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Ancient gems sparkle in Bern

Head of Aphrodite cameo dating from the first century BC. Leo Merz Foundation

Treasures from a major Swiss collection of ancient gems and jewellery have gone on public view for the first time in Bern’s fine arts museum.

This content was published on November 11, 2003 - 19:46

The pieces, which were accumulated by a Bernese lawyer, judge and politician, cover the period up to the 18th century and now belong to Bern University.

Entitled “The Splendour of Gods and Heroes”, this exquisitely arranged exhibition of cameos, intaglios (engravings) and other objects represents the fruits of the lifelong passion of Leo Merz (1869-1952), a former cantonal director of justice and education.

One of the most prominent members of canton Bern’s government from 1918 to 1932, Merz became a collector of gems during his working life.

By the time he retired, he was recognised by scholars, dealers and other collectors as a leading connoisseur of ancient gems.

“Merz was a remarkable man,” Professor Dietrich Willers, director of the university’s department of Mediterranean archaeology, told swissinfo.

“His main interest was in Greek and Roman gems, but the collection also includes works by the major gem cutter of the 18th century, Giovanni Pichler.”

Willers added that although Merz was not one of the super-rich collectors of his time, his passion for gems was aided by the fact that, during the 1930s, masterpieces from other famous collections were put on the market at prices he could afford.

In fact their provenance reads like a roll-call of great European dynasties, including the Princes of Fürstenberg, the Dukes of Marlborough and the Rothschilds.

Originally used as seals

Cut gems originally served mainly as seals – in the 4th century BC they were used in Mesopotamia to mark goods and property.

Often used as finger rings and amulets, in Greek and Roman times they also served as tokens of affection or political loyalty, and became regarded as valuable works of art.

Another function was to identify the bearer or even to represent them in their absence.

Cut gems went on to fascinate societies in the centuries that followed – not only due to their material worth, but also because of their artistic excellence.

From the Renaissance onwards, the collecting of ancient cameos and intaglios was seen as a sign of erudition and good taste.

It is difficult to single out any individual gems in this rich collection, which was donated to Bern University in 2002. But many visitors will be particularly impressed by the portraits of Roman emperors such as Augustus and one of Empress Flavia Domitilla.

Other highlights include the Head of Aphrodite, which is a prime example of cameos from the Hellenistic period.

“The Splendour of Gods and Heroes” was organised by Bern University’s department of Mediterranean archaeology and its curator is Lilian Raselli, a specialist in antique gem cutting. It ends on February 8.

swissinfo, Richard Dawson

gems

Cut gems were used in Mesopotamia in the 4th century BC as seals to mark goods and property.

In Greek and Roman times they also served as tokens of affection or political loyalty, and became regarded as valuable works of art.

From the Renaissance onwards the collecting of ancient cameos and intaglios was seen as a sign of erudition and good taste.

The Merz Collection was donated to Bern University in 2002.

Its founder, who died in 1952, was a Bernese lawyer, judge and prominent local politician who became a connoisseur of antique gems.

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