The eldest son of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), Arthur Wellesley, Marquess of Douro (later the 2nd Duke of Wellington) was an avid collector of engraved gems, assembling an important collection of ancient and renaissance cameos and intaglios, as well as the work of contemporary gem engravers working in London and Rome.
In 1872, he lent items from his personal collection to the exhibition Ancient and Modern Jewellery and Personal Ornaments held at the South Kensington Museum (later The Victoria and Albert Museum). It was a ground-breaking event, spear headed by HRH Princess Louise (later Duchess of Argyll), the first of its kind in Britain which sought to provide public instruction in the goldsmithing and lapidary arts.
Given the likely date the gem was acquired by Wellesley, the intaglio would have been engraved by Luigi Pichler (1773-1854). Born in 1773, Luigi was the son of Antonio Pichler (1697-1779) and half-brother of Giovanni Pichler (1734-1791), two of the most notable gem engravers working in Rome during the eighteenth century. It was Giovanni who would supervise Luigi’s education and apprenticeship when Antonio died, arranging for Luigi to study drawing under the tutelage of Domenico de Angelis (1735-1804).
Luigi quickly became a highly respected engraver in his own right, his gems hotly collected. He worked in Vienna during the 1790s, during which time he completed notable commissions for the Imperial Family. The French court jeweller François-Régnault Nitot attempted to persuade him to move to Paris to cater for the insatiable appetite for engraved gems in Emperor Napoleon’s court. Luigi was awarded membership of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna in 1808 and in 1812 was awarded a diploma at the Accademia di San Luca. In the 1830s he was awarded diplomas from Tuscany and Milan, as well as receiving the Knight’s Cross of the Order of St Gregory the Great. The following decade he was made a member of the Academy of Venice and awarded the Knight’s Cross of St Sylvester.
The Wellesley intaglio is a previously unknown composition by Pichler of the Punishment of Cupid and appears to be based on an ancient Roman marble sculpture in the Palazzo Pitti, which depicts a young boy leaning on a plinth by his elbow, his hand raised towards his face, his ankle chained, a swathe of fabric draped behind his back. It is likely this sculpture, or a nearly identical variant in the Borghese Gallery in Rome, was known to Pichler (the Borghese variant was reproduced as an engraving by Francesco Cecchini in 1821). It appears Pichler amended the composition to make the image more readable as an impression in miniature; a pair of wings were added to identify the subject more easily as Cupid and a more visible ankle restraint was added to his foot.
In Hermann Rollet’s biography of the Pichler family ‘Die Drei Meister Der Gemmoglyptik Antonio, Giovanni und Luigi Pichler,’ he lists among the works of Giovanni and his younger brother Luigi two cameos depicting ‘Amor bound and crying, sitting on a stone cube.’ A cameo matching this description can be found in the permanent collection of the British Museum (No.: 1867,0507.760).
The Punishment of Cupid is a subject which is found in the ancient world and was particularly popular in ancient Rome. The god of love is chastised for his mischievous behaviour, carelessly enflaming the passions of mortals. Examples of engraved gems from the ancient world depicting the Punishment of Cupid can be found in museum collections and are thought to have been potent talismans in the ancient world (British Museum, No.: 1913,0307.178).