The Great Cameo of France (Grand Camée de France) and the succession of Tiberius

The “Grand Camée de France”, preserved at the Cabinet des Medailles of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (Inv. 264: Fig.1 and Fig. 2), fully lives up to its name. The stone (a five-layer Indian Sardonix) measures 31 cm in height and 26.5 cm in width. 

Grand, Great Cameo of France
Great Cameo of France. Grand Camee de France. 31 cm x 26.5 cm.
great cameo numbering scheme
Fig.2: France's Great Cameo: a scheme with the numbering of individual figures

This is the largest cameo ever produced: compare this cameo with cameos from the modern era as an indication: the greatest and most precious ones are at most (and very rarely) 8 or 9 cm in diameter. Prestigious is also the origin of cameo. Until the revolution it belonged to the Treasury of the Kings of France, kept in the Royal Chapel, the Sainte-Chapelle.

Mentioned first in an inventory of 1341. According to some stories the cameo would have been brought to the West in the mid-13th century by Baldwin II, Latin Emperor of Constantinople, then in despair; probably the Emperor tried to barter this priceless heirloom for concrete economic aid or military. In this way the cameo was purchased by Louis IX, King of France.

The fact the cameo came from Constantinople lays in the fact that it had been part of the treasure of the Roman emperors. This should have come to Constantinople with the transfer of the imperial residence in the time of Constantine: until then it was certainly preserved in Rome, probably in the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill.

The cameo then is one of those enormously valuable objects from antiquity to the present day which are passed from hand to hand, between emperors and Kings, without ever getting lost.

The prestige of the cameo lies in its highly elaborate iconography, and this is precisely the problem. Throughout the history of Roman art there is no other work that has given rise to so many such discussions. Over the last seventy years, the identification of the represented characters on the cameo and the precise dating of the cameo have been subject to countless controversies.

To date, an agreement appears to be further away than ever; but what is worse: while on the one hand new proposals are always being advanced, there are no criteria to distinguish the (few) plausible hypotheses from (many) unlikely ones. Instead of narrowing the range of alternatives to discuss; the discussion seems to be widening more and more without making any progress. To understand the reasons for such an unsatisfactory situation one must take a look at the history of research.

This story has a very clear start. In a letter dated September 23, 1620, Nicolas Claude Fabri de Peiresc, an antiquarian of clear fame and himself a collector of ancient gems, writes from Paris to his old friend Girolamo Aleandro in Rome [1] : “I discovered again in a peregrine place and rarely opened, an antique joy, the greatest and the most beautiful I have ever seen. ”

Shortly after Peiresc specifies that the place peregrino is actually a church, and it’s plausible that this was Sainte Chapelle. Aleandro is far away: but it’s more cautious not to give too much information. On the cameo “there are four figures sculpted […] The sculpture of the sculpture is the Apotheosis of the Emperor Augustus, of good mastery, and completely conform the antiques.” The interpretation of Peiresc is revolutionary: in fact, in Sainte Chapelle, “the tradition was that it was the representation of the triumph of Joseph”. Peiresc is the first to realize that the scene depicted on the cameo has nothing to do with Joseph’s stories: it refers not to the Old Testament, but to Roman history.

On the cloak, Peiresc writes, “there are three orders of figures, one in Heaven, in the Air, the other on Earth under the first (row), and the third (row) disrupting the middle row, as in an underground prison.”

France Grand Cameo top
Fig.3: France's Grand Cameo, calico: detail of the upper order

In the top row of Fig. 3, Peiresc recognizes in the center the Emperor Augustus (no. 10, fig. 2: “Augusto’s facie resembles the medal profile very well”), perhaps accompanied by Julius Caesar (no. 12, fig. 2) and by Marcello (no 11, fig. 2, on a winged horse).

Grand Cameo France Mid Section
Fig.4: The Great Cameo of France, Calcus: Part of the middle order

In the middle row (Fig. 4) we see the Emperor Tiberius on the throne in the center (No. 1, Fig. 2), and next to him his mother Livia  (No. 2, Fig. 2). In the young armed in front of Tiberius Peiresc proposes to recognize Germanico (No. 3, fig. 2), nephew of the emperor and his appointed successor. Beside him his mother, Antonia Minore (no 4, figure 2); the woman sitting behind Germanico is identified to be his wife Agrippina (no 8, figure 2). In front of her the younger son, the future Emperor Caligula (no 7, figure 2).

