"Cameos, carvings and ancient jewels: Bertolami Fine Art brings to London treasures and mysteries of glyptic art" by Rossella Ariosto

We publish by kind permission of ArtsLife the full text of the interview given by Gabriele Vangelli de Cresci to Rossella Ariosto

In London, the spring season of the auctions continues untiringly for a good part of the summer, an opportunity seized by Bertolami Fine Art to propose, between 10 and 11 July, three highlights of its calendar: sales of archaeology, glyptic and numismatics. Of particular interest is the catalogue dedicated to the refined arts of glyptic and ancient goldsmithery, where there is no lack of outstanding masterpieces of museum profile. Treasures too beautiful and unrecognized to miss the opportunity to interview Gabriele Vangelli de Cresci, head of the department of ancient and modern glyptic of the Roman auction house that offers no less than six auctions per year on the busy London square.

Browsing through the catalogue of the auction of Glittica and Antique Jewels that Bertolami will propose in London on July 10th, I couldn't help but wonder where those refined treasures came from, it can't have been easy to put together so many objects of that quality and rarity.

Actually, it wasn't. Especially because, when it comes to goods of archaeological interest, the international market is no longer content with quality and rarity, it also wants legitimate and documented provenance, pieces with an important story to tell.

Hard times for lost arch predators?

I'd say so. The catalogue that has had the opportunity to browse through is the result of an extensive collection work with the great international collectors or their heirs. We have drawn on dated collections assembled by the elite of the sector's collecting elite, those passionate London, French and Swiss connoisseurs who we can rightly consider the heirs of a tradition of collecting cameos and carvings developed by the Nordic world at the time of the Grand Tour. From this point of view, having some valuable pieces from the Arthur Sambon collection at auction makes all the difference.

Arthur Sambon the numismatist? Didn't one of the highlights of the auction, the extraordinary Hellenistic gold and emerald ring, belong to his collection?

Yes, we are talking about the scholar who, between the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, enriched the Etruscan numismatic bibliography of many ancient Italic and medieval populations with fundamental writings. Sambon was also a collector, the golds of his collection are in fact extraordinary pieces and the ring of which he speaks is an admirable specimen.

Exceptional late Hellenistic emerald root ring on a gold top case mount.
II-I century B.C.
Provenance: Arthur Sambon collection
Lot 314
Estimate 60,000/80,000 GBP

Tell us about it.

It is a production of high Hellenistic goldsmith's art, which can be traced back to some important Alexandrian workshop active between the second and first century BC. We can easily imagine that its first owner was an eminent member of the Ptolemaic ruling class. It consists of a beautiful rectangular emerald root set in a gold trunk frame with decorative motifs that recall the myth of Hercules, a theme much appreciated by the late Hellenistic world. Observe the circumference of the jewellery, the one surrounding the finger: it closes with a knot inside which is placed a garnet and on all its extension are scattered decorations in the shape of an inverted drop. The meaning is clear: the knot is that of Hercules and the drops are actually a stylization of the hero's club. Only ten examples of this particular model are known, one of which is kept in the Louvre collection and another in the National Museum of Naples. Famous pieces that do not stand comparison with their counterpart in the Sambon collection, superior in style and perfect state of preservation.

What other wonders of the auction come from the Sambon collection?

The beauty of certain collections is that they do not admit mediocrity, each piece is noteworthy. Some of the most interesting lots in the auction come from the Sambon collection. I find sensational some Etruscan rings made of very fine quality beetles on gold mounts of the same period, a rare case since time has rarely spared the gold mounts of carvings and cameos, the first to be plundered in case of war and looting. Of particular interest is lot 322, a ring that is remarkable in many ways. In this case we have a rare Italic carving set on a frame of Byzantine manufacture made between the 11th and 14th centuries, a detail that shows how the interest in the recovery of ancient glyptic was already evident in medieval times. The medieval client of the jewellery was certainly aware of the importance of that ancient gem masterfully engraved, a masterpiece of the Italic glyptic of the Republican era. A great engraver of the 2nd century B.C. reproduced a complex and rare iconography on an agate bandage of a few millimetres: the Sacrifice of Iphigenia, narrated in the Euripid version of the myth, the one in which Artemis saves Agamemnon's innocent daughter by replacing her at the last moment with a doe.

Ring with Italic carving of the Roman Republican period (II century B.C.) depicting the Sacrifice of Iphigenia and Byzantine frame of the XI-XIV century.
Provenance: Arthur Sambon collection
Lot 322
Estimate: 6,000/8,000

Among the gems on auction the carving with the sacrifice of Iphigenia is not the only one to show a rare iconography.

