‘Fable and history: Prince Poniatowski’s Neoclassical gem collection‘ in Excalibur: Essays on Antiquity and the History of Collecting in Honour of Arthur MacGregor (2013) 145-150, eds. M.Vickers and H. Weigel

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‘Fable and history: Prince Poniatowski’s Neoclassical gem collection‘ in Excalibur: Essays on Antiquity and the History of Collecting in Honour of Arthur MacGregor (2013) 145-150, eds. M.Vickers and H. Weigel
  145 Explaining the fable and history taken from the classics: Prince Poniatowski’s Neoclassical gem collection Claudia Wagner  Abstract Prince Stanislas Poniatowski (1754-1833) was one of the great collectors of his generation. His interest in the arts was nurtured during extensive travels to Europe’s centres of education, including eight months at Cambridge in 1771. Income from vast landed estates in Poland funded his collecting. The Prince settled in Rome and soon built up a gem collection rumoured to be the most significant collection of classical gems, but strictly restricted access to these treasures. First doubts about the Antiquity of the gems were raised when a selection of plaster impressions were sent to the King of Prussia and the director of the Berlin Antiquarium had a chance to examine the works. The scandal, however, was slow to break: after the Prince’s death, when the collection was sold at auction at Christie’s in 1839, investors were paying vast amounts to acquire the gems. They were indeed stunning: about 2600 gems depicting mythological subjects, illustrating Homer and Virgil, and portraits of a most comprehensive Greek and Roman catalogue known to scholars of the Classics. Keywords  Poniatowski, Neoclassical, Intaglio, Gem. Since Antiquity gems have been desired by collectors: although small in size they are high art, comparable to the  best of sculpture. They depict gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines immortalised in mythology and literature, scenes from history and daily life, the famous and infamous. Inscriptions on the gems give us the names of their owners and gem-engravers. In the story of the survival of the arts in classical antiquity gems take a special place: almost all are complete and in exactly the condition in which they left the engraver’s hands, something which is true for hardly any piece of classical sculpture. The great collections of gems were formed since the Renaissance by influential families such as the Medici or the Dukes of Gonzaga, and it became more and more difficult to acquire the very best. The gems sold by the Gonzagas to the Earl of Arundel in the 16 th  century and were passed on as an intact collection until the Duke of Marlborough used them to ease some financial troubles. They were completely dispersed in 1899. Like many of the great collectors the Prince published a catalogue of his gems, Catalogue des pierres gravées antiques de S. A. le  Prince Stanislas Poniatowski   ( Catalogue 1832/1857–8),  but access to the gems remained restricted and the wonder of the collection became almost mythical in character.Prince Stanislas Poniatowski had inherited a small collection of Ancient gems from his uncle, Stanislas August, last King of Poland, which were published by the renowned scholar Visconti. The prince was one of the great collectors whose expansive, almost insatiable interests in the arts were not restrained by finances: he was vastly wealthy. How could he gather more of these exquisite objects, prized by connoisseurs, scholars and students of the classics? This remained a mystery until well after the  prince’s death, when his collection was sold by Christie’s at auction in 1839 (Christie’s, 29 April-May 2,1 1839). When the gems could finally be examined the truth could not be denied any longer: they were not the work of classical but neo-classical engravers (Busiri, 1971; Seidmann 1999).This raises the all-important question: was the prince duped into buying fakes or was he himself the instigator of one of the greatest frauds perpetrated in history?Let us first examine the collection: it consists of over 2600 gems, mostly cut on orange cornelian or brown sardonyx,  but also light blue chalcedony, amethyst, and, more rarely, unusual stones as beryl were used. Many are of a large ‘medallion’ size and according to the Prince’s catalogue, were mounted. The surviving srcinal mounts are characterised by a thin line of black enamel – the gold-work shows variations of filigree, twisted and wrought shapes, often leaves.   An astonishing proportion of the collection is signed with artists’ signatures, in Greek capital letters, in mirror image, so that the impression has the inscription the right way around, in relief. The names are of ancient gem engravers, passed down to us in literature, as Apollonides (Figure 1) mentioned by Pliny, 1  or known from signatures on other gems, as Gnaios (Figure 2) 2  but also a selection of names randomly taken from historical and mythological figures, such as Myrton (Figure 3). 3  The famous sculptor was, of course, Myron, without the T.The subjects depicted fall into distinct groups: mythology, with a particular fondness for metamorphoses described  by Ovid, scenes from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, from 1  Current collection unknown; previous collections: Catalogue 1. 234; Prendeville 1841, 149; Christie’s London, April 29-May 21, 1939, lot 99. 2  Current collection: Japan, private; previous collections: 1. 326; Christie’s London, April 29-May 21, 1839, lot 1360; Prendeville 1841, 210; S.J. Phillips London, 2005, lot 22900. 3  Current collection: London, Victoria and Albert: 949-1853; previous collections: Catalogue 7. 7; Christie’s London, April 29-May 21, 1839, lot 1440; Prendeville 1841, 1083; Monson Sale, Christie’s London, 18 May, 1853, lot 216.  146 E XCALIBUR  : E SSAYS   ON  A  NTIQUITY   AND   THE  H ISTORY   OF  C OLLECTING   IN  H ONOUR    OF  A RTHUR   M AC G REGOR  Vergil’s Aeneid, some historical events, and a large selection of portraits: a veritable illustrated who’s who of the Greek and Roman world, from artists, poets and  philosophers to emperors, generals, minor and major  politicians.Thanks to the amazing group of sketches by the gem-engraver Giovanni Calandrelli in the Antikensammlung Berlin, found and published by Gertrud Platz-Horster, we can now appreciate the design underlying the whole collection (Platz-Horster 2003; 2005).The structure of the subjects chosen is not based on primary sources but on handbooks and editions of new translations. The section on mythology illustrates Karl Philip Moritz’s F IGURE  1: L ATONA   METAMORPHOSING   THE  L YCIAN   PEASANTS   INTO   FROGS ; SIGNED  A POLLONIDES . P LASTER    IMPRESSION F IGURE  2: T HE    NYMPHS   WASHING   THE   HORSE  A RION   IN   THE   WATERS   OF   THE   SEA ; SIGNED  G  NAIOS . P RIVATE   COLLECTION , J APAN . A METHYST   INTAGLIO .F IGURE  3: A ENEAS   ADDRESSING  V ENUS   AS   SHE   ASCENDS   TO   HEAVEN , AFTER    HER    INTERVIEW   WITH   HIM   IN   THE  L IBYAN   WOOD ; SIGNED  M YRTON . C ORNELIAN   INTAGLIO   IN   ORIGINAL   SETTING . Götterlehre; the references are carefully noted by the engraver on top of his drawing (Figure 4). 4 The designs are not copies of other works of art, ancient or modern. The cornelian that Calandrelli engraved is now in Oxford (Figure 5) and shows Latona fleeing from the Python. No famous ancient model exists, much less for the scenes depicting metamorphoses: On a cornelian   (Figure 6)   a lovely maiden’s head has been attached to the body of a tortoise; Mercury is transforming the nymph Chelone into the reptile, her punishment for  being disrespectful at the wedding of Jupiter and Juno. 5  And on another cornelian (Figure 1), Latona appears again with the babies Apollo and Diana: she was thoroughly displeased when she was thirsty and the peasants refused to allow her to drink from a pond by stirring the mud at the  bottom. A wonderful opportunity to attach frogs’ heads on to muscular male bodies: the peasants are transformed into frogs, punished for their inhospitality, forever doomed to swim in the murky waters of ponds and rivers. Sometimes the clues to the identification of the subject are quite subtle and it is important to be very vigilant when looking at the scenes: an amethyst shows the horse Arion being washed by nymphs (Figure 2). Clues to his identification are the human feet on the left side of his  body. His parentage explains this oddity: his mother, Ceres, was pursued by Neptune and transformed herself into a horse, Neptune did the same and caught up with her. The happy result of their mating was Arion. The amethyst is now in Japan. 