Felix Gem / Ulysses, Diomede and the Palladium

by Michael Riddick

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005 Antique_Felix 01

ULYSSES, DIOMEDE and the PALLADIUM (No. 04 / Riddick collection)

After a sardonyx intaglio by Felix
Rome, Italy; ca. 30-50 BC | The present cast: probably Palace of San Marco foundry (Palazzo Venezia), Rome, Italy; ca. 1455-71
Bronze; 25.5 (29.2 with loop) x 33.4 mm

Adam Weinberger (dealer, NYC, USA)
Mark Wilchusky (dealer-collector, NYC, USA)
Sylvia Adams (dealer-collector, London, UK; Bonhams auction, 23 May 1996, part lot 115)
Stefano Bardini (dealer-collector, Florence, Italy; Christies auction, 27 May 1902, Lot 415)

A weak contemporary cast with integral suspension loop. Warm brown patina. Heavily rubbed. Pierced once, not inclusive of the suspension hole. Dealer or collection identifier of Stefano Bardini on the reverse painted in red ink: BARDINI L60.


The present plaquette is cast after a celebrated sardonyx intaglio of Roman origin dating to the 1st century AD (Fig. 01). The gem features a Greek inscription, ΦΗΛΙΞ ΕΠΟΙΕΙ ΚΑΛΠΟΥΡΝΙΟΥ ΣΕΟΥΕΡΟΥ, revealing its antique creator and original owner: a Greek artist named Felix, active in Rome, and the gem’s commissioner, Calpurnius Severus. It is this reference to the engraver’s name that has inspired its identity as the Gemma Felix or Felix Gem.

004 Felix Gem Fig 01 _ ashmolean
Fig. 01: Felix Gem, by Felix, Rome, Italy, ca. 30-50 BC; Ashmolean Museum (Inv. 1966.1808)

During the Renaissance revival for all things antique, the design of this gem enjoyed relative popularity, inspiring engraved reproductions of it as well as other sculpted replicas and later reproductions. A description by Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68) of Philipp von Stosch’s (1691-1757) 18th century curiosity cabinet cites fifteen identified objects portraying its design, one of which belonged to his own collection.[1]

John Boardman (2010) comments that the design engraved upon the gem is an unusually complicated narrative remarkably rendered in a mere one-and-a-half inches of space. The scene depicts Diomedes escaping from Troy with the stolen statue of Athena while greeted by Odysseus who has recently slain a Trojan guard or priest, indicated only by the presence of the maimed guard’s feet beneath him.

The celebrated Medici family gem depicting Diomedes and the Palladium, also known by a large quantity of cast plaquettes, depicts the seated figure of Diomedes in a similar pose as featured on the Felix Gem. Francesco Rossi (1989) suggested both classical gems were probably inspired by a lost antique sculptural source that provided the model of Diomedes. Doug Lewis (2001) suggests two possible antique sources: a painting possibly by Polygnotus in the northern wing of the Propylaia in Athens, as described by Pausanias (110-80 AD) or a relief featured on an important bowl by Pytheas which was described by Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD). Lewis cites two additional classical examples of carved gems in close relation to the Felix Gem, notably one at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia (Inv. 102) and another at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (Inv. K1289).

The Renaissance popularity of the Diomedes motif is evident by Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) reproduction of it in two sketches preserved in the Royal Collections at Windsor Castle (Inv. Nos. RCIN 912540, RCIN 912648) and in Michelangelo’s (1475-1564) representation of the Ignudi for his Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes.

Rossi (2011) brings attention to the early Renaissance inclusion of the Felix Gem on Ansuino da Forli’s fresco made ca. 1451-57 for the Ovetari Chapel within the Church of Eremitani in Padua (Fig. 02). Though it is partly obscured by a festoon, it appears adjacent to a scene of Achilles Overcoming Troilus, also based on an antique cameo (see entry No. 15). Padua was experiencing a revival of classical antiquity while Ansuino’s fresco was being completed and in consideration of this trend he incorporates the two classical motifs.

004 Felix Gem Fig 02 _ Ansuino da Forli__1450s__Church of Eremitani in Padova
Fig. 02: Detail of Ansuino da Forli’s fresco for the Ovetari Chapel, ca. 1451-57

The presence of the Felix Gem in Ansuino’s fresco also reflects the ownership of the gem at the time. While the frescoes at the Ovetari Chapel were underway in the early 1450s, the gem would have been in the possession of Ludovico Trevisan (1401-65), an important collector of antiquities who had acquired the gem from the estate of Niccolo Niccoli (1364-1437) in 1437. Trevisan is known to have shared his antique gems with Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) who was the principal artist for the Ovetari Chapel and could have provided the model of the Felix Gem for Ansuino’s incorporation of it within his fresco.

Sometime after 1451 another collector, Pietro Barbo (Pope Paul II, 1417-71), must have acquired the Felix Gem from Trevisan. It is appears in Barbo’s 1457 inventory, prized as the most valuable gem in his collection with an assessment of 100 ducats. Following Barbo’s death in 1471, the gem was acquired by Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga (1444-83) whose posthumous inventory likewise records it in 1483. During the first half of the 17th century, when the Gonzaga’s were under duress, their valuable Mantuan collections were sold off predominately to English royalty. King Charles I (1600-49) was offered the collection of Mantuan gems but perceived their price as too high. They were instead acquired by Lord Arundel (Thomas Howard, 1585-1646). After a series of later transactions following Lord Arundel’s death, the gem eventually arrived in the Duke of Marlborough’s (George Spencer, 1739-1817) collection and today resides at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, UK (Inv. AN 1966.19081).

The origin of the six documented plaquette casts of the Felix Gem, inclusive of the present example;[2] probably derive from the private foundry established by Barbo at the Palace of San Marco (Palazzo Venezia) in Rome where his efforts at renovating the structure began in 1455. It has been suggested that Barbo himself may have been responsible for the casts of the Felix Gem given their amateur quality. Rossi (2011) has recently questioned the association of this plaquette with Barbo’s workshop, suggesting instead an origin in Mantova, ca. 1470, while the gem belonged to the Gonzaga family. Rossi noted its quality as inferior to other plaquettes emanating from Barbo’s foundry but this discrepancy may be potentially explained by Barbo’s hypothetical involvement in its casting. His zealous love for the reproduction of antique glyptics in bronze makes the idea a possibility, himself being a major catalyst for the popularity of small bronze reliefs in the early Italian Renaissance.

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1. Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1760): Description des pierres gravées du feu Baron de Stosch. Florence; No. 314

2. The six documented plaquette casts of the Felix Gem include examples at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, National Gallery of Art (Washington DC), Berlin State Museums, Private collection (Spink auction, Jan 24 2008, Lot 4), Scaglia collection, and the present example (Riddick collection).


Francesco Rossi (2011, Scaglia collection); No. I.18; pp. 46, 51-52, 517

John Boardman (2010): The Marlborough Gems: Formerly at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. Oxford University Press.

Patricia Lee Rubin (2007): Images and Identity in Fifteenth-century Florence. Yale University Press; pp. 168-69

Doug Lewis (2001, National Gallery of Art); No. 27

Francesco Rossi (1989). Le Gemme Antiche e le Origini della Placchetta. Vol. 22. Studies in the History of Art. Italian Plaquettes. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; p. 56

John Pope-Hennessy (1965, National Gallery of Art); No. 258, Fig. 43, p. 76

Ernst Bange (1922, Staatliche Museen Berlin); No. 145, p. 20

Leo Planiscig (1919, Kunsthistoriches Museum); No. 254, p. 163

Emile Molinier (1886); No. 32, Vol 1 pp. 18-19


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