Italian Cameos—Miniature Masterpieces


We have come to Torre del Greco, on the Bay of Naples, to see the production of one of the handmade art objects typical to this part of Italy. We are talking about cameos—jewelry carved from seashells. We plan to visit one of the town’s many cameo workshops, but before we start, perhaps you would like to learn a little about cameos and their long history.

CAMEOS are gems, hard stones, or shells that are carved in relief. Agate, onyx, sardonyx, and certain conchs are especially suited to this kind of work, as their layers of different colors make it possible to obtain pleasing contrasts. The technique employed is said to be like that of relief sculptures but in miniature.

Many cameos in hard or precious stones have survived from Persian and Greco-Roman times, testifying to their popularity in antiquity. Shell cameos are more recent. Mother-of-pearl was worked in France, Germany, and Flanders during the 14th and 15th centuries. Artifacts in shell seem to have been highly appreciated at the opulent and sophisticated French courts. Voyages of discovery made during those years led to the influx into Europe of rare and exotic materials—giant tortoiseshells, narwhal tusks, jade, amber, and strange seashells. This aroused interest in natural history and stimulated the imagination of able artisans, jewelers, and engravers. Likely during the 16th century, conchs of the Cassidae and Cypraeidae families were found to be particularly suitable for cameo engraving.

 The so-called neoclassic period saw a revival of interest in ancient art, and during the 18th century, shell cameos prospered, despite being frowned upon by some as imitations because of the inferior value of shell compared with that of gemstones. Since then the number of centers producing cameos has declined. The art now survives in two towns—Idar-Oberstein, Germany, which specializes in machine-worked agates, and Torre del Greco, Italy, where shell cameos continue to be fashioned by hand.

Now that we have a little background information, let us go and see how modern shell cameos are made.

In the Cameo Workshop

The workshop we will visit is in a narrow street in the center of Torre del Greco. The craftsman’s workbench is cluttered with tools and cameos at various stages of completion. We gasp at the beauty of the piece he is finishing—a complex pastoral scene containing several figures.

The shells from which cameos are produced arrive from the Bahamas as well as from places in the Caribbean and the waters off East Africa. Different types of shells produce different colored cameos. For example, those carved in Cassis madagascariensis (commonly known  as sardonyx shell) have a white design on a dark-brown background; those in Cypraecassis rufa (carnelian shell) exhibit lighter and darker shades of reddish-brown. The most valuable are those with the greatest color contrast.

The first step is to cut out the cup—the part of the shell that will be used—with a water-cooled cutting disc. The shapes of the cameos to be produced, usually oval or round, are marked on the inner surface of the cup, which is then roughly cut into smaller polygonal pieces. Usually only one large and two smaller cameos can be produced from the average shell. A trained eye is required to discern each shell’s potential, that is, if it should be cut in one way or another. Three protuberances on the outer surface of a piece, for example, may offer the possibility of carving three figures. Once cut, each piece is brought to the desired shape at a grinding wheel. It is then stuck onto a short wooden stick, making it easier to handle, and its rough outer layer is ground down to the right thickness. At this point the artist allows the form of the piece to inspire his choice of subject. He makes a quick pencil sketch on its surface and begins to carve.

An electric mill—a drill with an abrasive bit—is used to eliminate the excess material. When the design has been essentially roughed out, hand engraving begins with a series of different-size and extremely sharp tools called burins. The design has to be realized at exactly the depth that the shell changes color from light to dark. By cutting to varying depths, the skillful artist can produce the impression of transparent veils. At last, an exquisitely detailed figure stands in relief against the background of the darker layer beneath!

The range of possible subjects is endless. Perhaps you have seen the graceful lady in profile—always a favorite. Tiny profiles or flowers are set as rings or earrings. Larger cameos, measuring up to about three inches [75 mm], are used for brooches or pendants and can portray more complex subjects—landscapes and pastoral or classical compositions. The largest, reaching a maximum of perhaps eight inches [200 mm], may be framed or mounted on pedestals. Their value depends not only on size and materials used for mounting but also particularly on the workmanship and care involved in their production. Some are authentic works of art.

Because the craftsman is guided by and has to exploit the irregularities of his medium to produce the finished article, it will never be possible to mechanize the production of shell cameos and no two will ever be identical. They are indeed unique and delightful ornaments—true masterpieces in miniature.

[Pictures on page 16]


Shells from which cameos are produced

The cup is cut out to make the cameos

The shape of the cameo is marked on the piece

The piece is cut to roughly the right size

After shaping the piece, the workman is busy at his bench

[Picture on page 17]

Gemma Augustea, made between 10 C.E. and 20 C.E. Its size is 7 1⁄2 inches by 9 inches [19 x 23 cm]

[Credit Line]

Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY