Saturday, June 20, 2009

Why They Carved Backwards (Perché hanno intagliato retromarcia)

A long time ago, people left their mark in wax using intaglio carvings, which are carvings that are the reverse of what you wanted to see, pressed in wax dripped by candle. The primary use was to seal letters, but we cannot rule out that they might also have used them to make candies and little fancy butter pats with them.

Typically, they would be carved from carnelian or sard stone (as in sardonyx) and set in a ring. Carnelian is about my 14th favorite mineral I think. I bought these carnelian stones recently from a place in Colorado fancifully named 'The Gypsum Rose'. They were originally found in Madagascar, which sources some of the best exotic specimens these days. In order for you to have a really good and easily familiar frame of reference for how large the stones are, I included a perfect silver denarius of Alexander the Great with a seated victory in the picture.

The woman image at the top is an intaglio from the first century identified as Augustus Caesar's sister Octavia from the Luigi Cesnola collection provenance. It's weird to think that a family member or she herself might have stamp-sealed scrolls with this very object, or used it as a very small id badge for work or something.

I really want to buy a few tiny diamond bits and give intaglio carving into carnelian a try, but I have to come up with some good subject matter, maybe like the image below? I blame suggested YouTube cartoon watching mostly. I've read that ancient carvers would typically make a normal relief image, then cast that into a hard material, then fit it against the stone when carving to see where material still needed to be removed. That sounds a bit easier than just 'thinking backwards' when carving...

The Getty museum in California has a great exhibit going until September on gems and intaglio carvings by such great artists as Epimenes, Solon and Gnaios. And who can forget Dioskourides? The Getty article covers some information on the counterfeiting of these objects in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Anybody going?

There are quite a few intaglios on Ebay in various qualities, but hardly any of them are authentic antiquities, so as always, please be careful when shopping for old stuff. Particularly careful if the item in question has a Warner Brothers character carved in.

Voglio ritagliarsi storico firma anelli. Ho potuto acquistare uno, ma tutti vignette. Pertanto, lo so che non antiche. ;)


  1. I work with some great gem carvers in Germany -- love this stuff.

  2. I really like the Octavia carving, kinda like cameo's in reverse.

  3. Thanks for including the denarius for scale, I totally know how big those are.
    ; )

    I would love to have my own seal. But I think I would prefer front-on or a 3/4 angle rather than a perfect profile. (I am SO VAIN!!!)

  4. All I have to say is...Quid agis, Medice?

  5. I think Betty Boop is an excellent subject matter.

    Oh, I would be eternally grateful if someone could return this ring to its rightful owner.

  6. Wendy B - You have great taste. ps - I need to find a place that has sterling cufflink bases because I have an idea I want to have happen...

    Kate - me too, it is such a pretty image. I like the cameos that cut through two layers of natural stone that are multicolored. They only had one chance to get it right and the examples I've seen are amazing.

    Soda, lol, I new I could count on you to acknowledge my joke about the denarius. And, I agree about the 3/4 view, much more classic. xo

    Mjenks, lol, great WB tie in. You are a luminary of the Latin world, really!

    Dutch Donut Girl - I will get to work on these two things at once, as soon as I finish my fish, heron style... haha...

  7. well, it's more to do with my profile actually! I have a bumpy nose.

    SO VAIN!

  8. Ive always wanted a wax seal for myself. I have to have one now.

  9. Soda, the 3/4 view is interesting from the painter's perspective because you can leave the last 1/4 dark and the human mind will fill in the details. Awesome...

    Mr. C., I'll have to work on one for you...

  10. carve a snowflake, per favore

  11. I think I'd like to have an intaglio instead of my shitty student ID card. Practical, yet stylish. What's not to like?

  12. Mouse, that is a very nice idea. But, I'm not sure if I can find a model to copy because no two are alike?

    the girl, yes, and you could also wear it as a necklace or something.

  13. AnonymousJune 21, 2009

    And ESPECIALLY if said Warners' character has a giant, inproportionate erection! That would be a clue.

  14. Vegetable Assassin, I hope your camping trip went well, it sounds like you might be inexplicably preoccupied with something so I can only assume that it was a good time.

    BTW, I wonder if there is a museum market for statue 'modesty' clothing? Would it be weird to see a Venus di Milo wearing a little Victoria Secret number?

  15. Is it just me, or do all those people (on coins, intaglio carvings, etc) look sort of severe? And ugly.

  16. Oh yes, Bugs captured in carnelian would be tres classy. Can't wait to see the results.

    P.S. There are some very large women statues here in town that every year get Santa hats at Christmas, marathon t-shirts when it's that time of the year and my dad tells me young pranksters used to slip gigantic bras and underpants onto them as well.

  17. Other Worldly One, sure a little bit, but I think it was before the women wore the makeup and before those spas where they put the cucumbers over their eyes and stuff.

    Heather, wouldn't 'Bugs a la Carnelian' be extra special in a 24 carrot setting? :)
    Ohhh... maybe we can get Julia D to look for a gigantic scarf to put on the statues when the first cold wind of fall gets here.
    Oh, the irony of statues sans clothing yet with a knitted scarf on...

  18. What a cool idea. Who wouldn't love their own intaglio. My profile is very good. I'd add fangs to it though, to make it special.

  19. Wait a minute! How is JoLee EVILER than me?? This is my indignant face!

  20. Pru, Your profile is very good, so is your avatar :)

    LiLu, I seem to remember a certain TMI Thursday guest post where she was completely over the top (and that sets the bar very high indeed). I know it was a tribute to you in your style of course, but you know, first impressions and all..

  21. Honey, a spa can't help ugly.

  22. No two are the same?
    What I would like to know if how 'they' know that? I mean, does someone check every snowflake that falls to make sure they are different? Is that Santa's second job? Because I am pretty sure that at least three of the snowflakes that landed on my tongue one day last winter were identical. I wish I could prove it but alas, I ate them

  23. BTW regarding milk and cornflakes, I suffer from a similar condition that involves cheese, crackers and pickled onions. I find the solution lies in simply scoffing the lot even if the last cracker is cheese and onion-less.

  24. PPS my brain smells of burning

  25. OtherworldlyOne, I guess you're right. It's all girly stuff to me.

    Mouse, I'm not really sure, someone must have checked. But yeah, how do they know what all future flakes will look like?

    No... scoffing without the proper distribution of components according to the 'Law of Cereal Milk'??? (and its important corollaries, the 'Law of Chip Salsa' and 'Law of Pickled Onion Cracker Cheese')

    Burning??? yikes

  26. I feel so bad that it's been so long that I have come to your blog...but you will be happy to know that yours is the first one I stopped by at! Woot!

    I am writing this and looking to the side...and notice you have a TWITTER! I have to add you as my friend!!!

    Oh...this cracked me up:

    Carnelian is about my 14th favorite mineral I think.

    Your 14th favorite, huh?

  27. lol Lopez, good to have you back snappyberrie.