To the right Peiresc would like to recognize Druso Minore (no 5, fig 2), son of Tiberius, with his wife Livilla (no 6, figure 2). The lower row, distinctly separate from the characters of the imperial family, consists of a group of barbarian prisoners: subordinates and anonymous.

From the identification of the characters proposed by Peiresc, a dating of the cameo dates back to the first years of the reign of Tiberius, when the two potential successors to the throne, Germanico and Druso Minore, were still alive; Both deceased prematurely: Germanico in 19 A.D., Druso Minore in 23 A.D.

Peirsc’s interpretation was virtually accepted by all scholars. For over two centuries it has been an undisputed foundation and, it would have been said, it is unquestionable for anyone who is dealing with the cameo. If there were still doubts, these were mostly about the identity of some secondary figures (such as the character in an oriental dress no 13 Picture 2: Peiresc had thought it was the Goddess of Rome, others rather proposed Julus , his son of Enea founder of gens Julia , Alexander the Great, Apollo, or Mitra).

Controversial was also the specific occasion of the meeting between Tiberius and Germanic about which Peiresc had not taken a position: was it the return from his Germanic expedition to the Rhine or was it his departure for the war against those tribes? But in big lines there was little debate about this interpretation of the cameo and all seemed perfectly clear.

The situation suddenly changed in 1934 with the publication of a Ludwig Curtius article [2] . Curtius compared figure 12, fig. 2, which Peirs had identified as Julius Caesar, with a coin with the portrait of Druso Minore, son of Tiberius (Fig. 7 and Fig. 8): the physiognomic similarities seemed obvious and indisputable. In the wake of this success, Curtius opted for the physiognomic comparison as a sure method to establish the identity of other characters depicted on the cameo.

Fig.5: Great Cammeo of France, Calc: detail, Augusto's head (no.10)
Fig.5: Great Cammeo of France, Calc: detail, Augusto's head (no.10)
Fig.6: Augustus portrait. Statue from Primaporta, Vatican, Braccio Nuovo Gallery
Fig.6: Augustus portrait. Statue from Primaporta, Vatican, Braccio Nuovo Gallery.
Fig.7: The Great Cammeo of France, Calco: Particular, Head of Druso Minore (No. 12)
Fig.7. The Great Cammeo of France, Fig.7: The Great Cammeo of France, Calco: Particular, Head of Druso Minore (No. 12)
Fig.8: Axis with the portrait of Druso Minore
Fig.8: Axis with the portrait of Druso Minore

An entirely different interpretation came from that of Peirsc. Unchanged remains only the identification of three characters: no 1, fig. 2 Tiberius, no. 2, fig. 2 Livia and no 10, fig. 2 August; the two warriors no. 3 and no. 5, fig. 2 instead (based on comparatively less convincing comparisons) become Caligula and Claudio; the boy in military dress no 7, fig. 2 is identified with Tiberio Gemello, son of Druso Minore.

With the names of the characters, of course, the cameo’s dating also changes. The real protagonist of the scene is no longer Tiberius on the throne, but his successor Caligula (no 3, figure 2). The cameo had to be commissioned immediately after the death of Tiberius in March 37 (but before Caligula forced Tiberius Gemello to commit suicide, which occurred in October of that same year: timelines are very tight). Nonetheless, the cameo shows Tiberius as if he were still alive. The scene therefore has a retrospective character, referring specifically to the situation after the death of Druso Minore in 23: a situation that would (always according to Curtius) create the basis for the next step in Caligula’s career.

We will soon see that the situation after the death of Druso Minore was in fact much more complex, and that Caligula (contrary to his two older brothers: Nerone and Druso) did not have a prominent role. But what matters for the moment, beyond the individual attributions, is the use of the physiognomic comparison as a primary and virtually exclusive method.

This methodical choice has made some inroads. A good example is a long article by Hans Jucker of 1976 [3] ; it is to date the most comprehensive contribution that has been dedicated to the iconography of the cameo, a true masterpiece of historical erudition and interpretative insight – even if the result, as we shall see, is rather unconvincing.

