Cameo (carving)

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The Great Cameo of France, five layers sardonyx, Rome, c. 23 AD, the largest of Antiquity Great Cameo of France CdM Paris Bab264 n1.jpg
The Great Cameo of France, five layers sardonyx, Rome, c. 23 AD, the largest of Antiquity
Eagle Cameo, Roman 27 B.C. Two-layered onyx. Adlerkameo KHM.jpg
Eagle Cameo, Roman 27 B.C. Two-layered onyx.
Renaissance cameo of an African king, 16th century, Italy (?) (Cabinet des medailles) Cameo African king CdM Paris Babelon593.jpg
Renaissance cameo of an African king, 16th century, Italy (?) (Cabinet des médailles)

Cameo ( /ˈkæmi/ ) is a method of carving an object such as an engraved gem, item of jewellery or vessel. It nearly always features a raised (positive) relief image; contrast with intaglio, which has a negative image. [1] Originally, and still in discussing historical work, cameo only referred to works where the relief image was of a contrasting colour to the background; this was achieved by carefully carving a piece of material with a flat plane where two contrasting colours met, removing all the first colour except for the image to leave a contrasting background.


A variation of a carved cameo is a cameo incrustation (or sulphide). An artist, usually an engraver, carves a small portrait, then makes a cast from the carving, from which a ceramic type cameo is produced. This is then encased in a glass object, often a paperweight. These are very difficult to make but were popular from the late 18th century through the end of the 19th century. Originating in Bohemia, the finest examples were made by the French glassworks in the early to mid-nineteenth century. [2]

Today the term may be used very loosely for objects with no colour contrast, and other, metaphorical, terms have developed, such as cameo appearance. This derives from another generalized meaning that has developed, the cameo as an image of a head in an oval frame in any medium, such as a photograph.


Ancient and Renaissance cameos were made from semi-precious gemstones, [3] especially the various types of onyx and agate, and any other stones with a flat plane where two contrasting colours meet; these are "hardstone" cameos. In cheaper modern work, shell and glass are more common. Glass cameo vessels, such as the famous Portland Vase, were also developed by the Romans.

Modern cameos can be produced by setting a carved relief, such as a portrait, onto a background of a contrasting colour. This is called an assembled cameo. Alternatively, a cameo can be carved by the traditional, but far more difficult, method directly out of a material with integral layers or banding, such as (banded) agate or layered glass, where different layers have different colours.

Sometimes dyes are used to enhance these colours.


Woman wearing a cameo at her throat, on a high lace collar in the Edwardian style Mary-Margaret-Bartelme-Bain.jpeg
Woman wearing a cameo at her throat, on a high lace collar in the Edwardian style

Sir Wallis Budge alleged that the noun "Cameo" apparently comes from Kame'o, a word used in kabbalistic slang to signify a "magical square", i.e. a kind of talisman whereupon magical spells was carved. [4]

Cameos are often worn as jewelry, but in ancient times were mainly used for signet rings and large earrings, although the largest examples were probably too large for this, and were just admired as objets d'art. Stone cameos of great artistry were made in Greece dating back as far as the 3rd century BC. The Farnese Tazza (a cup) is the oldest major Hellenistic piece surviving. They were very popular in Ancient Rome, especially in the family circle of Augustus. The most famous stone "state cameos" from this period are the Gemma Augustea, the Gemma Claudia made for the Emperor Claudius, and the largest flat engraved gem known from antiquity, the Great Cameo of France. Roman Cameos became less common around in the years leading up to 300 AD, although production continued at a much reduced rate right through the Middle Ages. [5]

The technique has since enjoyed periodic revivals, notably in the early Renaissance, and again in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Neoclassical revival began in France with Napoleon's support of the glyptic arts, and even his coronation crown was decorated with cameos.

In Britain, this revival first occurred during King George III's reign, and his granddaughter, Queen Victoria, was a major proponent of the cameo trend, to the extent that they would become mass-produced by the second half of the 19th century.

The visual art form of the cameo has even inspired at least one writer of more recent times, the 19th-century Russian poet Lev Mei, who composed a cycle of six poems entitled Камеи (Cameos, 1861), as reflections on each of the Roman rulers from Julius Caesar to Nero. In 1852 Théophile Gautier titled a collection of his highly polished, lapidary poems Emaux et Camées (Enamels and Cameos).

