The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 108/Scarabæi ed Altri
SCARABÆI ED ALTRI.
Down by the sands, where the midland sea surges and draws off its feeble tides, and the sheltering beaches, the delight of antique mariners, tempt straying ruminants with their salt herbage, and no voracious spring-tide floods the beach, I made my first positive acquaintance with the Scarabæus pilularius, and guessed at the mystery of his worship in those Eastern lands where sand and sun are the rulers, and he their chief subject. Wonderful in his knowledge of statics and dynamics I found him; heroic in fight and magnanimous in victory, as ungrudging in his acceptance of defeat; and altogether a creature of rare and wonderful instincts.
A line of tracks, so similar to hieroglyphics as to justify an initiatory reverence in a Cadmian mind, drawn indefinitely across the smooth-spread yellow sand, led me, curious, to the arena of his achievements. A dozen similar tracks led from different directions, converging to a pile of dung, and here half a dozen Scarabæi, of as many sizes, were cutting and carving, and every now and then another came buzzing up from the leeward, flying in the eye of the wind, and dropped heavily on the sand, ready to make one of the busy crowd. I selected as subject of my observations the largest, a fellow of prodigious proportions and exemplary industry. He had commenced the excavation of a mass of the pilulary, making a circular cut downwards, and was half buried in the fosse which was to isolate a sufficient fragment. Round and round he went in a perfect arc, cutting deeper and deeper until he reached the sand below and the separation was complete. He traversed it to and fro, time after time, to be sure that the cut was direct and absolute; then, bracing his head against the sand foundation, he began pushing with his hind legs to move off the selected portion. I thought to help him, and carefully pushed it with a small reed until it rolled over on the sand, and he with it, innocuously hoist by his own petard.
Finding himself free on the level sand, he commenced to roll and round it, kneading the irregularities back and dragging upwards at the same time with his fore feet, so that in less than a minute after his liberation he had worked his lump into a close approximation to globular form, and had started on his voyage; but after a few turns he stopped, seemed to try the weight of his load, deliberately rolled it back into its original bed, and then began to excavate another portion, which he set himself to work into the original ball, which when weighed had been found wanting. The surface of the latter was thoroughly sanded by its revolutions, and adhesion was impossible; so he began working the new material under the coating of sand in so dexterous a way that he quickly completed the integration, and at the same time restored the globular form to the whole; then he started anew, to roll it off to its future depository.
The worst of his mechanical difficulties was overcome; but now began a series of struggles with Scarabæi unprovided with the objects of beetling ambition, and whose education seemed to have stopped at the days when power and possession were words nearer their root and each other than now,—when to justify piracy you must organize some sort of government.
I recognized in the deportment of these rovers of the sands another claim to the reverence of the early ages of human civilization,—another reason for their canonization by the Egyptians, in whose calendar is mentioned St. Scarabæus. For the moment any wandering and pilless Scarabæus met the hero of my story he made an examination of the size and general perfections of his work, going up the side opposite to that on which its lawful owner had established his motive power; and, as the bolus was at least a dozen times the size of its owner, he sometimes took a considerable ramble before he met that important individual. But they no sooner met than the tug of war began. They fought like Ajax and Hector for the dead body of Patroclus. They clenched, wrestled, struggled, pushed, until the stronger got uppermost, when he employed all his remaining force to push the other off and keep him down. If nearly matched, sometimes the under one got a shoulder-lock on his adversary, and, by an Herculean effort, threw him over his head, and to a distance of two or three inches across the sand. This usually terminated the battle, and the whipped Scarabæus made his way off as rapidly as his legs would carry him. If the Scarabæus in possession could keep the other off the ball for a few seconds, the latter gave up the struggle and sought his fortunes on another field.
I had wisely chosen my hero so strong that there was little fear of his being ousted; so my sympathies were on the winning side. But once he met his master, and was pitched with terrific violence across the sand, striking on his head, to his evident stupefaction. When he recovered he gave up his property without demur, and started for another venture. Then I, the deus ex machina, stepped into the epic, pitched the usurper three times as far as he had thrown my friend, then rolled the "apple of discord" directly in the path of its rightful owner, and saw him commencing his task anew, with unabated energy. A little declivity stood in his way, and it was a Sysiphus-labor to get beyond it. Time after time, poising himself squarely and solidly on his head, and bracing himself after the manner of equestrian performers by his superior extremities, he walked backwards, pushing the ball before him, and gingerly meeting the tendency to escape, first on one side, and then on the other; finally, missing, it rolled down the whole slope, carrying him in dizzy revolutions with it; but without hesitation he recommenced his work undiscouraged.
