So, now we know that even during Intaglio Fancytimes ™ the carvings weren’t usually all that fabulous, or easy to see, and that for all that we love the Getty’s amazing collection on display, we also know that they and other museums are hiding hundreds of truly special pieces of the art away so that 5-year-olds everywhere don’t get the idea that they, too, are ready to carve innocent pieces of semiprecious stone.
Now, let’s move past the first Intaglio Fancytimes I ™, aka the ancient Greek/Etruscan/Roman period of At Least Some Mastery, and start looking into the long dark teatime of the art, before Intaglio Fancytimes II ™: The Renaissance Goes Nuts (especially those Medicis) and Intaglio Fancytimes III ™: The Victorians Try To Do One Better. Worth noting: intaglio was already an old art by the time Fancytimes ™ happened at all; intaglio seals were made and used by ancient Egyptians, Harappans, and Mesopotamians, so it’s really no surprise that it was a very fancy art with specialized equipment and trade secrets.
Intaglio carving didn’t die out. It was adopted by various cultural groups, and remained a lively and valuable art throughout the intervening centuries. Remember, this was a means of identity protection during a time when you couldn’t be sure who wrote what, and certainly couldn’t call anyone up to check. In addition, intaglio carvings continued to have sacred significance.
The sixth century seems to me like a good place to start looking for an intaglio tradition beyond the Roman, and I was not disappointed. In Persia, the Sasanian tradition included extremely tiny carvings (on stones less than 1 cm in diameter), generally of animals. The carving is on the left, with an impression from it to the right, blown up. Yep, that’s definitely some sort of bird. The stone is carnelian. Medieval people loved carnelian. This piece, by the way, is one of the gems hidden away on paper in the Getty catalogue, titled Ancient Gems and Finger Rings.
The easiest way for me to figure out what shape bits were used is by trying to duplicate the carving myself, which I did. Simple though the carving is, I used four bit shapes to duplicate it: a medium pellet (ball-ended bit) for the breast and body, a small pellet for the head and some work on the neck, a small barrel (cylindrical bit) for the neck and legs, and a tiny wheel for the feather-lines, feet, and beak. These bits all needed to be used wet to prevent chipping, but that was a given, as diamond-encrusted bits hadn’t yet been created. Instead, the bits were used to push a slurry of sapphire or emery powder in oil against the stone (for more detail, look at my posts on The Machine). The images here are all the originals, by the way.
Recently, a 9th century Viking grave find from Birka was all over the news. While it had been dutifully catalogued and put away, the original analysis left out a few important points and got another one wrong entirely, and this was great news for us, because it meant more attention was being paid to Medieval intaglio. The medieval Islamic tradition of intaglio carving follows the religious injunction against creating likenesses of living things. Typical of this tradition, the Birka intaglio contains only a line of writing with a religious message. To the right is a more intricate design of the same tradition. In my effort to replicate this piece, I used three bits: a tiny pellet (most of the carving), a tiny wheel (outlines), and a point which I had little luck with. What I really needed was an even smaller pellet.
At the same time, a very different intaglio tradition was rising in the Carolingian empire. With a special fondness for rock crystal (clear quartz, to the geology folks), the Carolingian intaglio carvers could bring the stones down onto the rotating bit as they carved while looking through them, seeing immediately the effect of every single tool-mark. They didn’t need to reverse everything they carved, as long as they used clear quartz; they merely had to look at the top face of the quartz and mark it as their vision dictated. They also had a fondness for really big pieces of stone, which makes sense when you realize that these large pieces are not personal seals, but parts of processional crosses and other ritual items. These were meant to impress from a distance.
When I recreated Radpod’s likeness, I used four bits: small and large pellets, a small barrel, and a thin wheel. The wheel was for writing, hair, eyelids, and folds in the cloth. The large pellet made the curves of his head, face, neck, and shoulder; the small, his chin, ear, lips, and eye. The barrel made his brow, moustache, and most of the drapery. The setting is open on both sides, as this is a seal.
Finally, in the Byzantine tradition, figurative seals return to opaque stones, with saints a particular favorite subject. Alongside the image, text names the subject, much as it does on icons. Everything is in reverse again. I used only three bits for this: medium pellet for dragon body, torso, head, and limbs, small wheel for all lines, and small pellet for all small curves and dots.
The next distinct carving tradition is the Renaissance Neo-Classical, or Intaglio Fancytimes II ™, which starts just as the Middle Ages are winding down, back in Italy once again. First as collectors, then as patrons of the art, the Medici family brought intaglio back to the skill level they had come to expect, in the fifteenth century.
Still precious, still rare, intaglio was produced throughout the medieval era in a variety of styles. Even as ancient gems were reused, new ones were carved, and the skill, already thousands of years old, lived on.