Fragment of a cornelian breccia cameo, 'The Head of Flora', carved by Benedetto Pistrucci

From Rome, Italy, before AD 1812

Purchased as an antique by Richard Payne Knight

Cameo cutting is the carving in relief of a gem, hardstone or shell, usually exploiting the naturally occurring layers of different colours. In this cameo, the upper red stratum has been carved to depict roses. The art of cameo cutting originated in antiquity, and was revived in the Renaissance. Classical gems have always been much prized, and in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in particular formed a significant part of the collections of connoisseurs and dilettanti. To meet the demand, a very large number of gems were made in imitation of the antique, but even these 'modern' gems acquired high status, and their makers great celebrity.

Richard Payne Knight (1751-1824), the renowned connoisseur and collector, purchased the 'Flora' cameo in London around 1812 from an Italian dealer, believing it to be ancient. However, the Italian gem-engraver and medallist Benedetto Pistrucci (1784-1855) later claimed to have made the cameo himself. Disbelieving this claim, Payne Knight challenged Pistrucci to make a copy in order to prove who was correct. The ensuing publicity and controversy earned Pistrucci several commissions: Payne Knight himself purchased a head of Augustus from Pistrucci, also in The British Museum's collection, which he praised in the highest terms.

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More information


M. Jones (ed.), Fake?: the art of deception, exh. cat. (London, The British Museum Press, 1990)

M. Clarke and N. Penny (eds), The arrogant connoisseur: Rich, exh. cat. (Whitworth Art Gallery, 1982)

J. Rudoe, 'Eighteenth and nineteenth-century engraved gems in the British Museum; collectors and collections from Sir Hans Sloane to Anne Hull Grundy', Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschicht, 59 (1996)


Length: 2.300 cm

Museum number

M&ME 1824,3-1,86 (Dalton Gem Catalogue 176)


Bequeathed by R. Payne Knight


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