Some I saw who seemed to have partners in their toils,—a smaller, demurer-looking Scarabæus,—working side by side and in peace with the greater originator, to get their burden into some quiet spot. What their relations were, and what they wanted to do with bolus, I don't know, and doubt if the wisest man in the court of the first of the Pharaohs did. Whether the Scarabæi are a nation of Amazons, and the hero I had chosen was a heroine, or whether the lesser partner was a patient waiter for conjugal content and the fruition of marital hopes, I of course can't tell. Perhaps Agassiz or Wyman could, but Moses, I am sure, couldn't; and as what he knew of the Scarabæus pilularius lies behind all he is to me in connection with my present subject of dissertation, I take the beetle from the Pharaonic point of view, and, looking over all I know of the reasons for reverence, and for being cut in stone, I make them these:—
Firstly, he was a scavenger, and the wise men taught the people to respect him as a means of preserving the race undiminished. The common people have always a profound contempt for the beings who do their dirty work, and contempt with them goes before enmity. In this the Egyptians would only show that they were a Southern people, and so had much dirty work to do. And in this connection I must say, that I consider that, an undeveloped people not being awake to fine distinctions, and being predisposed to despise everything differing from themselves, we must attribute all the respect paid the Scarabæus pilularius to the advice and influence of their wise men, who, so long as they were wise, would persuade them to protect every useful creature.
Secondly, the mechanical instincts of the Scarabæus pilularius must have always excited the interest of the geometers and mechanists at a time when geometry and mechanics were known in their simplest elements mainly, and considered the marvellous secrets of creation. The absolute rotundity of the pedifacture of the insect must have seemed the result of a sense little less than preternatural, to people who were not accustomed to reason away all recognition of the preternatural. But that which was wonderful to me, the power of weighing so accurately the load he was to propel, must have been not a little amazing to them, less familiar than we have become, through subsequent researches in natural history, with the powers of the brute creation.
Thirdly, that the Scarabæus pilularius was a soldier and hero was less noteworthy in those days than in modern times; for then he was no man who was no soldier, and to be brave was only a human virtue, but was still marvellous in an insect.
And, if last, not least of the claims of our friend to reverence was the strange line of hieroglyph he left on the tabula rasa sea-washed, in column like the message written down an obelisk; and that the most high priest had no key to the cipher only made it more curious and more revered.
I do not know that anything so simple ever impressed me more strangely than the meeting for the first time on the solitary sands of Antium, amid thoughts of Egypt's queen and her sad loves, this line of curious figures, sand-written. And who shall say that the original Cadmus was not our Pilularius? Certainly he left a record of the life he led, and the journeys he took, long before the first emigration from the flood-fertilized lands around Thebes-on-Nile carried civilization into northern lands.
It may have been from this trick of his of writing on the sand that they took his image for the signet; or perhaps it was only that the broad under-surface of the stone or smalt of which they made the Scarabæus was too tempting to be left vacant, and the portable shape and size of the stone gave it the preference over the images of crocodile or cat. Be that as it may, it became the form universal for signets, and bore the monogram or polygram of kings unnumbered and of chiefs unknown, so that the fictle Scarabæus doubtless carries to-day more strange messages for us than did the great original to his first observers. Being as ignorant of what hieroglyphs tell as the man who died when Champollion was born, I do not venture a conjecture on the significance or value of the "cartouches" inscribed on the plane surface of the Scarabæus. There can be no doubt that they were tokens of rank, and mainly bore direct reference to the history or condition of the wearer, with occasional mystic sentences, perhaps serving at once as signet and amulet.
