Through the examples of the exhibits, visitors will be able to see various periods in the development of glyptic art and to trace the continuity of traditions in this field and closely connected areas of creative practice.
Glyptics – the art of carving in miniature on semi¬precious and precious stones – is among the most ancient forms of human creativity.
Although the word itself is of Italian origin, intaglios – stones with a hollow-cut design – were known as far back as the 4th millennium BC and were used as amulets and personal seals. Relief cameos (also Italian, probably from the Old French сamaïeu) appeared later, in Hellenistic Egypt, in the late 4th or early 3rd century BC. In contrast to intaglios, they had no practical purpose and were prized chiefly for their aesthetic value. Cameos were kept as precious relics in the treasuries of temples and in the homes of high-born owners. They adorned clothing and objects of religious and secular significance. In imperial Rome they also served as awards or decorations. As a rule, transparent or semitransparent stones of a single colour (carnelian, sard) were chosen for intaglios, while stones with different layers (onyx, agate) were used for cameos, making it possible to achieve a variety of colouristic effects.
The glyptic art of Antiquity developed over the course of many centuries. The earliest examples included in the exhibition date from the 4th–3rd millennia BC. They are intaglios that were used as personal seals. In the Ancient World intaglio seals had a hole drilled all the way through them and were worn on a cord (Scarab with an incised image on the base, Etruria, 3rd century BC; Scaraboid with an incised image on the base, Asia Minor, Ionia(?), 4th century BC), or else were set into rings or handles.
Classical Antiquity saw the working out of carving techniques, the range of subjects and the laws of composition and sculptural treatment that went on to shape the development of post-classical glyptics. The production of cameos and intaglios did not cease in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, while classical examples were used to decorate reliquaries, quite often with a change in the interpretation of the subject (pagan images were readily associated with Christian legends).
One of the most iconic works of ancient glyptic art is the Gonzaga Cameo (3rd century BC) that is kept in the State Hermitage. The majority of modern-day scholars identify the double portrait as the rulers of Egypt Ptolemy II Philadelphus and Arsinoë II. The anonymous 17th-century Italian stone-carver who created the cameo of Alexander the Great and Olympias that can be seen in the exhibition did not reproduce the Gonzaga Cameo exactly, but rather produced a variation on the theme of a regal couple, presenting in a characteristic manner idealized images of the Macedonian ruler and his mother. This pattern for a double portrait also endured into the late 19th century (the brooch with a cameo Double Portrait of Franz Josef I and Elizabeth of Bavaria). The present-day carver Vladimir Popovich did make a precise copy of the Gonzaga Cameo, but as an intaglio.
European glyptic art was at its peak at the time of the Renaissance and again in the second half of the 18th century.
In Renaissance Italy this art form reached incredible heights: the foremost carvers came as close as possible to classical ideal that was considered unattainable, while enriching it with genres unknown in Antiquity: portraiture and Christian subjects. The cameos from this period in the exhibition include a Nativity (Northern Italy, c. 1500), an Annunciation (Italy, first half of the 15th century) and The Judgement of Solomon (Germany, first half of the 16th century). Ancient glyptic pieces became the object of passionate collecting. The legendary collectors – the Medicis, Gonzagas, Farneses, Popes Paul II and Leo X – were also art patrons, stimulating carvers to produce new works. The Renaissance also gave a powerful impetus to the study and interpretation of the subjects of cameos and intaglios.
The next period of heightened interest in glyptic art came in the 18th century. Carved stones were collected by royalty: George III, Frederick the Great and Maria Theresa. Their enthusiasm was matched by members of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, and also by many scholars, artists and writers. Catherine II was a tremendous collector. The Empress jokingly referred to her passion as an “illness” and as a result of it the Russian imperial collection came to contain a very rich assortment of European and Eastern glyptic art. By the end of Catherine II’s reign, it numbered more than 10,000 carved stones and a further 34,000 casts. The exhibition features an Intaglio on an aquamarine with a depiction of Catherine the Great that was made by the court medallist Carl Leberecht (1755–1827). He depicted his regal client in the travelling costume that she wore when visiting Kiev during her journey to the Crimea in 1787. The display also includes works of stone-carvers active in Russia in the 19th century: a Cameo Portrait of Suvorov by Piotr Dobrokhotov (1786(?)–1831) and Christ Crowned with Thorns by Prokopy Kuznetsov (before 1789 – after 1850).
In all times, carved stones have in themselves been perceived as precious objects and they have fetched exceptionally high prices. They were used to decorate articles of various purposes, including status symbols: vases, snuffboxes and pieces of jewellery. Examples in the exhibition include a panagia incorporating a cameo of the Crucifixion, a snuffbox with an intaglio of The Triumph of Galatea and another with a cameo lid: Making an Offering to Aesculapius and Pan.
Seals from the 18th and 19th century form a significant element within the exhibition, being of considerable interest in respect of both the stone-cutter’s art and the jeweller’s art. A large number of the exhibits are mounted in striking settings a Triangular Seal (mid-18th century, Russia) that probably belonged to Empress Elizabeth; a Seal with a Handle in the Form of a Woman’s Head (Western Europe, mid-18th century); a Desk Seal of Alexander II (Russia, after 1856); a Desk Seal of Tsesarevich Nikolai Alexandrovich (Russia, 1850s–60s) and the desk seals of D.A. Benckendorff (1845–1917), an actual state councillor and a member of the board of the Russian Foreign Trade Bank.
Present-day craftspeople paying tribute to the great past of stone-carving seek their own course in this form of artistic creativity. In the exhibition works of contemporary glyptic art enter into a dialogue with the historical cameos and intaglios from the museum collection. This art form in the 20th and 21st centuries is presented to the viewers through the prism of works by the carver Vladimir Popovich. They have a broad range of subject matter. The display includes pieces depicting ancient myths, biblical subjects, portraits of historical personages, great thinkers, emperors and military commanders – Diogenes (2010), Alexander Nevsky (2015); Portrait of Anna Akhmatova (2004); Portrait of Academician Dmitry Likhachev (2005); an Intaglio of the Gonzaga Cameo and more.
The exhibition also includes works of jewellery and small-scale plastic art in stone with elements of carving both from the 18th and 19th centuries and among the jewellery in which the House of Tenzo specializes.
The exhibition has been prepared by the Department of Western European Applied Art (headed by Olga Grigoryevna Kostiuk). The preparatory restoration of exhibits was carried out by the Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Precious Metals (headed by Igor Karlovich Malkiel) in the State Hermitage’s Department of Scientific Restoration and Conservation (headed by Tatiana Alexandrovna Baranova).