Rebecca Levitan is a Ph.D. student studying the art and architecture of the ancient Mediterranean world at the University of California, Berkeley. She received her B.A. in Art History from Emory University and her M.Litt in Ancient History from the University of St Andrews. She has excavated in Belgium, Greece, and Italy. Her research interests include polychromy, numismatics, and the reception of antiquity in Europe and the United States.
Unburied Treasures: Re-Use of Precious Classical Stone Vessels in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods
At the peak of Classical decadence, Hellenistic Kings and Roman Emperors cast aside their painted ceramic tableware and gold and silver vessels in favor of an even more luxurious and rare option: bowls and cups shaped from giant precious stones. Using cameo-cutting techniques, agates, chalcedonies, and jaspers were masterfully carved into vessels reserved for only the upper-most echelons of society.
After the split and eventual decline of the Roman Empire, these objects made their way across the continent, from Antwerp to Samarkand, switching hands in crusades, wars, and at auction. Preserved above ground for millennia through the processes of reuse and cultural re-adaptation, many of the stone vessels were transformed into reliquaries or chalices used for performing the Eucharist. Christian retrofittings disguised or transformed pagan imagery to suit new religious and social contexts. A list of the recorded owners of these precious stone vessels reads as a ‘Who’s Who’ of collecting history: Cleopatra, Augustus, Charlemagne, the Abbot of Saint Denis, the Persian King at Herat, Lorenzo the Magnificent, and even Rubens all collected these highly-prized adapted classical cameo-cut vessels.
By presenting case studies of three of these cameo vessels, created in the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods, and now residing in Naples, Paris, and Washington DC, the proposed paper will seek to examine how the materiality and portability of these remarkable objects have allowed them to serve as transcultural topoi: singular amalgams of the sacred and profane, the pagan and Christian, the showcased and sequestered.