My purpose, however, is to treat only of certain artistic relations, and to me, therefore, the Egyptian Scarabæus is only of value as it leads to, and is connected with, the Etruscan. The former is utterly unartistic,—a rude, but tolerably accurate imitation of the Scarabæus pilularius, the specific character being sufficiently developed,—the whole value of the work, both in its figure and the incisions under it, being evidently in its significance, and all conditions required of it being sufficiently answered by intelligibility. This is, indeed, characteristic of all Egyptian so-called art. It is not art at all, it is only writing; and the transfer of the Scarabæus from Egypt to Etruria only forms another evidence of the inevitable antithesis existing between art and record. The identical types which on the Nile told the same story age after age, unchanging in their form as in their meaning, once in the hands of the Etruscan, entered on a course of refinement and artistic development into objects of beauty; but in this they entirely lost sight of their original meaning. This is strikingly the case with the Scarabæus which, under the hands of the Etruscan cutter, lost at once all specific character. He might be Scarabæus anything: he is not pilularius; and, instead of being made of basalt, porphyry, smalt, and very rarely of pietra dura, as in Egypt, he is engraved in carnelian, onyx, sardonyx, and all the rare and lovely varieties of pietra dura,—which, being essentially the same, change their names with their colors,—but mainly in an opaque carnelian, admirably calculated to show off the beauty of the workmanship. The change from use to ornament is abrupt, and perceivable in the earliest Etruscan examples, and proves conclusively to me two disputed points; namely, that the Scarabæus pilularius and his allied notions came from Egypt to Etruria, and that the Etruscan and Egyptian races were utterly diverse in origin and antithetic in intellectual character. The eminent utilitarianism of the latter leaves no room for purely artistic effort, while the former literally non tetiget quod non ornavit. Even the pictorial and sculptural representations of the Egyptians were absolutely subservient to history or worship; but the Etruscans cared so little for their own history as to leave us almost no inscribed monuments, though the remains of their taste and skill stand side by side with what we have of Greek work. They seem, indeed, to have been a more absolutely artistic people even than the Greeks, in whom art was exalted by a certain union with intellectual culture, the result of which was, of course, a larger growth and nobler ideal than the more ornamental Etrurian mind could attain. This points to an Eastern origin more in kinship with the Persian than the Greek, and to-day only illustrated by the Persian ornamentation.
The Scarabæus then, instead of the rude, straightforward representation of the Egyptian workman, assumes a more elegant form, with elaborate sculpture of all the insect characteristics, the edges of the wings and the lines that divide them from the chest being exquisitely beaded and wrought, and the claws being relieved and modelled with the highest care and most artistic finish. The form of the image, in fact, generally resembles more the beautiful green beetle which I have often caught in the mountains around Rome, than his plebeian and utilitarian cousin, the Scarabæus pilularius. The contour of the stone beneath the Scarabæus proper is markedly distinguished from the insect portion, and ornamented with a relieved cornice, more or less elaborate according to the general finish of the stone. I have one in which this cornice of .073 inch in width contains an upper and a lower bead and a U moulding of which the parts are only one fourth the height of the cornice in breadth, and yet are cut with mathematical regularity and completeness. The bead that marks the junction of the wings and chest is divided into squares of .0045 inch in dimension. If this care is given to the less important part of the stone, what may we not expect from the intaglii which make the more important objects of the lapidary's work! A stone, three fourths of an inch in length, contains two full-length figures seated in conversational attitudes, the extended hand of one of which, with the thumb and four fingers perfectly defined, is only .063 inch in length.
The great inequality between the power of design and the executive skill and taste in mere ornamentation in the characteristic Etruscan work is comparable only to those Eastern products which I have before alluded to,—the Persian fabrics. The animals are drawn without any regard to anatomical or optical truth,—foreshortening taken by a royal road, and grace thrown overboard. The hog is generally shown as flatted out, the legs appearing two on each side of the body; and the members of all animals are stowed away with more direct reference to composition of masses than of animal organisms. I remember one of a horse, in which, there not being room for the four legs in their natural places, one was hung up at the side where a vacant space offered itself.
The earliest work seems to be done by a graving process, as if cutting were by lines; the later is evidently done by the drilling operation now in use, and the process is much more apparent, especially in the drill-like terminations. This was probably owing to the use of the diamond itself for the incision, instead of the steel point and diamond dust, as in modern times, and to the great difficulty in getting a point on the implement.
The purely ornamental manner of treating the Scarabæus seems to indicate that it had neither religious nor historical value. Had the contrary been the case, we should inevitably have found some artistic quality sacrificed to their meaning, which is not the case with the intaglio more than with the insect representation. The subjects include all the objects known to familiar life, with all the incidents of martial experience,—horses, chariots, arms,—warriors wounded, defeated, dying, victorious, struggling. One I remember of a surgeon dressing the wound of a warrior, who throws up his hands in expression of the pain he suffers; another, of the Genius of Death coming to Hercules; another still, of two winged genii burying a warrior; one, of two warriors dividing the dead body of a third, etc., etc. The style of cutting gradually changes, probably under the influence of Greek artists,—who are known to have emigrated to Etruria from Corinth, exiled by their native tyrants,—and becomes quite Greek in delicacy of finish and grace of proportion; and the subject becomes almost entirely of Greek history or mythology,—the heroes of the Trojan war figuring largely.
