I have written about intaglios before but I have acquired a few more since my last post on them so I thought I would write about these new ones. What is an intaglio? An intaglio is a design incised or engraved into some sort of material. It comes from the Italian intagliare, to cut into. In the case of rings or seals, the material might be a transparent gemstone like a garnet or emerald or an opaque gemstone like agate or carnelian.
In Egyptian times, carved hardstones were used as seals, often in the form of scarabs but Greek and Roman artists began to produce images to be worn as decorative pieces as well as seals. They carved detailed images of the heads of famous people and gods and goddesses, as well as images from ordinary life and animals. The photo above has a Roman garnet intaglio with a man’s head and has been set in a more recent ring setting. Also, have a look at the carving of a man’s head in the intaglio below. The workmanship is amazing and you feel you could reach out and touch the man’s hair.
The skill in carving gemstones disappeared around the 4th century, although Roman intaglios were often re-used in a new setting. There were also revivals of intaglio carvings in the 12th, 16th, 18th and 19th centuries for short periods. In the 18th century in particular, intaglios were produced for use as seals, like the emerald intaglio ring below, but, as well, copies of Greek and Roman intaglios were made.
In the 1830s, after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the wealthy toured Italy and Greece, collecting ancient and Renaissance intaglio gems, many of which they turned into fobs or rings.
There was a revival of interest in classical engraved gems in the 1920s and 1930s when we start to see intaglios of warriors and soldiers, usually wearing Greek armour. The quality of the carving of these pieces can vary a lot. Some have very chunky features while others, like the one below, have good detail.