Born Pietro Barbo in 1417 in Venice, Pope Paul II had trained as a merchant until his uncle became Pope Eugenius IV (1431-1447). His consequent promotion was, as one might suspect, rapid: in 1440, he became a cardinal, gaining popularity through his tender-hearted generosity. In August 1464, he was elected pope. However, before the election, the cardinals had decreed certain restrictions of power on the papal office, effectively transforming the pope from an omnipotent figure into that of a president of the College of Cardinals. Paul II would more or less ignore these limitations, which lost him the confidence of his cardinals.
Almost from his coronation Paul II withdrew: audiences were only granted at night, and even good friends waited a fortnight to see him. He was second to none in providing for popular amusements: in 1466, he permitted the horse-race, a feature of Carnival, to be run along the main street, the Via Lata, which now became known as the Via del Corso. The story of Cardinal Ammanati that Paul II intended to take the name 'Formosus II' ('The Handsome'), but was persuaded not to, is as amusing and unverified as the anecdote that he was dissuaded from 'Marcus', which he thought suitable being Venetian and the Cardinal of San Marco, but which was deemed unsuitable because it was also the war-cry of Venice. One of his successors suggested he should be called Maria Pietissima, 'Our Lady of Pity', because, the anecdote goes, he was inclined to break into tears at times of crisis. However, some commentators have suggested that the nickname was due to Paul II's propensity to enjoy dressing up in sumptuous ecclesiastical finery.
According to the well-known jewellery historian Diana Scarisbrick, the intaglio could have been used for the practical purpose of sealing the correspondence of the Pope, the cameo spelling his name on the reverse signifying that it is his personal possession. The cameo's iconography harks back to early Christian art: the two saints, the founders of the Church, appear in a signet dating to the 4th century with the monogram of Christ in Greek letters, CHI RHO, instead of the cross; whereas an intaglio very similar to the one offered here for sale, dated to the 5th century was formerly in the Ernest Gilhou collection (cf. Seymour de Ricci, Catalogue of a Collection of Ancient Rings formed by the late E. Gilhou, Paris 1912, no. 809). From the 11th century on, the heads of the two saints separated by a cross with the name of the reigning pope at the back featured on the lead seals which stamped the papal bulls. This tradition continued until Pope Paul II commissioned a much more elaborate official seal based on that of the Doges of Venice, and on which the saints are shown seated in full length, and instead of his name at the back, the pope is shown enthroned in full pontifical regalia flanked by cardinals and giving an audience to six pilgrims kneeling at his feet.
Although his official seal was the subject of radical transformation, Pope Paul II decided on a conservative approach for his personal signet ring. Executed by an artist whose style rivalled that of the best engravers of the age of Augustus, the dignified portraits are lively, combining classical idealisation with Christian piety. The portraits allude to those enclosed in silver reliquaries by Urban V in 1369, and before which Pope Paul II prayed with the pilgrim Emperor Frederick III when the Pope is reported to have compared the fine emerald on his own finger with the one in the tiara adorning the silver portrait of St. Peter.
Other than a love of splendour, Pope Paul II also had a passion for collecting artworks: as Cardinal Pietro Barbo, the inventory of his Palazzo San Marco in Rome, drawn up in 1457, featured important works of classical sculpture, tapestries, bronzes, medals and embroideries as well as a cabinet of 800 engraved gems to which he added after his accession as pope.
When his successor, Pope Sixtus IV, dispersed the gem collection, most of it was acquired by Lorenzo de' Medici and removed to Florence. Thereafter, little is known about the provenance of the ring offered for sale until Ernst Kris saw it in Budapest some time before 1929 when it belonged to a Mr. von Kosacs Kroop, and then appearing for sale in in London in 1940 as the property of Prince Windisch-Graetz as 'the Fisherman's Ring of Pope Paul II'. The anulus piscatoris, the Fisherman's ring, was the seal used by the popes for their private letters to family members and the like. Indeed, the cameo of the ring presently for sale shows a clean break in accordance with the traditional breaking of the personal and official seals of a person holding high office immediately after his death.