Some of these are the perfection of intaglio: nothing in the gem-cutting of the Greeks could be more exquisite and purely beautiful than they are as intaglio. Yet, excellent as is the work, there is an essential difference between the Etruscan and Greek design, which no similarity of workmanship will ever conceal,—a difference as radical as that between Roman and Greek sculpture, and still more marked. The Etruscan, in its highest artistic development, preserves something of an Oriental fantasy and want of repose, and invariably falls short of the dignified and purely imaginative character of the Greek. It makes no exception to this rule, that there are Etruscan Scarabæi which have purely Greek intaglii, since we know that there were Greek artists of the highest rank among those who emigrated to Etruria, and that it was customary for one workman to make the Scarabæus, and another the incision. But these are rare, and the trained eye of an artist need not be more puzzled to determine the Greek or Etruscan character of an intaglio, than to distinguish a Florentine picture from a Venetian. The difference is radical,—that between the objective and subjective art,—between an Indian shawl and a bit of drapery by Paul Veronese.
As to the uses of the Scarabæus, we may be sure that they were at first intended as signets and mounted as rings in the simple and charming way of which we find so many examples in the Etruscan tombs, each end of a gold wire being passed through the perforated Scarabæus, and the extremities secured by being wound round the wire at the opposite side of the stone. As soon as they become mere ornaments, a more elaborate mounting is seen on those worn as rings; and they appear in bracelets, necklaces, etc., in such profusion and confusion of subject, and style and date of workmanship, as to show plainly that they had lost all superstitious value or personal significance, and had become, like diamonds and pearls, a part of the gold-worker's material.
What the wealth and luxuriousness of those cities, now more deeply buried than Thebes or Nineveh, must have been, we can only imagine from the few traditions preserved by Roman historians,—grudging the glory of rivals so long and masters so often, though finally subjects of the irresistible force of crescent empire,—and from the gold-work known after so many centuries of sepulture. We know that Porsenna built himself a tomb in the solid rock,—a labyrinth whose secret no searchers of modern times have yet found, though they have burrowed around Clusium like marmots; and that over this he raised himself a monument,—five towers of stone, on the top of which was laid a domed platform of brass, and above this still towers and other brass, and higher yet, towers and a crowning bronze dome; and that from the edges of all these platforms hung thousands of bells, rung by the sea-breeze which every midday came up, and still comes, across the low Etrurian hills, to find the children she wafted from the land of the Parsee and Chaldee. It is hard to define a "civilization"; and we talk of the ages of gold and of bronze as if we knew the history of the whole world and its generations; but to me the few glimpses I get through the crevices of the ages that hide Etruria, as the hills of the Black Forest hide the fairies from the German child, indicate an age more fitting the epithet Golden than any since, and a nation the like of which, as of the good-folk, we shall see no more on earth. There were confederation without over-centralization; states side by side, without mutual hate or subjugation; wealth and power, without the corruption that destroys nations; and military prowess, without the unscrupulous ambition that cannot live and let live. They were instructors of Rome in all that Rome knew of civilization; many times masters of the imperial city, without ever envying it its existence; mild conquerors, and just lawgivers; and the City of the Seven Hills owed to the proximity of her seven Etrurian sisters all her early wisdom in politics, all her knowledge of the arts which refine and preserve; and to their love of those arts, and of the peace in which they flourish, the permission of her existence in those early centuries which preceded the fall of Veii.
It is not here the place to develop the moral of Etruscan history, or to investigate the political and social condition of the Etruscan people; though the links we have of the former, and the glimpses of the latter seen athwart the prejudices and mortified pride of the Roman historians, give the subject a fascinating interest. It is said that when the Roman armies invaded the territory of the northern Etruscan states, and their commander asked the name of the first city they approached, the unsuspecting subject of the Lars replied only,—not understanding the barbarian language,—Χαιρε, "Hail!" and ever since the city has been known as Cære (and to its present inhabitants as Cerevetere,—Cære vetus). Until the fatal dissension which permitted the Romans to conquer Veii, the Etruscan states calmly and steadily repelled all invasion,—rarely, as in the time of Porsenna, turning aside to retaliate on Rome,—and still pursued their peaceful career, the sages of Egypt and the artists and poets of Greece giving wisdom and grace to their daily lives,—their temples the richest, their domestic life the fairest, their political condition the most prosperous, and their commerce the widest of all Italy, if not of all Europe.
