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December 1999

Gemstones & Pearls: Gemology

Carved from Tradition

Among Pompeii's splendid treasures is a man who carves cameos

To find the reigning maestro of the Pompeian cameo carvers, don't look in an upscale boutique. Luigi DiMartino peddles his cameos outside old-town Pompeii's archeological park. If clientele count for anything, he is the unquestioned master. He lists Elizabeth Taylor and Pope John Paul II (one of whom kissed him) among his sizable portfolio of clients. He'll never name-drop, though, and will admit his contacts only if pressed.

At age 70, DiMartino is halfway through his 50th year selling cameos. He was just beginning elementary school when his father and grandfather began to teach him the elements of making cameos. During World War II, DiMartino sat through bombing raids in the bowels of the Roman amphitheater in Pompeii, lost a brother to malnutrition, survived a German raid on train scavengers (he was the only one not executed), and was attacked by Allied aircraft.

By 1949 the tourist trade in Pompeii grew to a level where he could support himself and his family by selling his cameos. He's been there ever since.

Art of the Cameo

Cameos date back to the ancient Romans at least. The art of cameo carving was forgotten as the Roman empire decayed then revived with the rediscovery of Pompeian cameos in the Renaissance, though DiMartino admits carvers ever since have tried unsuccessfully to match the Roman style and technique. The future doesn't look especially promising. Few young people are willing to invest the seven to 10 years it takes to learn the art and ever fewer are entering the field. DiMartino says the art may once again lie dormant in two or three generations.

What, besides a master's touch, goes into making a truly fine cameo? Of primary importance is the base material, the shell. The best are conch shells from Madagascar and South Africa. Great shells have a hard, dark brown (almost black) base and a thick hard upper layer of white calcium. Shells with the lighter brown-to-ochre base normally have thinner, chalkier off-white or pinkish calcium layers. A darker base and whiter upper layer allows more shading contrast and subtlety on the cameo. A thick hard white layer gives more depth and detail.

With cheaper shell material, cameos can be made quickly, almost mechanically, with a hand die grinder and only minimum hand carving. With cheaper cameo image edgings, the rise is pronounced but the taper is minimal so the overall effect is flat. The best conch shell material, with the dark base and hard and thick white layer, must be completely worked by hand because of its hardness. An image carved in fine material, if properly worked, will display edgings with a great deal of rise and taper, an interior of enormous depth and gradient contrast. The base color bleed-through will give a profound three-dimensional look. These cameos will also be a great deal more expensive than those carved in inferior material.

The cameo carver's tools are simple. First, the cameo material is roughed out of the shell using a circular saw. These roughed-out pieces are rounded and the edges smoothed on an electric bench grinder, the last machine used if the material is first-rate. Once the smoothed piece is attached to a wooden dowel with a hard wax compound, the cameo artist sits at his bench and, with a variety of awls, simply scrapes away bits of the white layer until the cameo is completed.

by Charles A. Golden

Charles A. Golden is a historian, amateur novelist and cameo enthusiast based with NATO forces in Naples, Italy.

Shell cameo fashioned by Luigi DiMartino rests atop ruins in the fabled city of Pompeii, where DiMartino sells his wares to appreciative consumers.

Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.


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