Superbly engraved on this unusually large black chalcedony gem is a portrait bust of Antinous, the young favorite of the Emperor Hadrian (76-138 A.D.), who drowned in the Nile in 130 A.D. Traditionally identified as depicting him in the guise of a hunter, Antinous wears a chlamys over his shoulders pinned in place by a circular fibula and carries a spear. His idealized facial features display a rounded chin, full lips and thick hair arranged in luscious curls that cover his ears and fall along his neck. Stylistically, this gem is exactly that of his main portrait types in marble. The extraordinary quality of the engraving has led many to proclaim this the finest surviving portrait of Antinous in existence in any medium. Some of the missing portions of his bust were restored during the Renaissance in gold. Behind his shoulders three letters are preserved, ANT […], plus a portion of a fourth letter and possibly parts of the others, the inscription either identifying the subject or perhaps an artist’s signature.
The Marlborough Antinous is one of the most famous gems to survive from antiquity and has a long list of owners since its rediscovery in the Renaissance. So great was the mania inspired by this gem that its first documented modern owner, Anton Maria Zanetti (1679-1767), who had pursued the gem for some time before acquiring it, supposedly saying that he would have sold his house to buy it. From him the gem was purchased by George Spencer (1739-1817), the 4th Duke of Marlborough, who wrote that it was “of an incredible beauty,” making it the highlight of perhaps the most extraordinary collection of antique gems ever assembled. The entire Marlborough Collection of gems was first sold at Christie’s en masse to David Bromilow in 1875. The collection remained intact until his daughter sold the gems, again at Christie’s, in 1899. The Antinous was acquired in that sale by Charles Newton Robinson, whose collection was in turn dispersed at Christie’s ten years later. Its owner for the first half of the 20th century is unknown. The gem would reappear at auction at Sotheby’s in 1952, and then it was acquired by Giorgio Sangiorgi, who considered it “excellent work of courtly art comparable with the most celebrated portraits of Antinous…”
About Antinous, ancient sources record that he was born near the provincial city of Bithynion (northwest Turkey) sometime after 110 A.D. He was a member of Hadrian’s large entourage on an inspection tour of the Empire. While travelling in Egypt in 130 A.D., Antinous drowned in the Nile, either the result of an accident, intrigue or suicide said to have been committed to counter a prophecy in order to save the Emperor’s life. In his honor, Hadrian founded Antinopolis, a new city on the east bank of the Nile. In addition, Antinous was posthumously venerated, in some places as a god, in others as a hero, throughout the Empire, including at the Imperial Villa at Tivoli. His memory was honored in temples, festivals, games, poems and hymns. The large number of surviving statues, busts, reliefs, coins and gems depicting Antinous indicate the popularity of his cult as promoted by Hadrian (see pp. 11-16 in R.R.R. Smith and M. Melfi, Antinous, Boy Made God).
As in the case of this gem, most of the surviving portraits of Antinous must date to the eight years between his own death in 130 A.D. and that of Hadrian in 138 A.D. Often Antinous was depicted in the guise of a pre-existing Greco-Roman or Egyptian god, depending on where the image was created. He can be shown as Osiris, as in the example from the Antinoeion at Hadrian’s Villa, now in the Vatican Museums (fig. 156 in T. Opper, Hadrian, Empire and Conflict), as Dionysus, also in the Vatican (fig. 166 in Opper, op. cit.) and as the hunting and agricultural god Aristaios, now in the Louvre (fig. 168 in Opper, op. cit.). In this last example, he holds a hoe over his shoulder, in a position that recalls that of the spear seen on the gem, and while it has always been called a spear in the vast literature, its identification as a hoe is equally plausible.
The use of black chalcedony for the gem may mean that this portrait was connected to mourning, as suggested by Furtwängler (op. cit.), and indeed the color was already emblematic of mourning for the Romans, who considered a dark toga pulla the appropriate garb for burial ceremonies (see p. 141 in J.L. Sebesta and L. Bonfante, eds., The World of Roman Costume).
Since it was first published by Zanetti in 1740, the gem has unceasingly been the subject of scholarly interest, particularly concerning its incomplete inscription. The first three letters ANT are clearly visible, and the beginnings of a fourth letter can just be made out. Lippert thought it was for Gnaeus, the name of an ancient gem engraver; Bracci regarded the gem a work by another ancient artist Anterote; Raspe believed the inscription could be completed as “ANTI[nous].” Levezow postulated an abbreviated “ANT[inous] H[eros],” a creative solution that drew few supporters. The discovery in 1907 at Lanuvium, south of Rome, of a relief depicting Antinous as the agrarian god Silvanus (now in the National Museum of Rome, fig. 30 in Smith and Melfi, op. cit.) lead to further speculation. The Silvanus relief is signed by the Greek sculptor Antonianos of Aphrodisias. Some years after its discovery, Seltman suggested that the Antonianos who created the Sylvanus relief had also engraved and signed the gem, believing the fourth letter in the gem’s inscription to be a “rather angular” omega. While the identification of the inscription may never be decided, what is clear is that the Antinous portrait presented here is one of the finest gems to have survived since antiquity.