Roman Rock Crystal Intaglio of Septimius Severus
Period: 198 - 212 A.D.
Dimensions: 4 x 2.6 cm
Ex Galerie Sophie Podgorska, Grand Rue, Geneva. Ex collection Mme. Fiorella Cottier-Angeli, in February 1968, Geneva.
As opposed to the cameo (a gemstone carved in relief), the intaglio designates an engraved gemstone with a hollow image cut into the surface, which appears in reverse once it is made in relief. This hard, translucent rock crystal was extremely finely carved to represent the portrait of an important figure. It depicts a middle-aged man seen in profile, his head turned to the left (from the viewpoint of the engraving). His hair is thick and curly, in the shape of small shells, covering even the temples. He is crowned with a laurel wreath, which passes behind his ears and terminates in three leaves at the top of the head. A lock of wavy hair is visible on the slightly rounded forehead. The arch of the eyebrow is clearly marked and forms a ridge above the nose, while the eyebrow itself is thick and takes the shape of an almost pointed arch. The eye is delineated by a thin lid above and a small bag below, while the pupil is indicated by an inclined incision, with the gaze directed upward. The nose is straight, with a rounded tip and nostril. The ear is clearly defined and terminates in the shape of a snail shell. The cheekbone is angular. The lips are well rounded and the upper lip is covered by a finely detailed mustache. The mid-length beard is divided into three pointed curls. The ribbons of the wreath are fastened at the nape of the neck and float at the rear (cf. start of the chip on the intaglio). The Adam’s apple is finely modeled. The folds of a toga are clearly visible around the base of the bust.
Since intaglios were generally used as seals, this example might have been first mounted on a ring or on a jewel. Rock crystal was a precious resource and the intaglio is of a good size, consequently making it a very valuable object. The manufacturing process implies that each engraved stone is unique, so it could not be copied; only the iconographic scheme might be replicated. Such figures cannot be identified easily, particularly given their rather small size and also because of the technique itself that gives the subject a more frozen, stereotyped appearance (as is the case on coins) than would be the case for sculptures in the round, typically more nuanced and varied. A comparison between glyptics, sculpture and numismatics encourages us to identify this man as the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 AD). Indeed, the curly hair in the shape of shells, the wavy lock on the forehead, the beard ending in three pointed curls and the gaze directed upward are all distinctive features. Of course, this image might depict a wealthy nobleman who wished to be represented under the gaze of Emperor Septimius Severus. However, the use of such precious material, the size and the high quality of the work would rather suggest that the figure portrayed here is Severus himself.
Nevertheless, one cannot deny that this type of portrait strongly recalls those of Pertinax, of Didius Julianus and of the Antonines. But this is neither surprising nor disturbing, since Emperor Septimius Severus wanted the viewer to make this connection and wished to be identified as a worthy heir to the Imperial family. In conclusion, we are in the presence of several elements that lead us to date this intaglio to the early reign of Emperor Septimius Severus – not the first few years, but rather the beginning of the 3rd century A.D. These elements are the youthful features, the connection with his predecessors, the specific details of hair and beard and, finally, the desire to be represented in an idealized way, with his eyes raised to heaven, like Serapis, the syncretic god born in Egypt, which recalls that Severus was a Roman from Leptis Magna (modern-day Libya).