Although not pristine, this is a wonderful cameo with exceptionally fine carving. It would have been carved in Italy around 1850 and depicts Antinous, young lover of the Emperor Hadrian. The portrait is inspired by the colossal marble bust known as the Antinous Mondragone discovered at Frascati in the early eighteenth century and now exhibited in the Louvre. The bust portrays Antinous with elaborately styled long hair bound with a fillet in the manner of Greek god Dionysus or possibly Apollo.
Devastated when Antinous drowned in the Nile in 130 AD, Hadrian responded by deifying the young man, promoting a cult identifying him with aspects of both Dionysus and the Egyptian deity, Osiris. Both gods were associated with fertility and more importantly, rebirth and the afterlife. As a god, Antinous was often portrayed wearing an ivy wreath – a familiar symbol of Dionysus - as well as a lotus bud crown connecting him with Osiris. The best-known example showing him with both attributes is the Antinous Braschi sculpture in the Vatican. Portraits of Antinous based on this work became firmly established as a nineteenth-century cameo subject while examples based on the Mondragone bust appear to be much scarcer.
When depicting Antinous in the Mondragone style, some cameo carvers chose to adorn his hair with an ivy wreath ‘borrowed’ from the Braschi representation, as we see here. This idea probably arose in a single workshop and was then copied by others. Not only did it showcase their skill in carving such formidably intricate details as leaves and berries alongside those of his hair and face, it also helped identify the image as Antinous, becoming a kind of decorative trademark.
The cameo is beautifully and deeply carved, the white shell layer recreating the look and feel of marble. It shows extremely sensitive modelling of his facial features and tremendous skill in defining his hair in all its sinuous complexity. The wreath, too, is superb. In the sculpture, his eyes are sombre dark cavities and his head has a downward tilt, whereas here he is looking straight ahead. The mount (which is unmarked but tests as 15 carat gold) is also beautiful, its frame embellished with little raised flowers and engraving around the border. It fastens as a brooch with a hinged pin and curly ‘c’ clasp on the reverse and there is also a small ring for a safety chain at the top.
The white carving is crisp and in lovely condition for its age but the brown background shell has stresses and hairlines. Most of these are not really visible unless held to light, but a couple of them come to the surface and a shorter one is seen on the back surface near the upper edge. The mount also shows some wear and tear, with a spot of damage and a couple of tiny nicks to the rim of the bezel and two small losses to the decorative gold border where it has separated slightly from the outer band. The clasp and pin may also have been replaced.
While these are unfortunate, it is the sheer quality of this piece that resonates. Including the frame it measures 51mm x 44mm (2" x 1 3/4") approx.
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