- Museum number
- Object: Flora of Pistrucci
Cameo; carnelian breccia; the 'Flora of Pistrucci'; part of head of Flora to right in high relief, wearing wreath of roses, poppies and marguerites(?); stone ground at back; what remains of lowest stratum is cut very thin; roses in a red stratum.
- Production date
Length: 0.90 inches
- Curator's comments
Text from Dalton 1915, Catalogue of Engraved Gems:
The stone is ground at the back, forming a sharp diagonal line from chin to occiput. What remains of the lowest stratum is cut very thin. The roses are in a red stratum.
This is the cameo known as 'the Flora of Pistrucci'.
The Italian engraver Benedetto Pistrucci (1784-1855), while still living in Italy, had engraved gems for the dealer Bonelli: among them, according to his own account, was this head of Flora. Not long after his arrival in this country, in 1815, he saw the gem in the possession of Mr. Payne-Knight, who, to the day of his death, treasured it as an antique, despite Pistrucci's claim to its authorship. Though the secret mark which Pistrucci stated that he had engraved on the back of the stone cannot be discerned, there can be little doubt that the work is modern; and as it is in the style of the early nineteenth century, there seems no reason to question Pistrucci's statement.
See A. Billing, The Science of Gems, Jewels, Coins and Medals, 1867, pp. 86 and 189 ff.; Forrer, Biographical Dictionary of Medallists, iv, pp. 582 ff. Cf. also Introduction, p. liv.
See J.Rudoe, 'Engraved gems: the lost art of antiquity', in 'Enlightenment, Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century', ed. Kim Sloan with Andrew Burnett, London 2003. p. 138. fig. 123.
Text: J. Rudoe, 'The faking of gems in the 18th and early 19th centuries' from Jones 1990, cat. no. 152.
By the 1770s the market in classical sculptures, bronzes, coins and gems had come to be dominated by British dealers resident in Rome. Chief amongst these were James Byres and Thomas Jenkins, both of whom supplied antique gems. Jenkins's main trade was in highly restored sculptures; during the 1760s he was assisted in 'putting antiques together' by the English sculptor, Joseph Nollekens, who, some years later, recalled the method by which Jenkins met the demand for antique gems:
"as for Jenkins, he followed the trade of supplying the foreign visitors with intaglios and cameos made by his own people, that he kept in a part of the ruins of the Coliseum [sic], fitted up for 'em to work in slyly by themselves. I saw 'em at work though, and Jenkins gave a whole handful of 'em to me to say nothing about the matter to anybody else but myself. Bless your heart! he sold 'em as fast as they made 'em'."
The taste for gems reached a peak in the 1780s. Jenkins found dealing in gems to be so profitable that by the
1790s he had given up dealing in pictures and marbles.
The engravers who worked for dealers like Jenkins were often very talented; both the English gem-engraver Nathaniel Marchant, who worked in Rome from 1772 to 1778, and the Italian engraver Benedetto Pistrucci (see registration no. 1824,0301.86) were known to have made convincing imitations of antique gems which were sold as ancient.
Neo-classical work, however, tended to follow the conventions of the time in restrained, well-spaced and sometimes sentimental compositions. It also responded to the specific demands of collectors of the period. Discussion by authors like Maffei, von Stosch, Gori, Natter and Mariette of ancient signatures stimulated a strong demand for signed pieces, while Lippert's Daktiliothek (1767), a catalogue accompanied by plaster casts, made collection by subject fashionable. As a result, neo-classical fake gems frequently feature subject matter unknown to the classical repertoire and bear signatures otherwise known only from ancient literature.
Literature: P. D. Lippert, 'Daktiliothek', Leipzig 1767; J. T. Smith, 'Nollekens and his Times', London 1828; P. & H. Zazoff, 'Gemmensammler und Gemmen forscher', Munich 1983.
Pistrucci's cameo of Flora
This cameo head of Flora, carved in high relief from an irregular fragment of stone, was acquired in London in about 1812 by Richard Payne Knight for £100 from the unscrupulous Italian dealer Angelo Bonelli. Knight believed it to be ancient, but a few years later Benedetto Pistrucci (1784-1855) claimed it as his own work, carved in Rome as a forgery for Bonelli for less than £5.
