This late 19th century letter opener is a great example of objects of beauty that were collected during visits to Italy as part of an elite Grand Tour. It is an excellent gift idea for collectors of Italian antiquities, as well as collectors of antique writing and desk implements.
Circa 1880, this unique letter opener is comprised of a carved lava handle that is attached to a brass blade shaped like a sword. This letter opener measures 8-1/4" long, with the stone carving itself measuring 3-1/2" long by 1" wide, by 1/2" at its widest point. This carving is a 360° bust depiction of a what at first appears to be a Pompeian villager, his face masked with fear as the lava flow of Mt. Vesuvius bears down on this ancient seaside resort of the noble and wealthy. Note his furled brow and his mouth open in astonishment. However, upon close examination of the facial features, you will see there is just something about that "nose" and "cap" -- which tells us this is actually a depiction of the famed Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). The blade measures 4-3/4" long by 1" at its widest point. The letter opener weighs just under 2 ounces.
The blade is engraved "NAPOLI". While Naples today is the capital of the Italian region Campania, this southern region of Italy was once part of the Kingdom of Napoli and The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. It did not become a part of Italy until 1861. Pompeii is located just south of Naples, so a trip to Pompeii would of course have included viewing the catalogued treasures of Pompeii and Herculaneum at the Naples National Archaeological Museum. Rich in both Greek and Roman history and culture, the wondrous excavations, frescoes and statues found in the volcanic ruins were a must see for the Grand Tour itinerary of the elite.
Just between Naples and Pompeii lies the town of Torre del Greco, the cameo carving capital of the world,. The carving families of Torre del Greco worked hard to meet the high demand for Mt. Vesuvius keepsakes and mementos crafted from the deadly lava flow. These significant carved lava souvenirs were proof positive that their owner had indeed witnessed the alarming wrath of Mt. Vesuvius.
The Pompeii excavations began in the 18th century and quickly became a point of interest for refined gentlemen on the Grand Tour. Jewelry and other items carved from Pompeii lava were held in high regard for travelers, proof positive of their visit to this long lost Roman city of pleasure. While many antiquities were plundered and lost, Pompeii still remains one of the world's most extraordinary discoveries.
This handsome letter opener would have been a treasured conversation piece that could be utilized as well as displayed. Dante's Divine Comedy was and still is considered the preeminent work of Italian literature. Carved from Pompeian lava, this letter opener would have been an opulent memento. Still today, it is a marvel that begs for attention and conversation.
All is in excellent condition with no damage to the carving or blade. Unlike modern letter openers, the blade is quite sharp. We see no cracks or missing pieces in the carving. At some point in its journey through life, a proud owner has lightly etched the initials "HM" into the backside of the handle. This can only be seen when magnified, in bright light at just the right angle. The facial features are crisp and without damage. Its sharp blade would have cut through the thickest paper of the day and still works beautifully today. The blade's engraving is intact on both sides. Certainly, this is a piece that has been used over the years and, when magnified, we see that blade's sharp endpoint is minimally bowed, but this is not noticeable unless looking straight down the blade and does not affect its utility. We have not polished the brass but it has likely been polished in the last 10 years or so.
This is a great gift idea for Her or Him. Perfect for display and use in the office.
Of course, this antiquity will be delivered in an elegant black presentation case, perfect for gift giving and storage. When you find the perfect gift from the past, you needn't worry about the perfect box. At Cameo Couture, we believe the art of presentation is where it's at!
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