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Unpiecing a Renaissance mystery at Waddesdon Manor

The Silver Caesars, a set of 12 European silver-gilt standing cups celebrating the notorious rulers of ancient Rome, have been reunited and are being displayed together for a short time at the Buckinghamshire manor.

Figures (plus two below) from the Aldobrandini Tazze. Images: © Neil Hennessy-Vass

These Renaissance masterpieces - known as the ‘Aldobrandini Tazze’ - are shrouded in mystery. No-one knows when they were made, by whom, for whom, or for what purpose, and no-one knows how they became separated.

Not only was the set separated into twelve beautiful table ornaments that found their various ways into collections across Europe and the Americas in the late 19th century, but also at some point the tazze were taken apart (for travel or for cleaning, no-one knows) and incorrectly re-assembled. With statuettes and bases muddled up, the emperors’ deeds became wrongly allotted.

Each standing cup or tazza consists of a statuette of one of the Caesars, a base, and a dish where finely wrought low reliefs show four episodes from his life - typically heroic feats, of victory or beneficence. The forty-eight scenes fashioned by highly skilled, anonymous goldsmiths are based on The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, written in the early second century AD by the Roman historian, Suetonius.

Amusingly, while Suetonius writes of the shockingly bad behaviour of the first Caesars – from Julius Caesar to Domitian - the tazze ignore all that to serve up unfailingly flattering pictures of imperial power.

The Silver Caesars, now temporarily reunited for exhibition, firstly at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (exhibited there from December 2017 to March 2018), and now at Waddesdon Manor, follow years of painstaking research.

That research has answered some of the questions posed by these masterpieces of metalwork. “The exhibition is the result of a major collaboration involving multiple museums, collectors and scholars,” says Julia Siemon of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the exhibition’s curator.

Classicist Mary Beard of Cambridge University was closely involved in unscrambling the mysteries of the Silver Caesars. A visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London to study the figure of Domitian gave her pause for thought, providing a clue that the Domitian tazza, and therefore possibly others too, might not be correctly configured.

Examining the scenes, Beard saw that a triumphal procession supposedly from Domitian’s life did not match the description in Suetonius. It did, however, match up to an event in the life of Tiberius, before he was emperor, when he got out of his chariot (says Suetonius) to kneel before his father, Augustus. It turned out that the V&A’s Domitian had been displayed for decades above the dish showing the exploits of Emperor Tiberius.

The modern history of the Silver Caesars began in 1826 when they reappeared out of nowhere at a London dealer’s shop. They caused quite a stir, and at first were thought to be the work of Benvenuto Cellini, the most famous goldsmith of the Italian Renaissance. Around that time too, in keeping with 19th-century tastes, all twelve tazze were gilded – so, today they look as if they are made of gold, not silver as in their name.

The Augustus figure, mismatched with the Domitian dish

The mystery of the Silver Caesars rolls on. Clues suggest that they were made at the end of the 16th century in the Southern Netherlands, not Italy as had been supposed, and possibly for a prince of the Habsburg dynasty - the ruling family of the Holy Roman Empire, who liked to validate their imperial status by drawing parallels between themselves and their ancient Roman predecessors.

Then again, nothing about them is known for certain, Siemon says, “We still can only surmise.”

One thing is certain, however: the reason they are at Waddesdon, the exhibition’s sole UK venue, is that over the past two centuries five of the tazze have at one time formed part of Rothschild family collections.

Detail of one of the scenes on a dish

This is a fascinating and well-displayed exhibition. Clearly, it will appeal to connoisseurs of silver-gilt masterpieces (it has other superb pieces on show too), but following the story of these objects, from vignettes of Roman history through to piecing together the pieces of what Mary Beard calls the ‘greatest jigsaw puzzle on earth’ is fun and will charm us all.

When the show ends on July 22nd the pieces will return to their owners in their modern mismatched configurations.


The Silver Caesars: A Renaissance Mystery

Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

18 April – 22 July 2018

For more information, CLICK HERE


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