Of it all, we have only the grave into which art sought to carry an immortality of its own, and from which religion strove to banish the drear gloom of the uncertain by surrounding the dead with all the objects familiar to their daily lives and the incidents which were the most antagonistic in impression to the darkness and silence to which they abandoned the beloved ones only when conquest and destruction had concealed the portals of their tombs, and ancestor and descendant had yielded to the same oblivion. Among the most interesting tombs at Tarquinii is one painted round with a wedding feast, the bridegroom kissing his bride, the wine-cups and garlands, the dance and song with the timing pipes, in colors fresh and sharp to-day amid the grave-damps, giving the challenge strangely to the all-destroyer. One much later in style of decoration has a procession of spirits driven by two demons,—Dantesque in power and simplicity of conception and evident faith, but telling a stranger story, in its contrast with the former, than anything we know in the history of the time,—a change from the golden to the iron days of Etruria.
The marvellous treasures of these tombs,—though only the few which, by comparative insignificance or fortunate accident, have escaped the unintelligent ravage of Roman or of Goth,—are like the scale or bone of Agassiz's saurian; and a necklace of Scarabæi alternated with the little pendent fantasies in gold, which we may see in the Campana collection, is the fragment from which we build Etruria, taking a little help from the time-defying walls, and a hint from the sarcophagus whose mutually embracing effigies of the two made one tell that position given to woman which made Rome what she was after the fraud of Romulus gave to Romans Etruscan wives.
The Etrurians were the gold-workers of all time. Like shawls of Cashmere, Greek statuary, Gothic architecture, and Saracenic tracery, Etruscan gold-work stands absolutely alone,—the result of an artistic instinct deeper than any rules or any instruction, and therefore not to be improved or repeated. It is characterized by the most subtile and lovely use of decorative masses and lines,—not for representation or imitation, which are not motives to enter into pure ornament, but for the highest effect of beautiful form and rich color, without giving the eye or mind any associative or intellectual suggestion. The vice of all modern ornamentation is, that it insists on mixing natural history with decoration. It cannot avoid preaching, as fairy stories now-a-days cannot stop without a moral for good children, and consequently is, like them, stupid and unreal. The best ornamentation is that which is farthest from imitation; and that, in gold-work, is the Etruscan. As we had occasion to say in the preceding pages, the Scarabæus marks the difference between the moralizing Egyptian mind and the beauty-loving Etruscan. And if we might point a moral in an article defiant of morals, it would be in comparing the black, blood-stained history of Egypt with the fair record of the Larthian people. Beauty is its own moral and its own redeemer, and a mind that loves it may be corrupted to decay, but cannot be led into brutality or sunk into obscurity. Of the magnificence of the living people we can scarcely judge, since all we have now is the gorgeous array of those who were robed for the eternal rest. Castellani, in his pamphlet on the antique gold-work (Dell' Oreficeria Antica, Discorso di August Castellani), says: "But the excavations of Etruria which have preserved, what with pictures, apparel, and fabrics, so many of the antique sacerdotal ornaments, add almost nothing to the little we know about the names and uses of them. Micali says that 'the mechanism of the whole Etruscan government was beyond doubt priestly in its institutions.' After such a declaration by one of the most accurate narrators of ancient Italian history, I should scarcely know what to add to convey an idea of the pomp in which the priestly class of Etruria lived and robed itself. We can conjecture that the great poitrel in the Etruscan museum in the Vatican, the two magnificent bridles of the Campana museum, all the collars of extraordinary size and the large bullæ of various forms and dimensions which come from the various collections, and the innumerable vases, pateræ, cups, and goblets of gold, silver, and bronze found in the sepulchres, were all implements, furniture, and ornaments devoted to the service of religion. And such a multitude of objects may give some indication both of the multiplicity of the mysteries and sacred functions, and of the treasures which must have been contained in the antique temples, plundered by the barbarians, and then destroyed by the intolerant zeal of ignorant disciples of a new, triumphant religion."
