What is a cameo? It is defined as a typically oval portrait in profile carved in relief. Commonly, the carving is done using stones and material which have layers  so that the carving exposes the underlying stone of a different colour to the top layer. Agate and shell are materials used that have layers. Cameos that do not have layered material are craved in coral, lava, and various gemstones.

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Cameos carved out of coral

While carving intaglios had started thousands of years ago, the carving of cameos was seen as being more recent. While there are examples from the early Sumerian period (c.3100 BC) and from Ancient Eygpt, particularly cylinder and scarab seals and talismatic charms, the most significant development in cameos began around 323 B.C, at the beginning of the Hellenistic period of Greece.  Unlike intaglios, which were used for seals, cameos at this time were purely decorative.  They were usually small, designed for finger rings and pendants and made of banded agate or sardonyx. Generally only two coloured layers were used but sometimes more were carved, to create wonderful depth.

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Antique sardonyx cameos

Greek engravers worked in Rome and began to create both the small ring sized cameos as well as larger ornate pieces. Popular subjects were the gods such as Eros, Jupiter and and Minerva, and themes relating to them, such as Leda and the swan. Roman statesmen, nobles and artists were also subjects, as well wealthy patrons who paid for their portraits to be carved. Sometimes, cameos meant as wall decorations were carved, depicting famous battles or scenes from mythology.

There was a revival of cameo carving in the Renaissance and the neo-classical period between 1660 and 1798. Again, the subjects were modern day rulers and nobles as well as Roman and Greek gods and goddesses. Grand Tour souvenirs used lava from Pompeii, coral and shell in particular.

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Grand Tour lava cameo bracelet

Production of cameos waned for some decades until the 19th century  when there was a revival of cameos carved from shell. I will talk more about shell cameos next post.