Oracle of truth

Antique cameo with portrait of Pietro Aretino made of lava in modern setting, c. 1870 and later

Cameos made of colored sedimentary rock were popular souvenirs of a trip to the south of Italy in the 19th century. The material was considered to be "lava" from Mount Vesuvius and was a reminder of the sinking of Pompeii in 79 AD when the city sank under lava and ash from this volcano. The ruined cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which sank and were miraculously rediscovered, were a fixed item on the program of every Italian trip in the 19th century and offered a very direct impression of ancient Roman everyday life. Jewelry made from the material of these places could thus become a beautiful, perhaps also somewhat macabre souvenir. Jewelry of all qualities was created, from simple small brooches to large parures. The fact that lava as souvenir jewelry was in no way considered inferior in the eyes of contemporaries is shown by the fact that pieces made of lava can be found even in the oevre of such famous goldsmiths as the Castellani. Lava from Mount Vesuvius, along with other materials, became the raw material for cameo work in the Naples area. For the highly specialized cameo cutters, who otherwise used coral or sea snail shells for carving, the soft limestone, which was available in many colors, was a wonderful starting material, because it could be carved so three-dimensional and also allowed deep undercuts, as can be studied on the brooch here. The finely cut cameo of gray stone shows the profile portrait of the Italian poet Pietro Aretino, which is not only clear from physiognomic similarities to the known portraits but also confirmed by an incised inscription on the back. Pietro Aretino (b. April 20, 1492 in Arezzo, † October 21, 1556 in Venice), called il Divino ("the Divine"), flagello de' principi ("Scourge of the Princes"), was a versatile Italian writer, poet, satirist and polemicist of the Renaissance, the Cinquecento. He wrote prophetic edification books, plays, polemical satires, erotic dialogues and poems, as well as a large number of literarily brilliant and culturally and historically rich letters, of which more than 3000 are preserved. Aretino embodies the type of an independent social climber, successful in a courtly society solely on the basis of his intellectual achievements, and was already called during his lifetime, "censor(e) del mondo, oracolo della verità", "censor of the world, oracle of truth". The detailed cut cameo of the 1870s was set in a plain setting of silver in the years around 1990 and can be worn as a brooch since then and came to us from an important Berlin cameo collection.

For centuries, the possession of antique cameos and gems was the claim of almost all great collections, from the Green Vault in Dresden to the treasury of Rudolf II to large private collections such as that of Baron Stosch in later times. The 18th and 19th centuries produced numerous large imprint collections of ancient Roman and Greek sealstones and gems that could almost represent the ancient imagery of glyptic in its entirety. Due to the great travels undertaken by young nobles and wealthy citizens during this period, the use of gems and cameos changed in the early 19th century to larger forms of jewelry, which were classic and sought-after souvenirs from Italy, cut in stone, shell or Vesuvius lava.

We want you to be 100% satisfied! For that reason, we examine, describe and photograph all of our jewellery with the utmost care.

You can rely on our years of experience in the trade and our expertise as a professional art historians for reviews of the antique jewellery. As a member of various trader organisations and the British Society of Jewellery Historians, we remain committed to the highest possible degree of accuracy. In our descriptions, we always also indicate any signs of age and defects and never hide them in our photos – this saves you from any unpleasant surprises when your package arrives.

Should you for some reason not be satisfied, please don’t hesitate to contact us so that we can begin to find a solution together. In any case, you can return any article within 30 days and we will refund the full purchase price.


We want you to be 100% satisfied! That’s why we examine, describe and photograph all our jewellery with the utmost care.

If for any reason you are still not satisfied, contact us and we will find a mutual solution immediately. Regardless, you can return any item within 30 days and we will refund you the full purchase price.