Roman glass cameos

During the Roman period the cameo technique was used on glass blanks, in imitation of objects being produced in agate or sardonyx. Cameo glass objects were produced in two periods; between around 25 BC and 50/60 AD, and in the later Empire around the mid-third and mid-fourth century. [6] Roman glass cameos are rare objects, with only around two hundred fragments and sixteen complete pieces known, [6] only one of which dates from the later period. [7] During the early period they usually consisted of a blue glass base with a white overlying layer, [8] but those made during the later period usually have a colourless background covered with a translucent coloured layer. [7] Blanks could be produced by fusing two separately cast sheets of glass, or by dipping the base glass into a crucible of molten overlay glass during blowing. [8] The most famous example of a cameo from the early period is the Portland Vase.

Shell cameos

Although occasionally used in Roman cameos, the earliest prevalent use of shell for cameo carving was during the Renaissance, in the 15th and 16th centuries. Before that time, cameos were carved from hardstone. The Renaissance cameos are typically white on a grayish background and were carved from the shell of a mussel or cowry, the latter a tropical mollusk.

In the mid 18th century, explorations revealed new shell varieties. Helmet shells ( Cassis tuberosa ) from the West Indies, and queen conch shells ( Eustrombus gigas ) from the Bahamas and West Indies, arrived in Europe. This sparked a big increase in the number of cameos that were carved from shells. Conch shells carve very well, but their color fades over time.

After 1850 demand for cameos grew, as they became popular souvenirs of the Grand Tour among the middle class. [9]

Cameo subjects

Classically the designs carved onto cameo stones were either scenes of Greek or Roman mythology or portraits of rulers or important dignitaries. In history, agate portrait cameos were often gifts from royalty to their subjects. These antique cameos, some more than 2000 years old, are either displayed in museums or are in private collections.

Notable historic cameos

The Gonzaga Cameo in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. The gem measures 15,7 x 11,8 cm. Cammeo gonzaga con doppio ritratto di tolomeo II e arsinoe II, III sec. ac. (alessandria), da hermitage.jpg
The Gonzaga Cameo in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. The gem measures 15,7 x 11,8 cm.

Modern cameos

A modern hand-carved portrait cameo of white on blue-layered agate, set in 18 kt white gold Agate portrait cameo A.jpg
A modern hand-carved portrait cameo of white on blue-layered agate, set in 18 kt white gold

Many modern cameos are carved into layered agates. The layers are dyed to create strong color contrasts. The most usual colors used for two-layer stones are white on black, white on blue, and white on red-brown. Three-layer stones are sometimes made. The colors are usually black on white on black. The layers are translucent; this allows the artist to create shading effects by removing material to allow the background layer to show through. This way a very realistic, lifelike quality to a figure can be achieved. For example, thinning the top black layer on a three-layer stone changes its color to shades of brown. Removing material from the white layer creates shades of blue or grey, depending on the color of the base.

Ultrasonic machine carved cameos

The majority of modern agate cameos are carved with the aid of the Ultrasonic Mill. This is a process where multiple copies of a master design can be produced very quickly by pressing a master die onto the agate cameo blank. A film of diamond slurry is used to aid cutting and the die vibrates ultrasonically in a vertical motion. The master is often hand carved by a skilled cameo artist. The result is a cameo that has a satin surface texture described as "freshly fallen snow" (FFS) by Anna Miller. [14] This texture and the lack of any undercutting are used by appraisers as markers to prove that the cameo is machine-made.

Hand-worked portrait cameos

These cameos are carved by hand, usually working from photographs of the subject. The fact that there is usually only one copy made means that the tooling costs involved rule out the ultrasonic carving process.

There are very few people working in this field, as this is one of the hardest challenges for any gemstone carver. The combination of a highly developed artistic ability, craft skill and many years of experience are needed to be able to create lifelike portraits.

It is quite rare, these days, for subjects other than portraits to be carved by hand as agate cameos. The traditional themes of classical scenes from mythology or a standard image of a young lady, are more likely to be made with the help of the ultrasonic carving machine as a limited collection of typically 50–200 pieces.

