Portrait of Venus Wearing Pearls
About the collection
In Greek and Roman culture, many individuals possessed a personal seal, carved into precious or semi-precious stone, which they used to sign their name on legal documents and to seal correspondence. Seals were used as markers of identity and security devices, and carried unique images that were stamped into wax or clay to create impressions. Each image was incised into the stone in negative form, so that it appeared in positive form in its impression, a technique called intaglio. In Hellenistic Greece and Rome, engraved gems were regarded as collectors' items, displayed in 'gem cabinets' (daktyliothecae) in palaces and temples. During the Middle Ages, ancient gems were often set into other treasured objects, such as jewelry, book covers, and even crosses and reliquaries. From the Renaissance onwards, collectors of Greek and Roman art were keen to emulate ancients such as Julius Caesar in creating their own daktyliothecae, and today, every major collection of antiquities includes hundreds of engraved gems. Cornell is lucky enough to possess its own extensive daktyliotheca, purchased from a German manufacturer called Gustav Eichler (1801-77) during the 19th Century and given to the university by its first president, Andrew Dickson White. Based on a collection in the Berlin Museum, it includes almost two thousand plaster casts of Greek, Roman and Egyptian seal-stones, as well as replicas of Medieval, Renaissance and Neoclassical medallions. The Eichler volumes are now stored in Olin Library's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.