|Amethyst Intaglio set in its Original gold and black enamel setting.|
Dear Reader, it has been awhile but my recent purchase of this magnificent intaglio has inspired me post. It is a large convex amethyst gem engraved with a scene of of Apollo and a youth, with a dying stag under a tree. It is an illustration of the Greco-Roman myth best told by Ovid in his wonderful "Metamorphosis", which I will relate below.
|Gem seen with light shining through it.|
Above in the backlit image, you can see the carving clearly.
The gem is from the notorious Poniatowski collection, this is Tyrrell 513, illustrated on the Beazley Archives by the plaster impression Tyrrell had made of it and all the Poniatowski gems he purchased. Here is the link:
The Poniatowski gems have become of great interest to me; they are beautiful examples of the gem engravers art, their subjects are wonderful, and their history is so fascinating. It is rare that I get a chance to have objects that one knows for whom they were created, and their provenance so well. For example this gem was published by the Prince, Catalogue des Pierres Gravees Antiques de S.A. le Prince Stanislas Poniatowski, Florence 1830-1833, no IV 62. It was also published by its next owner, John Tyrrell, 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., London 1841, no 513.
The full provenance goes: The collection of Prince Poniatowski, offered at auction at Christie's London, April 20 - May 21, 1839, lot 2344, withdrawn from the sale, purchased by John Tyrrell (35 Craven Street - London). New York Art Market 2012 when it was purchased by me, its whereabouts between Tyrrell's ownership and mine is at this time, unknown. (Thanks go to Hadrien Rambach for providing me with the full provenance as it is known.)
The subject of the gem is the story of Apollo and Cyparissus, is related by Ovid as part of his retelling of the myth of Orpheus, the lead in to the story is the scene where Orpheus rests on the top of a hill, which had no trees and no shade, and as he played on his lyre and sang the shady trees moved to the spot to shelter him from the sun. Ovid lists the different types of trees and their particular attributes and last came the Cypress, and then the telling of this story:
"With the rest of the throng came the cypress, shaped like the cones that mark the turning point on the race-course; though now a tree, it was once a boy, dearly loved by the god who strings both lyre and bow.
This is the story. There was once a magnificent stag, sacred to the nymphs who live in the fields of Carthaea, whose branching antlers cast deep shade over its head. These antlers gleamed with gold and a necklace of precious stones, encircling the animal's silky neck, hung down over its shoulders. On its forehead swayed a silver charm, kept in place by fine leather straps, which it had worn since it was born, and pearls glistened in either ear, close by its hollow temples. This stag was quite without fear and, its natural timidity forgotten, used to visit people's houses and hold out its neck, even to strangers, to be stroked. But the person who was most attached to it was Cyparissus, the handsomest of the Cean boys. He used to lead it to fresh grazing, or to the waters of some crystal spring, and wove wreaths of different kinds of flowers to hang upon its horns. Sometimes he sat on its back, like a horseman on his horse, and gleefully guided the animal's soft mouth this way and that, by means of scarlet reins.
One summer day, at noon, when the curving arms of the shore-loving Crab were being scorched by the heat of the sun, the stag was tired, and lay down to rest on the grassy ground, finding coolness in the shade of the trees. There Cyparissus unwittingly pierced it with his keen javelin. When he saw his friend cruelly wounded and dying, the boy resolved to die himself. Phoebus (Apollo) said all he could to comfort him, chiding him and telling him that his grief should be moderate, in proportion to its cause. Still the boy groaned and begged, as a last gift from the gods, that he should be allowed to go on mourning forever. Now, as his blood drained away, by reason of his endless weeping, his limbs began to change to a greenish hue, and the hair which lately curled over his snowy brow bristled and stiffened, pointing upwards in a greaceful crest towards the starry sky. Sadly the god Apollo sighed; "I shall mourn for you," he said, "while you yourself will mourn for others, and be the constant companion of those in distress."
Beautifully told by Ovid, this story comes to life in this gem, and is a scene not depicted in any ancient work of art, which is typical of the Poniatowski gems. Most of the gems illustrate, in original ways that copy no other works of art, obscure stories from the myths, mostly from Ovid, which given the poetic way the story is related above is understandable, that have no parallels in ancient or even modern art of their time. As such the Poniatowski gems are surprisingly original for a body of "fakes". One wonders if the Prince had not created the ruse of passing them off as ancient, whether they might have had more influence on the art of their time, given their originality.
The story of the Prince and his collection I have related before:
Just to summarize, Prince Paniatowski was of the Polish royal family and chose to live in Rome in the last part of the 18th into the early 19th Century, and had a large collection of what he said were ancient gems, and those few who were permitted to see it, declared it the greatest collection of gems anyone had seen. He published two catalogues of the gems, with elaborate descriptions, but no illustrations during his lifetime, which added to the fame of his collection. It was sold after his death in 1839 at Christie's in London, and by then, doubts about the antiquity of the gems began to surface, and the sale was not a success. But a John Tyrrell purchased 1600 of the gems, believing them to be ancient, and created plaster impressions of them which he distributed to document and promote them. This particular gem is one of them, and until this time, it has been on the Oxford University online Beazley archives, as whereabouts unknown, illustrated only by the plaster cast created by Tyrrell. Tyrrell believed in the gems antiquity until the end, summing up his thoughts thusly, that it was "not probable that a nobleman of his (the prince's) high character and honor to have asserted that which he did not believe to be true." We will never know what Prince Poniatowski really believed, whether he was taken by gem engravers selling him invented gems as ancient, or wheter he created the ruse, but I tend to believe that the Prince knew exactly what he was doing, and his reluctance to let many people see the collection would support that. In addition a group of sketches by the gem-engraver Giovanni Calandrelli in Berlin has come to light, illustrating the myths and scenes that were then engraved on the gems, and on the Oxford Beazley Archives, the relevant sketches are featured on the gems they were the template for. It is pretty remarkable to be able to follow a work of art from concept to execution, something we can for many of these gems.
The gems art historical value are now being re-appraised, and thanks to Oxford attempting to put the collection back to again, we are getting a new look at them. This gem is an example of the best of them, they don't get better, and the material is beautiful, most of the gems are carved in carnelian, and only some in amethyst. Being in its original setting also ads to the historic value of this gem, I'm happy to have it.