Shell cameos

A cameo carved into the dorsum of a shell of the tiger cowry, Cypraea tigris Cypraea tigris carved.jpg
A cameo carved into the dorsum of a shell of the tiger cowry, Cypraea tigris

Since the late 19th century, the species most used in good-quality cameos has been Cypraecassis rufa , the bullmouth helmet, the shell of which can be up to 6 inches long. In this species, the upper shell layer is whitish, and the lower shell layer is a rich orange-brown. Modern sources for this shell are Madagascar and South Africa. The finest hand-carving of these shells takes place in Italy.

The most highly prized shell for carving is the emperor or queen's helmet shell, Cassis madagascariensis . This shell has white and dark brown layers and is known as sardonyx shell, and looks similar to the layered agate known as sardonyx. This shell is found in the waters of the Caribbean.

Cameo carved on Cassis madagascariensis by Ascione manufacture, 1925, Naples, Coral and Cameo Jewellery Museum Ascione Cameo of Sardinian conch, Ascione e Antonio Mennella 1925, Museo Ascione.jpg
Cameo carved on Cassis madagascariensis by Ascione manufacture, 1925, Naples, Coral and Cameo Jewellery Museum Ascione

The world center for cameo carving in shell is Torre del Greco, Italy. The shells are first marked with a series of ovals in a process called signing, then cut into oval blanks for the cameo carver. The actual cameo is mainly cut with a metal scraping tool called a bulino, an invention of Jewish artisan Antonio Cimeniello. A number of metal gravers are used: flat-faced, round and three-cornered. To speed production, grinding wheels are used to quickly remove excess material. When the details are completed, the shell is then soaked in olive oil, cleaned with soap and water and selectively polished with a hand brush.

Notable carvers

See also

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Gemma Claudia

The Gemma Claudia is a Roman five-layered onyx cameo of c.49. It later found its way into the Habsburg collections now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. It is 12 cm high and set in a gold rim.

Stone sculpture

A Stone sculpture is an object made of stone which has been shaped, usually by carving, or assembled to form a visually interesting three-dimensional shape. Stone is more durable than most alternative materials, making it especially important in architectural sculpture on the outside of buildings.

Roman glass

Roman glass objects have been recovered across the Roman Empire in domestic, industrial and funerary contexts. Glass was used primarily for the production of vessels, although mosaic tiles and window glass were also produced. Roman glass production developed from Hellenistic technical traditions, initially concentrating on the production of intensely coloured cast glass vessels. However, during the 1st century AD the industry underwent rapid technical growth that saw the introduction of glass blowing and the dominance of colourless or 'aqua' glasses. Production of raw glass was undertaken in geographically separate locations to the working of glass into finished vessels, and by the end of the 1st century AD large scale manufacturing resulted in the establishment of glass as a commonly available material in the Roman world, and one which also had technically very difficult specialized types of luxury glass, which must have been very expensive.

Engraved gem Artistic technique

An engraved gem, frequently referred to as an intaglio, is a small and usually semi-precious gemstone that has been carved, in the Western tradition normally with images or inscriptions only on one face. The engraving of gemstones was a major luxury art form in the Ancient world, and an important one in some later periods.

Cameo glass

Cameo glass is a luxury form of glass art produced by cameo etching and carving through fused layers of differently colored glass to produce designs, usually with white opaque glass figures and motifs on a dark-colored background. The technique is first seen in ancient Roman art of about 30 BC, where it was an alternative to the more luxurious engraved gem vessels in cameo style that used naturally layered semi-precious gemstones such as onyx and agate. Glass allowed consistent and predictable colored layers, even for round objects.

Gonzaga Cameo

The Gonzaga Cameo is a Hellenistic engraved gem; a cameo of the capita jugata variety cut out from the three layers of an Indian sardonyx, dating from perhaps the 3rd century BC. It was a centrepiece of the Gonzaga collection of antiquities, first described in a 1542 inventory of Isabella d'Este's collection as representing Augustus and Livia. The figures were later identified as Alexander the Great and Olympias, Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, Nero and Agrippina the Younger, and many other famous couples of antiquity. The male figure on the cameo is clad in the attributes of Alexander, including a laurel-wreathed helmet, and wears a gorgoneion. His other aegis represents a bearded head, probably that of Zeus Ammon. The man's laurel wreath is crowned by a snake which suggests the uraeus. The contrasting male and female profiles were in all probability intended to suggest Zeus and Hera. The brown necklace is a later addition masking that the cameo was, at some point, broken in half.

