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A gem of a collection: the Duke of Marlborough's superb intaglio and cameo collection is restored in this book.

The Marlborough Gems

John Boardman et al (eds.)

Oxford University Press, 236.00 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 9780199237517


In the February 2008 issue of Apollo, Sir John Boardman described how he was devoting himself to the reconstruction of the most important 18th-century English private collection of cameos and intaglios, that of George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough (1739-1817). The result of this vast labour is a splendid and wonderfully rich volume written with the collaboration of Erika Zwierlein-Diehl, Claudia Wagner and Diana Scarisbrick, who contributed an analysis of the jewelled settings.

The Marlborough collection, comprising 8oo intaglios and cameos covering all periods from antiquity to the late 18th century, became--along with telescopes--the duke's main interest after he became disillusioned with the world of politics, and retired. He kept his collection close at hand in Blenheim Palace, where it remained until 1875, when the 7th Duke of Marlborough sold it en bloc to businessman David Bromilow. The final dispersion came when Mary Jary, Bromilow's daughter, sent it to auction in 1899. Boardman has reconstructed the collection--which is composed of several smaller collections--complete with an image of each gem. Their individual, complex histories are traced through a wealth of documentation: prints and illustrations in 18th-century books, a complete series of wax and electrotype impressions, and inventories and catalogues--especially that of Professor Nevil Story-Maskelyne (1823-1911). One third of the surviving cameos and intaglios from the collection have been identified in museums and private collections all over the world.

Although the Duke of Marlborough had been interested in engraved gems for some time, his turning point as a collector was in 1762 when he acquired the Arundel collection from his brother's wife, Lady Mary Beauclerk, to whom it had come as a gift after generations of inheritances and marriages. The collection was famous because it contained stones from the 16th-century court of the Gonzagas in Mantua with some illustrious provenances--these included Pope Paul II (a red-brown agate intaglio of Ulysses and Diomedes by Felix), Lorenzo de' Medici (a cameo of Demeter and Triptolemus; Fig. 2) and Fulvio Orsini (a cameo of Hercules and Omphale). In 1638 Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel (1585-1646) and one of the foremost English collectors of antiquities of his time, had the good fortune to acquire through his agent, William Petty, a cabinet comprising 250 gems. Arundel's prize came through the dealer Daniel Nys, who had purchased it earlier that century when the Gonzagas sold their works of art. The Arundel gems were soon joined at Blenheim Palace by the prestigious Bessborough collection (catalogued by the gem engraver Lorenz Natter and published in 1761) which itself had some illustrious provenances. William Ponsonby, Viscount Duncannon and later 2rid Earl of Bessborough (1704-1793), had acquired from the collection of the Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773) which contained intaglios obtained from the diplomat Philip Stanhope and a group of gems--representing Italian taste--from Gabriel Medina, a Jewish merchant of Livorno. An exquisite chalcedony Medusa was obtained from the sale of George II's physician, Richard Mead; others had belonged to Baron Stosch.

Having united these two great English collections, the duke made further important additions over the following years and in 1781 and 1783 he published his two-volume catalogue, Gemmarum Antiquarum Delectus ... in dactyliothecis Ducis Marlburiensis Conservantur, illustrated by Bartolozzi and Cipriani. He also patronised the English engravers Edward Burch and Nathaniel Marchant, as well as Lorenz Natter, sometimes commissioning them to produce copies of famous gems in other collections. Like the Boncompagni Ludovisi princes in Rome, who also had a famous collection, the duke kept his gems to himself, only showing them to a carefully selected circle.

The Duke of Marlborough was summoned home from Italy during 1760-61 to attend the coronation of George III, and so never completed his 'Grand Tour'. He selected four gems from Antonio Maria Zanetti in Venice but could not proceed to Rome, where he had been eagerly awaited by artists and dealers. An analysis of his collection reveals the gaps left as a consequence of this missed visit to Rome. He was unable to acquire ancient gems then being dispersed by the great Roman families, nor could he add to his collection by commissioning--as did other distinguished visitors--new works from the renowned artists then established in the city. His gems by Giovanni Pichler (1734-1791), the most celebrated of this school of engravers, were acquired at home in England, through intermediaries such as Charles Townley. How and where Marlborough obtained, in 1764, the large, rare, rectangular cameo formerly belonging to both the Sannesi and Fuentes collections is a mystery, but the existence of a fine illustration--with more details added to the existing drawing by Cassiano del Pozzo (who died in 1657)--in Le Vestigia di Roma Antica, ricercate e spiegate da Francesco de' Ficoroni, indicates that the gem was in Rome in 1745.


The cameo of The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche, signed by Tryphon, and today at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Fig. 1), has always been regarded as the masterpiece of both the Arundel and Marlborough collections. Prior to 1622 it was owned by the painter, Peter Paul Rubens. According to the catalogue, a drawin8 by Alphonso Chacon is the earliest documentary reference to the cameo, which suggests a connection with Pirro Ligorio (c. 1510-1583). However, its history can be traced back even further. As Giorgio Nonni and Mariarita Casarosa observed some years ago, the cameo was discovered early during the second half of the 16th century in the ancient Roman city of Sentinum, near Sassoferrato in the Marches. In his 1572 treatise on birds, Costanzo Felici described the gem in detail as 'a rare and marvellous thing'. He goes on to state that having been sold in Venice for 137 gold ducats, it turned up in Florence where Cosimo I bought it for the much higher sum of 506 gold ducats. How the cameo left Florence and ended up in the hands of Rubens in 1622 is a mystery that remains to be discovered.


The influence of the Marriage of Cupid and Psyche cameo on the decorative arts is superbly illustrated in the book; in view of its significance on 18th-century European culture yet more examples from Italy and particularly Rome could be added. The cameo was illustrated in the frontispiece to the Lettere su le Belle Arti publicate nelle nozze Barbarigo-Pisani published in 1793 in Venice, but well before this there were many examples of its influence on prestigious Roman decorative schemes. These include the plasterwork on the walls of the coffee house of Cardinal Albani's villa on the via Salaria (inaugurated in 1763) and the marble frieze executed in relief by the sculptor and restorer Vincenzo Pacetti (1746-1820) for the Gabinetto Nobile in the Palazzo Altieri (1788-89) to mark the marriage of Prince Paluzzo. Some decades later, as if to confirm its enduring influence, an unfinished wax model of the cameo, now in the Museo di Roma, provides evidence that Benedetto Pistrucci (1783-1855) either copied it in hardstone or intended to do so.

Lucia Pirzio Biroli Stefanelfi is the author of the catalogue of the Paoletti Collection of glass moulds for gem impressions in the Museo di Roma.
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Title Annotation:The Marlborough Gems
Author:Stefanelli, Lucia Pirzio Biroli
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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