass production is suggested by three identical glass intaglios of heads of Zeus Ammon and of Africa confronted (cat. nos. 488–90) but also more generally because most are “wasters,” where the glass residues left by the molding process had never been shaved off, meaning they could never have been set in rings (e.g., cat. nos. 216, 538, 643). Although these glass intaglios have long fascinated scholars, and the dating can be firmly established by the political motifs on some of them to around the time of the Second Triumvirate (see the appendix “A Cache of Glass Gems Dating to the Second Triumvirate,” in M. Henig, The Lewis Collection of Gemstones in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. BAR-IS 1 [Oxford 1975] 81–94), no workshop had been recorded until the 1982–1985 excavations by the Institutum Romanum Finlandiae in Rome in the area of the Lacus Iuturnae. In her introduction (6), Harri’s work on this highly significant cache, soon to be published in the excavation report, is mentioned along with another find of glass intaglios from Bologna. These again point to diverse workshops at the point of consumption.
Classical archaeologists are increasingly interested in the reception of classical art from the Renaissance onward, and the second part of the volume, by Tassinari, covers mass-produced 16th- and 17th-century engraved gems in lapis lazuli, carnelian, and garnet, which attempt to imitate ancient gems. This section also deals with molded glass pastes of the 18th century, which copied well-known glyptic masterpieces and were frequently assembled as much for scholarly perusal as for aesthetic delight by collectors.
Although the general standard of production of this volume is high, at this price, one has a right to expect a more generous use of photographs. This is the only aspect that lets the reader down, but it is a crucial one for books on the minor arts. I know from experience that this is a defect too often beyond the author’s control. Apart from the two enlarged color photographs of an ancient gem and an 18th-century paste on the front cover, all the photographs are in black-and-white and rather too small for a full appreciation of either subject or style. It would certainly have been helpful to have had a selection of color illustrations, including plates concerned with details of the engraving.
University of Oxford