Cameo

CAMEO

 

Cameo carving art has very ancient origins. Each cameo is a little sculptural work whose representations reveal beliefs, tastes, customs, historical and social events which marked our time. The ancient cup known as the Farnese Cup bought by Lorenzo the Magnificent in 15th century and stored in the Archaeological National Museum of Naples, is the most important example of bas-relief in Sardonyx agate from the Hellenistic period.
It represents the Egyptian divine triad, symbol of fertility, or, alternatively, the prosperity in the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt.
Since the Greek-Roman period to the Renaissance, the activity of cameo carving developed a fine manufacture and increasingly complex iconographies. The first examples of shell cameos go back to 15th and 16th centuries.
Unlike the stone carving of the Hellenistic period, Renaissance shell cameos are characterised by a contrast between the upper white layer and the lower brown one, which emphasises the three-dimensionality of the whole representation.
Shell cameos gained an important foothold in the history of jewellery since they were very appreciated by European royal families. From 19th century, the production of shell cameos was mainly concentrated in the city of Torre del Greco. Here, the skilfulness of local craftsmen in conjugating classicism and modernism gave birth to an extraordinary artistic tradition, that continues to forge the identity of the city.

Carnelian shell (Cypraecassis Rufa), coming from the coasts of Madagascar, Mozambique and Kenya, is characterised by a red-to-orange base and a cream-coloured surface. The selection of shells for cameos may seem a simple activity, but it actually requires great care and expertise to catch the purity of the surface and the dark shades of the bottom and to highlight the contrast of the carving and the quality of the whole artefact.
In the first stage of cameo processing, called “scoppatura”, the shell is cut in its lower and roundish part. Then, the engraver identifies the possible shapes to cut and starts to follow the contours of the shell, according to its natural curved lines.
The silhouettes thus cut are finely sanded and put on a wooden spindle with a pulp of wax and pitch so that the engraver can carve with a burin his work of art.
From the Renaissance classicism to the natural forms of Victorian era, from the influences of the Art Nouveau to the variety of patterns in the contemporary age, the evolution of cameo has always mirrored social and lifestyle changes.
Given the huge variety of shapes and representations, cameo is nowadays used in the jewellery industry to make fashion jewels mixing tradition and innovation, classic art and modernity.

Sardonyx shell (Cassis Madagascariensis), whose origins were mistakenly attributed to the coasts of Madagascar, has its natural habitat in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. Its upper light surface, with white-to-cream shades, and its internal dark brown layer make this shell entirely suitable for the realization of cameos: the strong chromatic contrast between the two layers of the shell (the upper layer and the lower one) puts in evidence the representation, by arising it from the bottom surface. This contrast creates a great light and shadow effect and emphasises the depth and the forms of the whole representation.
Bigger than the Carnelian, Sardonyx shell allows the engraver to make bigger representations since it has a larger and flatter surface to work on. Each step of the shell processing, from the size selection to the shaping and engraving, is still carried out with the local traditional methods.
Sardonyx shell cameo plays a key role in the contemporary jewellery industry: its design and original shapes as well as representations reflecting the signs of times are an expression of an experienced local craftsmanship and long-established traditional techniques.

Since ancient times, engraving activity has always attracted Mediterranean civilizations. Artisans used to realise, with great expertise, little sculptures on a big variety of precious and semiprecious stones and materials, including lava stone, very appreciated by artisans and engravers of different historical periods.
In Torre del Greco, lava stone was initially used by craftsmen as test material to train before realizing carvings on shells. Over time, people started to value its beauty and elegance for the realization of jewels, so that lava stone cameos took over the jewellery market as fashionable and original objects.
Lava stone, coming from the slopes of Vesuvius and river deposits, has a grey-to-green colour, with rare red shades. Given its morphological structure, it is particularly suitable for the realization of little statues and cameos for brooches, pendants and bracelets, usually with classical and Renaissance representations.