What the wealth of the favored Etruscan fanes must have been may be conjectured from the fact that Dionysius carried from one on the sea-coast treasures to the amount of $40,000,000.
Of the gold-working, Castellani's restorations and imitations will give us a tolerable idea, so far as workmanship is concerned, though he himself confesses to be unable to equal all its qualities. I translate an interesting passage.
"Having proposed to ourselves, then, to restore as far as we could, and, so to speak, to renew the antique gold-work, we first set ourselves to search for the methods which the ancients must have used. It was observed that in the ornaments of gold all the parts in relief were by the ancients superimposed; that is to say, prepared separately and then placed in position by means of soldering or some chemical process, and not raised by stamping, casting, or chiselling. From this arises, perhaps, the something spontaneous, the freedom and artistic neglect which is seen in the works of the ancients, which appear all made by hands guided by thought, while the moderns impress, I would say, a certain perfect exactness on the things produced by them, which reveals the work of mechanical implements, and shows a want of the creative thought of the artist. Here, then, they sought to find means to compose and solder together so many pieces of gold of different forms, and of such minuteness, that, as we have said, it goes to the very extreme.
"We made innumerable experiments, and put in operation successively all the chemical agents, many metallic alloys, and the most powerful fluxes. We searched the writings of Pliny, of Theophilus, and of Cellini; the works of the Indian gold-workers and those of Genoa and of Malta were studied with all care; in short, there was forgotten no one of those sources whence we might hope for some hint. Finally, whence least we expected it came some real assistance.
"Hidden in the highest mountains of the Apennine range is a little town called St. Angelo in Vado, where are made gold and silver ornaments, with which the fair mountaineers decorate themselves. Here it appears that they preserve, at least in part, the oldest traditions of the art of working in gold and silver; and these workmen, . . . . shut, so to speak, from all contact with modern things, make crowns of filigree strung with gilded pearls and ear-rings of that peculiar form which is called the 'navicella,' by such methods as perhaps the antique were made, so that these jewels resemble not a little those found in the Greek and Etruscan sepulchres, although for elegance of form and for taste they are far from equalling them. . . . .
"Not long since, when, examining with a lens the Etruscan jewels of our own collection, I discerned in the zones of the tiny grains (which are characteristic of the work of these patient artists) certain defects, such as those which are made in enamel by the melting of the gold. These observations suggested to me to try a new process, in order to reproduce this exceedingly fine grain-work, believed hitherto impossible to be even distantly imitated by modern gold-workers. I immediately commenced the new experiments, and the results were sufficiently satisfactory to enable me to say, at present, that the problem is nearly solved which for almost twenty years has defied us."
And even now Castellani's best grain-work is far from equalling in delicacy and perfection of workmanship some of the antiques in his own collection.
Our Scarabæus has got into magnificent company, and modern taste finds that he deserved it; and certainly, me judice, nothing can be more purely artistic than a fine Scarabæus, and the fascination that comes over whoever has ventured to dabble in that kind of wares is as dangerous as the chances of play. Be content with a single one! If you once get into comparison, you have abandoned yourself to the witchery of the unknown and unattainable perfection.
Engraved gems or simple intaglios in pietra dura seem to belong to Greek art rather than Etruscan. The style of finishing the stone was more in accordance with the simple and elegant ideal of the Greek intellect. The intaglio was all to the Greek artist, and anything more was labor worse than wasted. His intaglio ceased to be ornamentation, and passed into the category of ideal work. And there are intaglii of Greek workmanship which are as lovely as it is possible to conceive anything,—all the spirit and perfect proportion of the antique sculpture concentrated in an oval, an inch by three quarters of an inch, executed with a delicacy which defies the naked eye to measure it!
A critical study of gems is an affair of years; yet, so far as all principles of design are concerned or characteristics of art, we may always consider the intaglii with the sculpture of the same epoch. The spirit and manner and perfections are the same. The first are, of course, the Greek; and a fine example is rarely found,—heads only, of Dioscorides or any equally famous artist, being valued at from $400 to $800, and even $1200 in the case of the Ariadne. The next in value are Etruscan, very fine examples being nearly as much esteemed as Greek, while the best Roman is, like Roman sculpture, but a far-off emulation in design, though often admirable in execution and finish. Very fine examples of either are not largely current, being taken up by collectors and consigned at once to public or private cabinets; but now and then one turns up, or is turned up by an unenterprising share-holder of the Campagna of Rome, or by some excavator or vineyard-digger in Sicily, Magna Græcia, or Greece proper, and, if it gets into commerce, finds its way generally to Rome, the centre of exchange for classical antiquities. The Scarabæi are mostly found in the Etruscan tombs, and occasionally outside the walls of the Etruscan cities,—swept out, may be, with the antique dust. But there are Roman imitations, made doubtless for some aristocratic descendant of the mythic Etrurian kings, like Mæcenas, proud of that remote if subjugated ancestry, and looking wistfully backward to the Arcadia of which his family traditions only preserved the record. The Roman lapidaries were not nice workmen, and their imitations are most palpable.