4  Calandrelli drawing, Antikensammlung Berlin: Z.II.16; Platz-Horster, 2005, 32. 5  Current collection unknown, previous collections: Prendeville 1841, 222; Catalogue 1. 342; Christie’s London, April 29-May 21,1839, lot 2410.  147 C LAUDIA  W AGNER  : E XPLAINING   THE   FABLE   AND   HISTORY   TAKEN   FROM   THE   CLASSICS When it comes to the lives of the heroes, in particular Hercules, the collection is as thorough in trying to depict every single pivotal scene in his life as we have come to expect. A Calandrelli design shows the young hero fighting the Nemean lion. In later life he is wearing the skin of the lion as a cap and cape, and we see him on the cornelian dealing with some villains, the sons of Boreas (Figure 7). 6  But even Poniatowski seems to have set limits on grounds of taste. A drawing by Calandrelli shows Hercules pulling of the skin of the Nemean lion. This image was never executed and it is clearly understandable why not.The gems with illustrations from the  Iliad   and Odyssey  follow the popular translations by Heinrich Voss, as recorded by Calandrelli at the top of his drawings just as with the Moritz references. His drawing and gem shows 6  Current collection: private, Oxford; previous collections: Catalogue 2. 304; Christie’s London, April 29-May 21, 1839 (?); Prendeville 1841, 414. F IGURE  4: C ALANDRELLI   DRAWING , A  NTIKENSAMMLUNG  B ERLIN .F IGURE  5: L ATONA   BEING   PURSUED   BY   THE  P YTHON ; SIGNED  D IODOROS . C ORNELIAN   INTAGLIO .F IGURE  6: M ERCURY   CHANGING  C HELONE   TO   A   TORTOISE ; SIGNED  D IOSKOURIDES . P LASTER    IMPRESSION .F IGURE  7: H ERCULES   ATTACKING   THE   SONS   OF  B OREAS ; SIGNED  K  ROMOS . C ORNELIAN   INTAGLIO .  148 E XCALIBUR  : E SSAYS   ON  A  NTIQUITY   AND   THE  H ISTORY   OF  C OLLECTING   IN  H ONOUR    OF  A RTHUR   M AC G REGOR  a divine intervention: Neptune rescuing Aeneas from Achilles (in Voss’s 1793 translation of Book 20.141). Again the subjects depict every detail of the story. The moment at which Achilles kills the Amazon Penthesileia is often depicted in art. It is a moving subject: at the moment of death Achilles falls in love. Poniatowski also has a more minor detail of the scene: Thersites thought this was hilarious and is seen here getting killed for mocking the hero (Figure 8). 7  Not many great historical moments of antiquity are illustrated in the collection; a rare exception is Alexander cutting the Gordian knot (Figure 9). 8  Poniatowski, however, seems to have been keen to acquire portrait heads of virtually anyone known from antiquity. 7  Current collection: private, Oxford; previous collections: Catalogue 5. 208; Christie’s London, April 29-May 21, 1839, lot 1734; Prendeville 1841, 977. 8  Current collection: private, Lausanne; previous collections: 8. 68; Christie’s London April 29-May 21, 1839, lot 718; Prendeville 1841, 1182; Calandrelli drawing, Antikensammlung Berlin: A.III.51; Wagner and Boardman 2003, no.662; Platz-Horster 2005, 66. The portraits can be difficult to identify, mainly because they often show people never depicted in art before. Some carry an inscription: Byzaz (Figure 10), 9  denotes the mythical founder of Byzantium. The philosopher in the middle is clearly identified by the tortoise in the field: yes, it is Aeschylus, who died when an eagle mistook his  bald head for a stone and dropped a tortoise on it. The legions of Roman portrait heads often only have initials, such as M.T.C. – Marcus Tullius Cicero, which makes identification extremely difficult. When Christie’s arranged the sale of the Poniatowski gem collection, none of the great collectors or museums seems to have shown any interest in acquiring it. It fell to a Captain John Tyrrell to buy the majority of the collection for £65,000.   He thought he had landed a coup and secured a brilliant investment. He had a catalogue printed, which he later reissued illustrated with photos – one of the earliest art books to do this. After investing in the gems, he staunchly defended and publicised them.    