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Museum in Miniature: Grand Tour Intaglio Souvenirs

Antique books containing trays of 19th century Italian plaster intaglios, Parvum Opus
An exquisite collection of 19th century intaglios in the form of leather-bound books, a treasured souvenir from my recent visit to Florence.

My family and I enjoyed a beautiful and inspiring trip to Italy recently. One day, wandering through the streets of Florence, I happened upon a beautiful second-generation antiques shop on Via Palazzuolo, called Boni Antichita'. The walls and tables were absolutely overflowing with curiosities, sculptures, architectural fragments and paintings collected over decades, and the lovely proprietress Ilaria and her father were very patient with my questions and enthusiastic but very basic grasp of the Italian language. Among the treasures I found there was a pair of books containing a collection of 19th century plaster intaglio casts-- I gasped when I saw them, as these have long been on my wish list. How lucky to have found these volumes in such a beautiful place.

Antique Italian intaglios from the Grand Tour era, Parvum Opus
An alternate view of the intaglio collections housed in these beautiful books. Each intaglio is numbered, and the corresponding title or description appears on the list attached to the inside covers.

If you're unfamiliar with the history of intaglios, there's a wonderful article about a similar set of intaglio books from The MET, written by Tamara Fultz, the Museum Librarian at the Thomas J. Watson Library.

I invite you to read the full article here.

Ms. Fultz writes:

"From the sixteenth through the nineteenth century, many people widened their cultural horizons by going on what was known as a Grand Tour, where travelers would visit all the major European cities such as Rome, Florence, Venice, and Paris. Instead of photographs, they came away with visual aide-mémoires, like these volumes, that helped to remind them of the glorious art work that they had seen abroad."

Antique plaster intaglios from a collection bound in two volumes, Parvum Opus
A detailed view of some of the beautiful intaglios.

"...these miniature reproductions were not just copies of ancient cameos and gems, as I had expected, but many were miniature reproductions of huge paintings, including The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci (La Cena di Gesu con gli apostoli di Leonardo da Vinci Milano), and monumental sculpture, such as works by Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen... Nothing is more impressive than the original engraver's ability here to capture the very essence and detail of the larger masterpieces in such miniature intaglios. It is not surprising that Goethe himself "owned many thousands of casts [and] told his correspondents years later that no greater treasure could be brought back from Rome." (Gertrud Seidmann, "The Grand Tourist's favourite souvenirs: cameos and intaglios," RSA Journal, vol. 144, no. 5475 (December 1996), p. 65.)

Above, a close view of intaglio No.19: the lion from the Palazzo Barberini in Rome, and it's corresponding description,

written out in a lovely hand (highlighted in the photo for illustrative purposes only). On the right is a drawing from the Louvre's collections, showing the lion bas relief as it's oriented in reality, facing to the right: in the intaglio cast, the image is reversed, of course.

Part of the allure of antique plaster intaglios is that they're so beautifully crafted, and it's my understanding that many of the carvers of these diminutive masterpieces were also celebrated sculptors of the day. Perhaps it's also the nature of objects in miniature that inspires close-looking: their jewel-like scale invites imagination and study. I'm captivated by both the talent of craftspeople/artists who created these pieces, as well as the romance they represent, of intellectual and artistic curiosity

Antique intaglio collection in an octagonal wooden box, Parvum Opus
Some of my antique intaglios, collected over many years and now housed in a lovely antique box.

Antique intaglios in white, pink and red, Parvum Opus
A closer view of my Grand Tour intaglios, in white, pink and red. Can you spot Socrates, in pink with his wavy beard and bulging forehead? Extra points if you can spot the second portrait of him in profile.

Three images of beautiful intaglio collections, from last year's pilgrimage to the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum.

Antique intaglio books and temple bookends, Parvum Opus
My treasured pair of intaglio books with lovely hand-tooled spines. One volume is dedicated to the Italian neoclassical sculptor, Antonio Canova. The other includes casts representing 'Monuments of Various Places'

An antique intaglio of the neoclassical sculptor, Antonio Canova, Parvum Opus
Intaglio No.2 from Volume 7, Canova himself!


It was truly serendipitous to find those two volumes of intaglios in Florence-- I can't imagine a better memento of that experience. Beyond being fascinating objects in themselves, they'll forever remind me of that beautiful visit, surrounded by art and making life-long memories with my family. I have a few books cataloging antique intaglios from well-known historical collections (one appears in the foreground of the photo above), and it will be great fun in the coming years to trace the origins of each plaster cast from these fine new additions to my small but treasured collection.

Souvenir is the blog for Parvum Opus, an artist-run studio specializing in artistic decorative objects and home furnishings. We welcome your thoughts! Comment below to join the conversation, and if you enjoyed this, don't forget to subscribe to receive an email when we publish new posts.



Feb 07

Magnificent collection!


Feb 06

I am so glad for you that you finally could fulfill a long desired dream and find those beautiful intaglios. Inge


Feb 06

Wonderful! What a great find!

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