Gems are images carved in gemstones either as intaglios or cameos. The design in intaglios is cut into the surface of the gemstone as a “negative” relief (concave surface). In Classical antiquity they were usually worn on a string around the neck or wrist, but more often they were mounted in signet rings because they were used as seals. When an owner pressed one into sealing wax or clay, the impression appeared as a positive of the engraved motif, which served as a signature. The image in cameos, on the other hand, is carved in “positive” relief (convex surface). They mainly exploit layers of differently coloured stone, so that a light image is contrasted by a dark background or vice versa, and they exclusively served as decoration. A collection of gems is called a daktyliothek.
In the age of Neoclassicism, i.e. in the time of the so-called Grand Tours to the centre of Antiquity – Rome – and parallel revival of Classical culture, rivalry grew, both among scholars and noblemen, over the preservation of Classical art. Because not many works, whether sculptures or paintings, from the ancient times were available, gems were even more highly valued.
In addition to collections of original gems, rich collections of their casts were also built up. In the 17th century carved copies after originals began to appear as cheaper substitutes to meet the needs of collectors. They became widespread in the 18th and the 19th centuries for the purpose of both collecting and studying, but in the first place as souvenirs to be taken home by Grand Tourists from their journey.
At the beginning of the 19th century a collection of gems, presently known worldwide, was amassed by the Polish nobleman, politician and diplomat Prince Stanisław Poniatowski (1754–1833), nephew of the last King of Poland, Stanisław II August Poniatowski.Gems were made for him by the most renowned contemporary artist-engravers of Rome, but Prince Poniatowski declared his gems to be Classical originals. The motifs were taken from Classical literature, Homer, Ovid and Virgil in the first place, rather than from Antique fine arts. Hardly anyone had access to the Poniatowski Collection of which rumours began to spread, for it was believed to be one of the richest (with over 2000 gems). After the Prince’s death it was sold and the gems dispersed all over the world.
In a private collection in Slovenia, fifty casts in glass paste were recognized as having been made after the gems in the Poniatowski Collection. At the present exhibition they are shown to the public for the first time. Glass casts of gems were highly valued because, in contrast to plaster casts, they keep the lustre and translucency of original gemstones. It is known that among other engravers in Rome there were also Bartolomeo Paoletti (1757‒1834) and his son Pietro Paoletti (1785‒1844/45) who made such casts and it is plausible to attribute the present exhibits to their workshop.
Collections of gems or their casts resemble illustrated encyclopaedias of Antiquity whose mythological stories, images of gods, goddesses and heroes, portraits of notable personages, as well as images of animals and mythological creatures invite to infinite interpretations, reflections and re-experience of the past, or they just offer aesthetic pleasure. They combine in themselves the perfection of painting and sculpture and the power, beauty and grandeur of the Classical world.