Yes, one of the strengths of the auction is precisely that of the unusual and difficult iconographies, a key that would deserve further study. Here I would just like to point out a couple of pieces of great beauty. I begin with lot 488, a Roman carving on agate from the 2nd century AD. On the stone is engraved a detailed representation of the new port of Ostia, built by Trajan to replace the now inadequate previous plant. The imposing public work, recognizable by its typical hexagonal shape, has been reproduced on the back of a beautiful sestertium coined by the emperor, but this one of the Bertolami auction is the only known representation on gemstone. Iconography also rare for lot 478, a striking blue chalcedony from the late Hellenistic period in which Pegasus - usually represented by the masters of glyptic with wings spread out in flight or on the ground - is captured at the moment of ascent to the sky, a vertical take-off.

Roman carving on agate with representation of the hexagonal port of Trajan
2nd century A.D.
Lot 488
Estimate: 4,000/5,000 GBP

This is also a discovery: mythology's most famous winged horse took off like a helicopter! Speaking of myths, I see a cameo attributed to the workshop of Sostratos, one of the great masters of glyptics of the first century BC, the time of Anthony and Cleopatra.

Yes, the cameo he speaks of actually comes from the environment that served as a refined background to the love of Antony and Cleopatra. Did you know that the two exchanged gems engraved with the same ease with which modern lovers exchange messages on Whatsapp? An object of such high artistic level could have passed through their hands. We are unquestionably faced with a masterpiece of glyptic art made from a sardonic stone of exceptional quality worked in the workshop of a leading artist, probably Sostratos. It is also highly probable that the stone, depicting a satyr and a nymph at banquet, belonged to the collection of Domenico Grimani, the cardinal man of letters who was one of the most eminent collectors of archaeology of the 16th century. The cameo placed at the enchantment by Bertolami Fine Art could be the ancient model, until now considered disappeared, of a cameo very similar to this made by the famous cardinal.

Late Hellenistic carving on blue chalcedony with depiction of Pegasus on the rise
2nd century B.C.
Lot 478
Estimate: 3,200-3,500 GBP

Cameo in sardonic with Satyr and Nymph
Sostratos shop, end of the 1st century BC.
Lot 492
Estimate: GBP 70,000/80,000

In the rich auction catalogue there are also magic stones and erotic stones.

There are indeed some extraordinary ones. Among the erotic subjects I point out the lot 383, a rare phallic allegory of the Republican era carved on a niche. The subject represented on a carving in carnelian is also of an explicitly erotic character and is a masterpiece of Renaissance glyptics. The lively orgiastic representation is signed and dated 1520.

Roman republican carving on a niche with phallic allegory
1st century B.C.
Lot 383
Estimate: 800/1000 GBP

Given the quality of the engraving, the signature will be that of a great Renaissance master.

A master who unfortunately chose to sign his small masterpiece with the monogram of his name V.B. And here the trouble begins, because in the first twenty years of the 16th century that monogram can only be traced back to one excellent master, Valerio Belli, whose usual iconographic repertoire is however of a purely religious nature.

Renaissance carving on carnelian with orgiastic representation.
Attributed to Valerio Belli, 1520
Signed and dated MDXX V.B.
Lot 551
Estimate: GBP 10,000/15,000

Well, in fact, the orgiastic dance around the herm of Priapus would be no small digression for an artist of the pope, I understand that to sign he limited himself to the use of a discreet monogram!

The papal courts of the Renaissance did not disdain the pleasures of libertinism and we have firmly bet on the attribution to Valerio Belli, very good and not at all bigoted.

We remain at the papal court with a much quieter object and with a certain attribution to Giacomo Anfossi, a great goldsmith of the second half of the 16th century, one who had the honour of serving the most prominent men and women in the State, including the Pope.

And in fact it is by Giacomo Anfossi the beautiful ring made for the personal use of Pope Gregory XIII. We are faced with a typical production of high jewelry of the second half of the sixteenth century: a gold frame, pearls and polychrome enamels enhances a cameo made on a quality of hyacinth with an intense blood red color, a stone worthy of the pope. The ring bears the name of the pope engraved on the inside. Well, having at auction a ring that belonged to a great Renaissance pope makes a certain effect, I admit it.

Ring made by Giacomo Anfossi for Pope Gregory XIII
Second half of the 16th century
Renaissance carving in hyacinth with an intense red colour on a gold frame, pearls and polychrome enamels
Former Bulgari Collection
Lot 552
Estimate: GBP 250,000/300,000

The Bertolami Fine Art auction catalogue does not disdain the masterpieces of neoclassical glyptics. Particularly striking is the wonderful agate cameo depicting a noble head of Laocoonte.

A work in fact admirable realized between the end of '700 and the beginning of '800 by a great master unfortunately unidentified. Even if the small bunches of grapes hidden among the thick curls of the Trojan priest, completely incongruous from an iconographic point of view, could be a sort of ciphered signature of the artist.

A Laocoon with a rebus? Here is a stimulating story, one of many told by the catalogue of a beautiful auction

Neoclassical cameo in agate with Laocoon head
Late 18th early 19th century
Lot 558
Estimate: GBP 50,000/60,000

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