Pistrucci saw the gem at the house of the botanist Sir Joseph Banks, whose portrait he was modelling, when Payne Knight came to show Banks the cameo. Pistrucci revealed that his private mark was hidden in a twist of the hair. Archibald Billing, who published Pistrucci's autobiography in 1875, identified this mark as two small lines converging to form a hidden Greek letter, but it is impossible to discern these lines amongst the engraved lines of the hair. According to Pistrucci, Payne Knight was furious and went away 'like a drenched flea'.
In his manuscript catalogue of his gems (no. 46) Payne Knight maintained that the gem was an antique representation of Proserpine, the goddess of food plants, and identified the red flowers as pomegranate blossoms, despite the opinion of Banks that they were roses. Bonelli insisted that the gem was ancient, having come from the collection of Sir Robert Ainslie, Ambassador in Constantinople from 1776 to 1792, so that Payne Knight commissioned Pistrucci to make a copy in order to judge which story was correct. When finished, the copy was the same in form but different in style and execution. Pistrucci demanded £50 and a formal acknowledgement that both gems were of his authorship, but Payne Knight refused, maintaining that he was indifferent as to the authorship of his Flora, since it remained a uniquely beautiful gem, whoever made it.
Payne Knight's contest with Pistrucci was much publicised at the time and brought Pistrucci several commissions. Payne Knight certainly admired Pistrucci's work, if not his professional conduct; the final gem in his manuscript catalogue was a head of Augustus by Pistrucci, which he praised in the highest terms.
Literature: A. Billing, The Science of Gems, Jewels, Coins and Medals, London 1875, pp. 182-90; M. Clarke & N. Penny, The Arrogant Connoisseur: Richard Payne Knight 1-751-1824, Manchester 1982, pp. 74-5
Text from Payne Knight's Latin manuscript catalogue
86) Proserpinae caput, facie sinistrorsum spectante, floribus multifoliis et ramulo frutescente … [text unclear] sive mali punici coronatum, e strato albo, onychis Indicae, nodulis rubris pellucidis distincto, alii pellucido rubescenti inhaerente, alte exsculptum, arte et felicitate eximia, qua flores naturalem suam formam et colorem e nodulis adepti sunt. Deperditum est collum, lapide sub aurem perrupto. E foliorum formis et ramusculis frutescentibus, plane liquet, flores mali punici esse, non rosas, ut B. Pistruccius, gemmarum sculptor, qui lapidem hanc se sua manu sculpisse gloriatus est, praedicaverat; et se eas ad vivum imitando expressisse, pari stultitia et imprudentia, asseruit; atque Floram ita ornasse voluisse, quae dea Graecis incognita fuit. Mendacium planius arguit mutata vetustate superficies, praesertim in fracturis, silice et cholea adhaerente; memor et nota quam plurima eius opera cum hoc collata; quod Robertus Ainsleius Constantinopoli obtinuerat.
The head of Proserpina, with her face looking to the left, crowned with many-leafed flowers and a shoot of [... text unclear] or pomegranate flower that is bursting into flower carved out in high relief from a white layer of Indian onyx, adorned with red, translucent specks, adhering to a translucent, reddening one elsewhere, with extraordinary skill and success, whereby the flowers have obtained their natural shape and colour from the specks. The neck has been destroyed, after the stone had been broken below the ear. From the shapes of the leaves and the shoots that are bursting into flower, it is plainly clear that the flowers are pomegranate, not roses, as B. Pistrucci, the sculptor of gems, who boasted that he had carved this stone with his own hand, had proclaimed; and he maintained, with equal foolishness and ignorance, that he had depicted these by imitating them from the life; and that he had wished to have adorned Flora in this way, a goddess who was unknown to the Greeks. The top surface of the stone reveals this lie, plainly showing its different age, especially in the fractures, on account of the hard stone and emerald adhering to it; be mindful of and note how very many of his works have been gathered together with this one; which Robert Ainsley had obtained in Constantinople.
- On display (G47/dc4)
- Exhibition history
1980: lent to Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester for Payne Knight exhibition
- Acquisition date
- Britain, Europe and Prehistory
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Miscellaneous number: RPK.86 (Payne Knight Collection)