From the point of view of the Jucker method, faithfully follows the footsteps of Curtius. He accepts the identifiers proposed by Curtius for Figures 12 and 5, fig. 2: Druso Minore and Claudio. The key character, however, was the latter, Claudio; Next to him, Jucker recognizes his fourth wife, Agrippina Minore (no 6, fig. 2), and – on the opposite side of the scene – her son, Nero (No. 7, fig. 2): iconography assumes marriage between Claudio and Agrippina in the 49th.

At the center of the image, Jucker returns (surprisingly) to see Germanic (No. 3, Fig. 2) in the presence of Tiberius: it would be a departure for the war against the Parties in the year 17. The Cameo , in conclusion, would be commissioned on the occasion of the marriage between Claudio and Agrippina and should be interpreted as a retrospective tribute to the memory of Germany: Claudio’s brother and father of Agrippina.

Beyond all the differences, the affinities between Curtius and Jucker are quite evident:

1) Both are based, for each individual character, on the method of confrontational physiognomy. But is this really a valid method? Just a year before Curtius’s article came out, Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli had noticed, with regard to character no. 3, fig. 2: “The supposed portrait of Germanic […] has, like the other portraits of the same cameo, features so little marked and individual that he can be in agreement with any portrait that has the same familiar characteristics as Giulio-Claudie” [4] .

Wise words! Indeed, these family features are so strong that they make identification problems on a purely physiognomic basis; it is no coincidence, that the method itself has led to many controversial proposals for the figures represented on the cameo.

2) Both Curtius and Jucker recognized the emperor reigning at the time when the cloak was commissioned not as the central character on the throne (No. 1, Fig. 2), but with a relatively marginal figure: Cameo is identified by Curtius with character no. 3, fig. 2 (Caligula), but by Jucker with no 5, fig. 2 (Claudio). However the comparison between the two theses highlights its largely vivid character.

3) Curtius and Jucker agree that the cameo has been commissioned long after the scene represented in the center, so it would have had a retrospective character. Curtius imagines that the cameo, which refers to a constellation of characters from the ’20s AD, was commissioned after the death of Tiberius in 37. Jucker, on the other hand, believes that the cameo was produced in 49 and that the scene refers to the departure of Germanic in 17.

In both cases we have no clear distinction between the living and the dead; indeed, we see some of the characters who, at the time of the represented scene, have not yet been born: while Germanic (according to Jucker’s interpretation) starts in the 17th for the war on the parties, Druso minore (who will die in 23) has already ascended into heaven; and beside Germanic we see the little Nerone, who will be born twenty years later.

It would be said that the cameo does not make any difference between the living, the dead or the unborn. How will the viewer orient himself to an image that seems to refuse to every order and structure? Indeed, this lack of orientation has, in the wake of Curtius inauguration, led to a real proliferation of controversial identifications and interpretations. But can the cameo really be blamed for this proliferation of theories? Or is it rather a methodological defect?

Let’s go back to Peiresc and see what the preconditions for his interpretation method are: these premises are so banal that Peiresc does not even mention them. And for us it would not be worth mentioning them either, had it not been for the fact that the modern scientific research has so often overlooked them.

These premises are twofold:
1) the cameo is an object of tremendous prestige, destined to be exhibited at the courts. Therefore the image must necessarily follow the ceremonial rules of the court. Composition has a clear and unambiguous center: it coincides with the character no 1, fig. 2, throne, surrounded by a crown of secondary figures; this central position can not be but the reigning emperor; if the emperor on the throne is to be identified with Tiberius, he concludes that the cameo must have necessarily been created during his reign (14-37).

2) The distinction between the middle order (where all people literally have feet on the ground) and the superior order (in which all people are represented in levitation) has a precise function; it serves to distinguish between living characters and dead characters. In the upper order (and thus celestial) we have the dead: according to Peiresc Augusto, Giulio Cesare and Marcello; In the midst of the order we see the living ones: Tiberius, Livia and other members of the imperial family; among them, in a particularly prominent position, Germanic, nephew of Tiberius and his adoptive son. Because of the presence of Germanic among the living, it follows that the cameo must have been created before his premature death: from the 14th year of advent to the reign of Tiberius and on the 19th.