Hardstone carving Artistic carving of semi-precious stones or gems

Hardstone carving is a general term in art history and archaeology for the artistic carving of predominantly semi-precious stones, such as jade, rock crystal, agate, onyx, jasper, serpentinite, or carnelian, and for an object made in this way. Normally the objects are small, and the category overlaps with both jewellery and sculpture. Hardstone carving is sometimes referred to by the Italian term pietre dure; however, pietra dura is the common term used for stone inlay work, which causes some confusion.

Marlborough gem

The "Marlborough gem" is a carved onyx cameo that depicts an initiation ceremony of Psyche and Eros. It is the most famous engraved gem in the extensive and prominent collection both inherited and expanded by George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough. It is conserved in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where it is called Cameo with the Wedding of Cupid and Psyche, or an initiation rite, reflecting the view of its subject generally held until the last century.

Cross of Lothair

The Cross of Lothair or Lothair Cross is a crux gemmata processional cross dating from about 1000 AD, though its base dates from the 14th century. It was made in Germany, probably at Cologne. It is an outstanding example of medieval goldsmith's work, and "an important monument of imperial ideology", forming part of the Aachen Cathedral Treasury, which includes several other masterpieces of sacral Ottonian art. The measurements of the original portion are 50 cm height, 38.5 cm width, 2.3 cm depth. The cross comes from the period when Ottonian art was evolving into Romanesque art, and the engraved crucifixion on the reverse looks forward to the later period.

Blacas Cameo

The Blacas Cameo is an unusually large Ancient Roman cameo, 12.8 cm (5.0 in) high, carved from a piece of sardonyx with four alternating layers of white and brown. It shows the profile head of the Roman emperor Augustus and probably dates from shortly after his death in AD 14, perhaps from AD 20-50. It has been in the British Museum since 1867, when the museum acquired the famous collection of antiquities that Louis, Duke of Blacas had inherited from his father, also including the Esquiline Treasure. Normally it is on display in Room 70.

Pio Siotto was an Italian artist active as a cameo engraver.

Cameo with Valerian and Shapur I

The Cameo with Valerian and Shapur I is now on display in the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. It has the inventory number Camée 360. and was bought in 1893. The cameo is 6,8 cm high and 10,3 cm wide and made of sardonyx, and is thought to date to about 260 AD. For the carving, the different colored layers of the stone was used. The background is dark, the figures are white and details are again dark again as they are on the highest level.

Schaffhausen onyx

The Schaffhausen onyx is an ancient cameo, one of the most important Augustan-era hardstone carvings and now one of the highlights on display in the Museum zu Allerheiligen in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. In the 13th century, the cameo was given an ornate gold and silver setting as well as a medallion on the reverse.


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  2. Dunlop, Paul H., The Jokelson Collection of Cameo Incrustation, Papier Presse (1991) ISBN   0-9619547-3-6
  3. Ting Morris (1 August 2006). Arts and Crafts of Ancient Rome. Black Rabbit Books. p. 26. ISBN   978-1-58340-913-8.
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  5. Tait, Hugh, ed. (2006). 7000 Years of Jewellery. British Museum Press. p. 219. ISBN   9780714150321.
  6. 1 2 Whitehouse, D., Cameo Glass, in Roman Glass: two centuries of art and invention, M. Newby and K. Painter, Editors. 1991, Society of Antiquaries of London: London.
  7. 1 2 Whitehouse, D., Late Roman cameo glass, in Annales du 11e Congres. 1990: Amsterdam.
  8. 1 2 Fleming, S.J., Roman Glass; reflections on cultural change. 1999, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
  9. Malcolm, Fiona (2008). "Vintage beauty". The National Trust Magazine. The National Trust (Autumn 200): 37.
  10. 1 2 3 4 Cameo collection at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna
  11. Saint-Petersburg, The State Hermitage Museum
  12. The British Museum, London.
  13. Leonard Forrer. Biographical dictionary of medallists: coin, gem, and seal engravers, mint-masters, etc., volume 4 (London: Spink & son, 1904) p. 582 ff.
  14. Anna Miller. Cameos Old and New. ISBN   9780943763606