A Shell Cameo Diadem

Since Classical Antiquity mythological stories have always appealed to the imagination, something that is evident in this beautifully carved cameo telling the tale of Aurora. When Napoleon brought cameos from Italy to France in 1796, they underwent a huge revival.

This highly detailed, carved cameo tells the story of Aurora, the goddess of dawn, who brings the day and opens the way for Apollo, the god of the sun, the light, music and truth.

Aurora appears on the right-hand side of the cameo, flying above the clouds. She wears a fluttering garment and holds a flower garland in one hand and a bunch of grapes in the other; she will scatter the flower petals over the earth as she flies. She looks over her shoulder at Apollo, as the sun god drives his four-horse chariot along behind her. Around the chariot dance elegant female figures, the Horae, the personifications of the hours who depict the passing of time. Above the chariot is a winged putto with a torch. This is Phosphorus, the morning star.

Guido Reni

The composition of this cameo is based on the Triumph of Aurora by the Italian Baroque artist Guido Reni (1575-1642). Reni painted this famous fresco in 1613-14, commissioned by the art-loving Cardinal Scipione Borghese, for the ceiling of the Casino, the garden house of his Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome. Reni turned for inspiration to Antiquity, a passion which he shared with his patron.

The Triumph was extremely popular.

The figures of the Hours are borrowed from the Borghese Dancers, a marble relief in the cardinal’s collection. The figures of Apollo and Phosphorus are based on a scene on the Arch of Constantine. The Triumph, regarded as Reni’s masterpiece, was extremely popular. It was frequently copied, and the distribution of engravings and painted copies meant that the composition was known throughout Europe.


Cameo is the term for a hard or precious stone carved so as to create a scene in relief against a background. The art of cameo engraving originated in Ancient Egypt, where artisans carved scarabs, sacred beetles, from semi-precious gemstones. The technique spread by way of Greece to Rome, where scenes from classical stories were produced in cameo form.
Since Antiquity there have been two periods when the technique of cameo carving enjoyed a revival. The first was during the early Renaissance, from the second half of the fifteenth century onwards, when there was renewed interests in the Classics, encouraged by rulers and patrons like Lorenzo de’ Medici and Francis I of France. The art fell out of fashion during the seventeenth century but regained popularity during a wave of Neoclassicism in the period from 1760 to 1820, when spectacular archaeological finds sparked renewed interest in ancient cultures.

Neoclassical Cameos

Starting in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, Neoclassicism set the tone in architecture, the applied arts and fashion. As soon as Napoleon brought cameos from Italy to France in 1796, they became a sought-after accessory. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was customary for a fashionable lady to wear a high-waisted dress in Greek style and complete the ensemble with cameos on her belt, on a necklace, on a bracelet and on a headband or, as here, on a diadem.

The young aristocrats snapped up cameos as souvenirs.

The cameos came from Italy, where the youth of European nobility went on a Grand Tour as an integral part of their education. The young aristocrats snapped up cameos as souvenirs. Authentic antique cameos were rare, so cameo-carvers in Rome and Naples stepped into the breach and produced cameos with images of Classical reliefs or illustrations of Renaissance-era paintings. The proud owners took these cameos back home, where they were often set in gold and combined with diamonds, pearls or other precious stones.


Various materials were used for cameos. The most coveted were made from hardstones such as agate, a stone formed in layers coloured brown, black or grey, and white. The skill lay in using the layers so that the picture stood out from the creamy white colour in relief against the darker background. Shadows and details were created by alternating the colours from the different layers. Many other materials were also used for cameos. Instead of hardstone, they could be made in glass and earthenware, and later in shell, coral, opal, crystal, ivory and lava.

Shell Cameo

This cameo is made from a shell. The most widely used shells came from the Cassidae and Cypraeidae families found in the Bahamas, the Caribbean and the seas off the coast of East Africa. Making a cameo was precision work and carving it called for extraordinary patience. It sometimes took years to complete a large cameo. Craftsmen used small drills with iron tips impregnated with diamond dust to grind the stones and olive oil as a lubricant. Cameos remained popular for the greater part of the nineteenth century.


Cameos can vary enormously in quality and this one is among the finest. The carvings are of outstanding quality and the layers of colour present in the shell have been used with extreme subtlety and skill. The horae, the horses in the foreground and Aurora have a soft orange-pink colour while Apollo, Phosphorus and the rearmost horse have been cut from the white layer underneath, giving a three-dimensional effect. The bottom layer is soft grey which gives a nice contrast.


This cameo is mounted on a gold cannetille diadem. The French word cannetille is derived from the Italian word cannutiglia or canutiglia, and the Spanish cañutillo, which literally means small tube. Cannetille was inspired by embroidery, supposedly the embroidery found in traditional peasant garments. Some sources mention eighteenth-century Portugal or India as the origin, others say France. One can find cannetille work from almost every European nation in the eighteen-twenties and -thirties. In the Netherlands the technique was used for, among other things, Zeeland filigree, for buttons, brooches, buckles and bracelets.


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