The oval-shaped carnelian finely engraved to depict the Ancient hero Hercules, in the Garden of the Hesperides, beneath a tree of golden apples, guarded by the hundred-headed dragon Ladon (often depicted as a serpent), later mounted in a gold ring, mid 18th Century, signed L.N. for Lorenz Natter. Dimensions: Length 3.2cm. Weight: 6.37 grams
Lorenz Natter (1705 – 1763) is undoubtably one the most revered gem engravers of the 18th Century. He left his native German town of Biberach in 1724, and his reputation as an exemplary gem engraver, medallist, and expert on Ancient gems, lead him across Europe, Scandinavia and Russia. His skills as an artist and adviser introduced him to the most important noble and royal carved gem collectors of the first half of the 18th Century. As a testament of the high regard in which he was held, when Natter died at the age of 58 years it was upon his second trip to Russia where he had been invited by Catherine The Great, Empress of Russia, to be her principal gem-engraver. It was there, in the Archives of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, in the mid-1970s, that the long-thought-lost collection of Natter's drawings and notes on ancient gem engravings in important British collections were found. Amongst his sketches, was a drawing of an ancient intaglio depicting an almost identical scene to this intaglio and, whilst Natter's records no longer show in which collection the original ancient intaglio was found, the same scene appears in an incredible collection of glass reproductions of ancient intaglios made by Bartholomeo and then his son Pietro Paoletti in the late 18th and first half of the 19th Century (now housed in the Museo di Roma). The ancient gem shown in both these tomes is almost identical to the gem presented here, with the exception of the direction of the club in Hercules' hand.
The scene itself depicts the eleventh of Hercules' twelve labours, in which he is challenged by Eurystheus to steal Hera's golden apples. These apples were to be found in a beautiful orchard tended to by Hesperides, or nymphs of the evening and golden light of sunsets, and Ladon, a hundred-headed dragon that Hera placed there to watch over the golden apples. There are many variations of how Hercules reached 'The Garden of Hesperides' as it would come to be known, and how he manages to steal the apples, either killing Ladon or tricking Atlas into doing so. Artistic representations of Hercules being entertained by the Hesperides, with Ladon as a serpent, very much in the spirit of this intaglio, can be seen on Attic pottery from the 4th Century BC, as can be seen in the example in the MET museum included in the images above. It has continued to inspire Classicists ever since, with Natter's intaglio a beautiful interpretation and rare example of his work.
Cf. John Boardman, Julia Kagan and Claudia Wagner, 'Natter's Museum Britannicum', P.119 Plate F23 no.225 for a sketch from Natter's archive of an Ancient Greek gem depicting the same scene with Hercule's club pointing in front of him. Cf. John Boardman, Julia Kagan and Claudia Wagner, 'Natter's Museum Britannicum', P.141 for an example of a Natter gem initialled "L.N." in the same manner as this gem Cf. Lucia Pirzio Biroli Stefanelli, 'La Collezione Paoletti' Tomo I Cassetto 9 No. 602 for a photo of the 18th Century glass copy of an ancient carved gem depicting this same scene but with Hercules' club pointing in front of him. "Ercole con Una Delle Vergini Esperidi' Vetro bruno. Inventario: MR 24619 Originale: Intaglio (Bracci II, 1786, p.121, tav. egg. XI, II)"