Numerous sets of impressions, in particular the first 470 gems, seem to have been made. The Oxford gem archive alone has about 5 different sets, none of them quite complete. Many of the impressions in decorative frames are Poniatowki gems 9  Current collection unknown; previous collections : Catalogue  8. 50; Christie’s London, April 29-May 21, 1839, lot 707; Christie’s London,  November 7, 2006, lot 353. F IGURE  8: A CHILLES   KILLING  T HERSITES ; SIGNED  P EMALLIOS . C ORNELIAN   INTAGLIO .F IGURE  9: A LEXANDER    CUTTING   THE  G ORDIAN   KNOT ; SIGNED  D IOSKOURIDES . C ORNELIAN   INTAGLIO .F IGURE  10: B YZAS , FOUNDER    OF  B YZANTIUM ; SIGNED  B YZAS . C ORNELIAN   INTAGLIO .  149 C LAUDIA  W AGNER  : E XPLAINING   THE   FABLE   AND   HISTORY   TAKEN   FROM   THE   CLASSICS in Tyrrell’s collection. They were so ubiquitous, that they even spawned copies: on Ebay earrings are sold of Poniatowski’s Apollo visiting his mistress, copying the traditional Wedgwood colouring.Very soon the antiquity of the collection was questioned. Ernst Heinrich Toelken, the director of the Berlin Antiquarium, had already judged them as fakes in 1832. His principal reason was the presence of signatures of engravers known to us from the Greek and Roman world on gems of such a uniformly  beautiful style. He writes with great admiration: ‘The impressions are indeed the most beautiful you can expect to see in art.’ In 1842 the collection was again attacked in the  British and Foreign Review (Ogle 1842). The author finds it implausible that Poniatowski should have been able to acquire as many as 2601 previously unknown antique gems. He goes on to suggest that some Roman gem engravers, such as Giovanni Pichler, seemed to have a remarkably small number of gems attributed to them, and finds the explanation in that they had been working for the Prince.Tyrrell tried to refute these claims as puerile, and declared, that it is ‘not probable that a nobleman of his [the Prince’s] high character and honour would have asserted that which he did not believe to be true’ (  British and Foreign Review  1842, 66).Tyrrell’s protestations were to no avail: at Charles Scarisbrick’s Christie’s sale in 1861, Poniatowski gems sold for as little as £2 each (Scarisbrick 1994, 20). Not everyone despised the gems: the Marquis of Breadalbane, a millionaire Scottish peer, commissioned Antoine Vechte to display his collection of 46 Poniatowski intaglios in a silver vase-candelabrum, standing six feet high (Figure 11). Vechte, acknowledged as one of the greatest art metalworkers of his generation, created a repoussé silver and damascened iron extravaganza. 10  The interior was intended to be lit so that the colourful intaglios became translucent. Breadalbane had acquired a variety of the stones and sizes on offer (amethysts, orange cornelians, deep brown sardonyxes) which were arranged in a symmetrical pattern. It was finished in time for the 1862 International Exhibition and was praised as one of the great sights. The Breadalbane Vase-Candelabrum had been chosen as a centrepiece, ‘towering above its neighbours’. The Athenaeum  thought the execution of the  piece ‘exquisite’ throughout (Anon. 1862, 277-8). Breadalbane was a serious collector, whose collection was sold after his death by Christie’s, London on July 15, 1886. He became President of the Society of Antiquaries in 1852 and was a sometime trustee of the British Museum. Just like other gem collectors he recognized the quality of the engravers: both the gem enthusiast Rev. C.W. King, who 10  John Culme for Pash and Sons. hat Poniatowski’s ‘Psyche opening the box of beau’, and Archibald Billing defended the quality of the work. Billing invokes the indebtedness to the Prince by modern artists ‘for showing that living artists could execute work equal to the ancients’ (Billing 1867, 116). Another intrepid collector was John Rushout, 2nd Baron Northwick. His collection contained over 150 gems from the Poniatowski collection, a third mounted in rings.Gems from the collection have deceived scholars for a long time: A.B. Cook believed the Io signed by Dioskourides: ‘...the loveliest of his works,... said to have been found in 1756 on the estate of the Duca di Bracciano, from whose F IGURE  11: B READALBANE   VASE .
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