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A ROMAN AMETHYST RINGSTONE WITH A PORTRAIT OF DEMOSTHENES
A ROMAN AMETHYST RINGSTONE WITH A PORTRAIT OF DEMOSTHENES
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A ROMAN AMETHYST RINGSTONE WITH A PORTRAIT OF DEMOSTHENES

SIGNED BY DIOSKOURIDES, CIRCA LATE 1ST CENTURY B.C.

Details
A ROMAN AMETHYST RINGSTONE WITH A PORTRAIT OF DEMOSTHENES
SIGNED BY DIOSKOURIDES, CIRCA LATE 1ST CENTURY B.C.
¾ in. (1.9 cm.) long
Provenance
Lelio Pasqualini (1549-1611), Rome, acquired by 1602; thence by descent to his nephew, Pompeo Pasqualini (d. 1624), Rome.
Francesco Boncompagni (1596-1641), Frosinone, acquired from the above, 1624; thence by descent to his nephew, Gerolamo Boncompagni (1622-1684), Frosinone; thence by descent to Antonio Boncompagni-Ludovisi, Prince of Piombino (1658-1721), Frosinone; thence by descent to his son, Gaetano Boncompagni-Ludovisi, Prince of Piombino (1706-1777), Frosinone; thence by descent to his son, Antonio II Boncompagni-Ludovisi, Prince of Piombino (1735-1805), Rome; thence by descent to his son, Luigi Maria Boncompagni-Ludovisi, Prince of Piombino (1767-1841), Rome; thence by descent to his son, Antonio III Boncompagni-Ludovisi, Prince of Piombino (1808-1883), Rome.
with Tommaso Martinetti, Rome (1832-1895) and possibly Count Michel Tyszkiewicz (1828-1897), Rome, acquired from the above, by 1883.
Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941), England, acquired by 1890.
Giorgio Sangiorgi (1886-1965), Rome, acquired from the above and brought to Switzerland, by 1941; thence by continuous descent to the current owners.
Literature
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Lot Essay

One of the most important gems in the Sangiorgi collection is this extraordinary amethyst intaglio engraved with a portrait bust of Demosthenes, the 4th century B.C. Greek orator, and signed by the gem engraver Dioskourides. It is so deeply cut that in the impression, the bust stands out in such high relief that it nearly reads like a statue in the round. Demosthenes wears a mantle over one shoulder and turns his head slightly to one side. The orator is bearded, with a full mustache framing his lips. His brows are knitted and his forehead creased, giving him a serious expression. To the right, in small neat letters, is the inscription, “of Dioskourides,” the artist’s signature. The gem is mounted in an antique gilt silver frame.

Dioskourides' portrait of Demosthenes is without question a masterpiece and one of the most important gems to survive from antiquity. “The Ludovisi gems, belonging to the Prince of Piombino, include many of great value,” wrote English gem collector C.W. King in 1866, “but its chief glory is the Demosthenes of Dioscorides.” In the time before, when it was in the collection of Lelio Pasqualini (1549-1611), and ever since, the gem has piqued the interest of every antiquarian, Grand Tour traveler, and glyptic scholar with a passion for ancient gems. Dutch Renaissance painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) saw the gem sometime between 1600 and 1608 when visiting Rome, recording the inscription in his itinerary; Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), the father of modern art history and longtime resident of the Eternal City, included an engraving of it in his Monumenti antichi inediti (1767); and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), during his famous journey through Italy, saw the gem collection of the Boncompagni-Ludovisi in 1787. The gem was admired as much for the high quality of its craftsmanship and its exceptionally deep engraving, rare for an ancient intaglio, as for its identifying signature, since Dioskourides was recognized throughout the Renaissance and into the modern era as the greatest gem engraver of the Roman world.

Born in Aegea, part of modern-day Turkey, in the 1st century B.C., Dioskourides moved to Rome, by then the cultural and artistic capital of the Mediterranean, where he was named chief gem engraver for the Emperor Augustus (63 B.C.-14 A.D.). Pliny the Elder (Natural History, XXXVII, 8) and Suetonius (Augustus, 50) mention that Dioskourides sculpted the Emperor’s signet ring, supposedly a portrait of Augustus himself (now lost), and that it was used by his successors for signing personal and imperial documents. An active patron of the arts, Augustus promoted the emulation of earlier Greek art, a style today called Augustan Classicism. Dioskourides participated in this zeitgeist, basing many of his gems on famous Greek statues, as was the case with his portrait of Demosthenes. Dioskourides is the only gem-engraver of the Roman period who is not only mentioned by ancient writers but also known from surviving works (p. 130 in G.M.A. Richter, Engraved Gems of the Romans). At present, in addition to his Demosthenes portrait, six other intaglio gems and one cameo survive that bear Dioskourides’ signature, while several others are assigned to him on account of quality and style (see p. 317 in P. Zazoff, Die antiken Gemmen).

It was not until around 280 B.C., nearly forty years after Demosthenes’ death in 322 B.C., that the orator was commemorated on the Athenian Agora by a bronze statue by the sculptor Polyeuktos. For hundreds of years after his death, Demosthenes enjoyed a posthumous fame, particularly among the Romans, who prized his oratory and found in him a ready symbol of republicanism and liberty. Marble copies of Polyeuktos’ bronze were exceedingly popular with wealthy Romans, who adorned their villas with portraits of famous Greek thinkers. Such was the extent of his fame that more than fifty marble copies survive (see nos. 1-47 in G.M.A. Richter, The Portraits of the Greeks). After the fall of the Empire, as knowledge of the ancient world faded, the identity of the surviving marble portraits and that of Dioskourides’ gem was lost. Regarding the gem, some thought it depicted the playwright Terence while others thought it was the philosopher Arius, teacher of Augustus. It was not until 1753 when a bronze portrait bust with Demosthenes’ name inscribed on the breast was found at Herculaneum that the likenesses were once again positively identified.

Nothing is known about the ancient owner of Dioskourides’ Demosthenes, and in fact the first mention of it does not occur until towards the end of the Renaissance in a letter dated 1602 from the French scholar and gem enthusiast Nicholas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637), when the gem was in the collection of Pasqualini. Through Pasqualini's nephew, it passed to the Boncompagni family, who for hundreds of years boasted one of Italy’s most prized gem collections, the highlight of which was undoubtedly Dioskourides’ portrait. By the late 1800s however, many of Rome’s storied aristocratic families were facing economic and political setbacks, and the Boncompagni-Ludovisi were no exception. They were forced to sell off much of their property, including the collection of engraved gems, which was sold via Francesco Martinetti (1833-1895) and Baron Michel Tyskiewicz (1828-1897). In an article published years later (Revue Archéologique, III, vol. 28, 1896, pp. 292-293), Tyskiewicz recalled how the two split the collection, most of the more modern gems going to Martinetti, and the ancient ones to Tyskiewicz. Dioskourides’ gem does not appear in the book cataloguing the most celebrated pieces of Tyskiewicz’s collection, nor was it offered in his estate auction, suggesting that he sold it during his lifetime.

The gem was next acquired by Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941), the famed excavator of Knossos and Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum. Towards the end of his life and in need of funds to publish the final volumes of his Palace of Minos, Evans sold what he described as “my treasure” to Sangiorgi. Sangiorgi had followed the fate of the gem for some time, eventually publishing an article in 1937, “Der Demosthenes des Dioskurides,” solely dedicated to the piece, calling it the “most personal and strongest” of the gem cutter’s works. He would later write: “Like all endowed collectors, I too had in my heart my determined aim, the non plus ultra, the definitive object, the absolute rarity, what could be such an object if not a work by Dioskourides?”

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