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What is a cameo?

Cameo, or Camaieu (Italian cameo, from Medieval Latin cammaeus). The word was in use in the 13th century; a cameo is an engraved gem in which the figure, or subject, is carved in relief in a stone or other material providing two different layers of colors, in one of which the design is cut, the second color forming a background. The Intaglio, in contrast, is a gem in which the engraved subject is hollowed out as in a seal. The Egyptian scarab is an early example. In Greece it was not until after the time of Praxiteles that cameo cutting developed as an art.

The stones used for the purpose were brought from the East, and most of them were of magnificent size and colour. In imperial Rome such rich materials, elaborately wrought, were in demand for the ornamentation of caskets, vases, cups, etc., as well as for personal adornments.

Many of these have been preserved in excellent condition, and are to be found in various private and public collections. One of the most famous cameos is the Gonzaga, or Odescalchi, once in the possession of the Empress Josephine, and subsequently preserved in the imperial cabinet in Leningrad. On it are represented the portraits of Nero and Agrippina. Another smaller but not less valuable cameo is that of Jupiter fighting the Titans, by Athenion (AD 50), now in the Vatican. The Portland Vase, in the British Museum, is a further example. The art of cameo cutting was revived during the 15th century in Italy and was carried on with great success until comparatively recent times, Pistrucci ending the long line of renowned engravers. In England Josiah Wedgwood initiated the cameo (white on a colored ground) in pottery. The modern cameo cutters of Italy and other places, finding there was great difficulty in treating the hard gems, also being unable to obtain a sufficient supply of the fine ones necessary for the work, began to think of some other method: hence the introduction of shell cameos. The shells of various molluscs are now often used for making cameos. They are also imitated on glass, and in a cheap, mass-produced form in plastic moulding.

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