The Historic Gonzaga Cameo from Ancient Greece


A double portrait, of Ptolomy II and Arsinoe II

The Gonzaga cameo in layered Agate hardstone. Believed to be of the couple Ptolemy II Philadelphus and Arsinoe II, from Alexandria, carved in Sardonyx, with three layers. From the 3rd century BC.

Bought in 1814 and originating from Malmaison, a gift from Josephine Beauharnais to Alexander I. Kept in St Petersburg, Hermitage State Museum, inv. n. GR 12678

Il Cammeo Gonzaga is a Hellenistic engraved gem; a cameo of the capita jugata variety cut out from the three layers of Indian sardonyx, dating from perhaps the 3rd Century BC. It was a centerpiece of the Gonzaga collection of antiquities, first described in a 1542 inventory of Isabella d’Este’s collection as representing Augustus and Livia. The figures were later identified as Alexander the Great and Olympias, Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, Nero and Agrippina the Younger, and many other famous couples of antiquity.

The male figure on the cameo is clad in the attributes of Alexander, including a laurel-wreathed helmet, and wears a gorgoneion. His other aegis represents a bearded head, probably that of Zeus Ammon. The man’s laurel wreath is crowned by a snake which suggests the uraeus. The contrasting male and female profiles were in all probability intended to suggest Zeus and Hera. The brown necklace is a later addition masking the fact that the cameo was, at some point, broken in half.

In 1794 the cameo was part of Pius VI’s collection in the Vatican. The invading French took it with them to Paris where it entered the collection of Napoleon and Empress Joséphine. After Napoleon’s downfall, Alexander I of Russia paid a visit to the Château de Malmaison and offered Joséphine every assistance in his power. As a sign of gratitude, she presented the cameo to the Tsar.

Ever since then, the so-called Malmaison cameo has been kept in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. In Vienna, there is a rival Hellenistic cameo, of lesser quality, which the Habsburgs also described as the “Gonzaga cameo”, probably on assumption that it had not been stolen by the Swedes in 1648. This results in considerable confusion between the two.

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