Then, in the fifteenth century, came other and better lapidaries, and of better taste, many of whose Scarabæi are of great value, though still not difficult to distinguish from the Etruscan, when we study the design. The modern demand for them has produced innumerable impositions in the shape of copies,—poor Scarabæi retouched to fine ones, still bearing the marks of antiquity, and others whose under surface, being originally left blank, is engraved by the hired workmen of the modern Roman antiquaries, by whom they are sold as guaranteed antiques. This is the most common and dangerous cheat, and one which the easy conscience of the Italian merchant regards as perfectly justifiable; for has not the stone all the aroma of antiquity? A little shade darker in iniquity is the selling of stones entirely recut from broken larger ones, so that, though the stone remains identical, the workman puts a new face on it; and even this the antiquary will sell you as a veritable antique. Then there is the unmitigated swindle of the pure imitation, oftentimes so perfect that the most experienced judges are deceived. There is in fact no absolute certainty in the matter. There are antiques of which no doubt can be entertained, with characteristics utterly inimitable; but there are others as certainly antique which have none of these, but, taken without reference to their placer, are not to be distinguished with absolute certainty. I remember a necklace in the Campana museum, which, in a large number of unmistakable Scarabæi, had one for which I would not have paid two scudi on the Piazza Navona, so like the modern imitations did it look. The only reliable criterion for the majority of cases is the spirit of the design in the intaglio. Castellani says: "Antique Etruscan, Greek, or Roman Scarabæi are at present very rare, and their high price tempts the moderns to counterfeit them. And to such a perfection have they carried their business that it is with difficulty the best-trained eye can discover the fraud. It is not the stone, not the polish, nor even the incision, but a peculiar smoothness and morbidezza, which distinguishes the antique; and which only they who for many years have studied such kinds of work, or who, either in the way of trade or otherwise, have seen and handled many of the gems, are able to perceive."
A friend in Rome came to me one day with a request that I would go with him to see a Scarabæus which he had taken a fancy to, and had engaged to buy if it were counted genuine by good judges. It was a superb stone, a deep carnelian, nearly opaque, exquisitely elaborated, and with an intaglio which I doubt not was Greek. It was the most beautiful one I had ever seen, and I gave my opinion, such as it was, in favor of its antiquity. It was purchased, and afterwards shown to a well-known dealer, by whom it was pronounced a cheat; and on inquiry it was discovered that the seller had had a copy made of the original, and, while he offered the latter for sale, delivered the former, which was so carefully and perfectly copied as to puzzle the eye even of the best-instructed amateur.
A merchant of antiquities with whom I have occasional dealings—we will call him A. because that is not his initial—brought me one day a large intaglio, which had the appearance of an archaic Etruscan work. A. is known as one of the piu cognoscenti of Rome; and his dictum is worth any other two. He declared it an original antique of the rarest quality; and Odelli, the best gem-cutter in Rome, coincided in the opinion. He held it at two thousand francs, but would have sold it to me for eighteen hundred, I suppose. I didn't bite, and after a few weeks lured the collector of whom he had bought it—one of those who make it a business to haunt the markets, and visit distant cities and excavations, to purchase and sell again to the Roman antiquaries—to boast his prowess as compared with that of A., who had bitten him severely several times in their dealings; and, in the full tide of his self-glorification, I turned the conversation on the black agate, now become famous among the dealers. He could not resist the temptation, and told me all about it. "A. believes it to be antique, don't he?" "O, he is certain of it," said I. "Well, I'll tell you how it is: I bought the thing of the man who made it, and paid him three scudi for it. I took it to A. and offered it to him for six; but he refused it, thinking it to be a paste. I took it away again, and, having had it tested as a stone, offered it to him for twenty. After examining it and keeping it a few days, he offered me twelve. I said no,—eighteen. He said no. I said sixteen, and he offered me fourteen, which I took. The fact is," said he, "no one is able to say for certain if a stone is antique or not. A. has the best judgment in Rome, but you see how he is deceived." I bought of the same man a small engraved emerald, which he had just purchased of a peasant, and, without much examination, sold me for one scudo, as a basso-impero of ordinary quality. My eyes were better, and had seen, in what he thought a handful of flowers, a cross; and on cleaning it we found it to be an early Christian stone of much greater value than he supposed, to his great chagrin.
