Some of the latest examples of Greek and Roman gemstones acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu will be showcased at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art for its next Art Matters Lecture, “Masterpieces in Miniature: A Brief History of Ancient Gems.” The October 3 lecture will be delivered by Getty Museum curator of antiques Ken Lapatin, who will make the case that gemstones are a frequently forgotten but important aspect of ancient art.
“These objects often get overlooked whenever we think about ancient Greek and Roman art,” he told the News-Press.
Whereas certain art mediums like vases and marble statues are what often come to mind when one thinks of Hellenistic and Roman art, the curator said carved gemstones often get unnoticed due to their small size. Very often, these stones were carved into seal rings for official or personal use. Because they are small, carved gemstones sometimes remain lost, and are difficult to display even if they’re found. Nevertheless, the gemstones’ durability makes them by in large more complete specimens than statues and vases.
The gemstones featured in the upcoming talk are among 17 acquisitions the Getty recently made from one of the largest private collections in the world and are carved into designs ranging from portraits, scenes from ancient mythology, to animals. In Mr. Lapatin’s opinion, gemstones deserve greater attention in the examination of antique art because of what they reveal about artistic personalities from the time. Some of the gemstones he will show in his lecture include their artist’s signatures, and one in particular bears the signature of the gem carver who made seal rings for Emperor Augustus.
Although the Egyptians and Mesopotamians were performing gemstone carving millennia before the ancient Greeks and Romans took it up, under the latter empires the art form reached new heights. According to Mr. Lapatin, the immense wealth that was generated in Greece and Rome opened up a large market for these stones, which enabled the carvers at the top of that market to spend a lot of time perfecting their craft.
The wealth that enabled this market to grow expanded with Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire, which kicked off the Hellenistic period of ancient Greece. As high-class patrons were able to afford finely crafted gemstones, a culture of collecting soon came to surround them. In addition to appreciating the stones’ artistry, individuals desired them as status symbols.
“There was admiration in collecting, but also they brought status,” he said.
However, if carved gemstones reveal anything about the ancients, in Mr. Lapatin’s opinion it is indeed their appreciation for fine craftsmanship. With a four minute video on the Getty Museum’s YouTube channel, Mr. Lapatin will show the different steps of the carving process, which involves grinding the stones with a spinning wheel and carving them with metal tools dipped in an abrasive powder, usually emery dust. During his talk, the curator will also explain the two different carving methods, intaglio and cameo. Whereas the latter involved carving a design directly and concavely into the stone, the latter was more time consuming and consisted of carving back the rock’s background so the design jumped out from the background, convex with the stone.
Though he feels carved gemstones don’t get the attention they deserve during discussions of antiquity, Mr. Lapatin is hopeful his lecture will go a little way in getting his audience to appreciate their significance.
“I hope they’ll come away with an admiration and knowledge of an often neglected but important part of ancient art,” he said.Mr. Lapatin’s lecture will begin at 5:30 p.m. in the museum’s Mary Craig Auditorium and tickets for the talk can be purchased online at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s website www.sbma.net. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is located at 1130 State St.