Make an ancient Roman design cool again

Some people got into sourdough baking during the pandemic, others got into dollhouses. Lily Layton, an Atlanta-based artist and blogger behind The sparkling lily immersed in the art of intaglios.

For the uninitiated, intaglios are embedded images made by engraving in precious stones. Think of them as the counterpart of cameos, which are carved in relief. They were popular in Italy during the Roman Empire and can be found in countries like England and France, often brought back as souvenirs by men who took the Grand Tour in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was not uncommon to see them worn as jewelry and used to make wax seals. Today, it is more common to see intaglios presented as plaster cameos in picture frames.

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As an Italian-American, Layton grew up around intaglios but found their depictions off-putting: an intaglio from the 1400s, for example, could portray a sacrifice to the Roman god Janus. On the more mundane side, they could represent busts of Greek mythological figures. “A lot of the scenes can be violent and can be a bit intense for me,” Layton says. “I prefer a lighter art and frankly more modern. I wanted to do things that respect the artistic form but whose content was different.”

Instead of gruesome battle scenes, Layton’s intaglios feature whimsical images of flowers such as magnolias and daisies. Avoiding the dark images of the old days, she could make an intaglio with a beloved lion or elephant. Companies like Ballard Designs also sell modern versions of intaglios, but not necessarily with that modern flair that makes Layton’s work so special.

Layton began making his intaglios a few years before the pandemic, but finally had time to hone his practice when the world closed. “A lot of what I do is cast antique pieces that I find,” she explains. She seeks inspiration in all kinds of objects found across time and geography, from Czechoslovakian pearls to English horse brasses.

To make an intaglio daffodil, for example, she uses a 1950s cameo and then sculpts the borders. “I throw them in clay, then I pull it out and fill it with plaster, that’s how most bas-reliefs are done,” Layton says.

Spring awakening by Layton.

Lily layton

Collecting the items to craft the intaglios is almost as enjoyable as seeing the finished results. Layton goes to antique stores wherever she can. “In any city, that’s the first thing I try to do because I feel like you find the story accidentally when you do this,” she explains. “Sometimes the things that people don’t like are actually beautiful and complex.” Building such a large cache of jewelry allowed her to donate specialized relief works, like birth month flowers or a larger piece that displays multiple intaglios at once.

Such a display is doubled Spring awakening and showcases flowers that all bloom between April and May such as lilies of the valley and daisies. “All of my tiny plaster cameos are all like little buttons and other jewelry that I’ve collected over the years. I’ve tried to standardize their size, so that it allows me to do different things with them.”

frame leaning against the wall
A single framed intaglio.

Lily layton

What’s next in the intaglio world for Layton? A range of dog breeds specially designed for the store City Country Coast opening soon in Palm Beach. The collection, which includes a cavalier spaniel and a dachshund, is a play about dogs in military attire. “I wanted to make it a more feminine version. I put ridiculous crowns and knots on them, ”she laughs.

Layton’s art has elicited an overwhelmingly positive response. Many have told her that, like her, they always enjoyed intaglios but never wanted them at home – until they saw lighter takes. “Life is so fucked up right now that it makes me want to do less serious art,” says Layton. “Because I just want things that are happy.”

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