If the perfections of our Scarabæus give us a glimpse of Etruscan existence, we may perhaps gather from the gems some notion of what Rome was, beyond what historians have written, or the ruins of her palaces and tombs have shown. The quantity of intaglii alone, such as they are, which are dug up in the gardens and vineyards around Rome every year, is incredible to one who has not watched day by day the acquisitions of the antiquity shops, and the stalls of the Piazza Navona. Very few of them are of any artistic value; but the fact that so many were made use of is a marvel in itself, and implies a greater luxury than marble palaces even hint at. I one day remarked to a peasant who brought me some intaglii to sell, that the ancients must have worn a great many rings; and he replied, that in his country the richer people wore so many that they had to hold their hands up to keep them from falling off. On inquiry I found that he came from the Abruzzi, where it seems that the people still hold on to something of the antique customs; for we know that the Romans began the fashion of covering the fingers to that extravagant degree, so that the number of rings possessed by a family of great wealth must have been almost inestimable. At every irruption of the barbarians, the villas that covered the Campagna for miles around Rome must have felt the first fury of their ravages; and as the stones contained in the ornaments were of no use to the plunderers, they were broken out and thrown away, many of them to be uncovered, more than a thousand years later, by the spade of the trencher in the vineyards. One of a number of peasants playing at bowls in one of the roads near Rome struck with his ball a point of hardened mud, which flew in pieces, disclosing an exquisite intaglio head of Nero in carnelian, in perfect condition, for which the finder received ten scudi.
The laborers in the fields have so far learned the value of the stones they find, that it becomes almost impossible anywhere in the vicinity of Rome to buy them of the finders, even at the most extravagant prices. Unable to distinguish in quality, and knowing that certain stones have brought such and such prices, they refuse to sell any for a smaller price, but retain them until the next festa, when they carry them in succession to all the mercanti di pietre in Rome, to see which will offer the highest price,—a kind of vendue which evinces greater trade-cleverness than the Italians get credit for, and which has the effect of bringing the dealers at once to their best terms. No matter what price you offer, they never accept it until they have tried the value it has for others. It is only when a stone has such great value that it justifies paying a price passing the imagination of the peasant, that the buyer can profit by buying from the first hand.
Of the finer kind of intaglii, there is little danger of buying counterfeits, since the art of gem-cutting is too low now to permit of such counterfeits as might be mistaken for first-rate antiques. Of the common kind, again, there are those which, cut with a certain conventionalism in design and a facility in execution which incessant repetition only can produce, cannot be imitated except at a cost utterly beyond their market value. Like the designs on the Etruscan vases, their main excellence is, that, being so good, they should be done so facilely. An imitator loses the rapidity and spirit of execution. The mass of imitations are of things only tolerably good, and of things whose characteristics are in the execution merely, as in the Roman and conventional Etruscan work.
I will close with one bit of advice to my readers. If your fancy finds any satisfaction in Scarabæi ed altri, let your acquisition stop with the first example,—take a sample brick from antiquity. If you once commence collecting them in ever so small a way, or with any excuse to your own pocket, you will find yourself subject to a fascination more irresistible than the love of money,—more absorbing than the search for the philosopher's stone. While you are in Rome, you will find yourself unable to keep your feet from ways that lead to the antiquaries, or your money out of the hands of a class (with two or three exceptions) of cheats. You will find the extravagances of one day coming to be the niggardness of the next; and feverish anxieties lest you should not succeed in getting this gem, and irritating regrets that you too soon bought that, will divide your tortured soul. And when you finally leave Rome, as you must some day, you will always harbor a small canker-worm of immitigable grief, that you did not purchase one stone you saw and thought too high-priced; and will pass thenceforward no curiosity-shop without looking in the windows a moment, in the hope of finding some gem strayed away into parts where no man knows its value. If you feel in you the capacity of loving them, let them alone.