Discover the Ancient Art of Cameo Carving

Zoom into 10 detailed objects

By Google Arts & Culture

Emperor Claudius (43 - 45) by RomanRoyal Collection Trust, UK

It's hard to believe this exquisite cameo of the Emperor Claudius is nearly two thousand years old - and yet it is. The art of hand-carving intricate images onto precious stones was perfected by the ancient Romans and has been admired by artists and patrons ever since.

A 'cameo' is a miniature carved gemstone.

Sardonyx cameo with a Bacchic group (1st century B.C.–1st century A.D.)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Each cameo began with a precious gemstone, usually multicoloured agate. The artist then looked for where the colours changed within the stone and - layer by layer - carved their design, until all that was left was a low white relief set against a warm, translucent background.

Cameo Gem with Perseus holding the Head of Medusa set into a Ring Cameo Gem with Perseus holding the Head of Medusa set into a Ring (25 B.C.–A.D. 25) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

What these artists carved was the choice of their patrons. Scenes taken from myth and legend were always popular; as seen here where the Greek hero Perseus holds the head of the slain gorgon Medusa, whose look would turn humans into stone.

Eagle Cameo (27 BC) by unknownKunsthistorisches Museum Wien

As were images of imperial power. This cameo shows the eagle of Jupiter, the emblem of Rome, standing triumphantly on a palm branch and gripping a wreath of oak leaves in its talon. This is a piece of jewellery that honours its wearer - perhaps the emperor himself.

Gemma Claudia (49 AD) by unknownKunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Perhaps the most prized were portraits, such as this, the Gemma Claudia, a wedding gift to the emperor Claudius. The cameo depicts (on the left) Claudius and his new wife Agrippina the Younger, and (on the right) her parents, watched over by an imperial eagle.

Ptolemaic Cameo (278 BC - 269 BC) by unknownKunsthistorisches Museum Wien

This is known today as the Gonzaga Cameo, after its famous renaissance-era owners, but its subject is a mystery. Some people suggest Alexander the Great and Olympias, others say it's Nero and Agrippina the Younger. Whoever they are, they are people of high distinction.

Gemma Augustea (9 AD - 12 AD) by DioskouridesKunsthistorisches Museum Wien

The hours of craft and the artistic vision that went into these works made them treasures on a par with gold and silver. In the ancient world, many cameos were worn on signet rings or as earrings. Some, such as the Gemma Augustea were admired simply as sculptural artworks.

Disk Brooch with Cameo Disk Brooch with Cameo (ca. 600 (mount); 100–300 (cameo))The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Many cameos were kept as heirlooms and antiques. This simple cameo of a charioteer was carved by a Roman artist some time between 100 and 300CE. Around 300 years later, a Lombard artist embellished the cameo by mounting it in a gold and jewelled frame, turning it into a brooch.

Cameo Portraying a Roman Emperor as Jupiter (Cameo: Roman, A.D. 41–54; Frame: Italian, late 16th century) by Roman, ItalyThe Art Institute of Chicago

In fact, the fashion never really faded. This cameo was made in the 1st Century CE, and was still being worn in renaissance-era Italy, 1500 years later, when it was mounted in this gold and jewelled frame.

Emperor Hadrian as world ruler (mid-first century AD and AD 117–138. Setting: likely southern German, early seventeenth century) by UnknownAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Even today, you'll see these ancient artefacts adorning bracelets, earrings, and necklaces.

These small stones draw their wearers close to the distant past…

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