Framed Plaster and Gold Intaglio
This attractive set of framed plaster intaglios rimmed with gold leaf date from 19th-century Italy, where they would have been purchased as a souvenir. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, young and wealthy European (largely British) aristocrats embarked on a major trip known as the Grand Tour, which was seen as the culmination of one’s classical education. The study of ancient Greek and Roman art, architecture, and literature was central to the education of the upper class, making Rome the most important destination on the Grand Tour – in addition to stops in France, Germany, and the Low Countries. The fascination with the ancient world as it was encountered in Rome ignited a desire among tourists to own a part of it and preserve its memory. Wealthy travellers purchased antiquities such as vases, art, and sculpture, or paid for plaster reproductions of both large and small objects. Replicas of ancient intaglios of scholars, artists, and mythological figures were incredibly popular and became collectible: collections were often framed, organized into books, or placed in settings and made into rings. The set pictured here consists of three intaglios: the figure on the right represents the 16th-century Italian artist Titian (c. 1485/90–1576), while the other two impressions remain a mystery. Objects such as these shed light on an enduring industry of tourism and its commemoration through the sale of antiquities and souvenirs.
At this time in Italy, physician and chemist Alessandro Volta (1745–1827) invented the electric battery in 1799. Called the voltaic pile, the battery produced a steady electric current. With this invention Volta proved that electricity could be chemically generated, and debunked the current prevailing theory that electricity could only be generated by living beings. The voltaic pile sparked much scientific excitement, and led others to conduct similar experiments, eventually leading to the development of electrochemistry.