Cups running over - Classics and silverware
If I were to say that the Aldobrandini Tazze ("cups"/"bowls") were my favourite pieces of Renaissance metalwork it would be a bit of a lie -- but only in the sense that I really can't claim to know any other pieces very well. But since my Mellon lectures a couple of years ago (on images of Roman emperors in post-antique art) they have been firm friends.
They are a set (or originally were a set) of 12 bowls -- originally silver, now silver gilt -- made in the late 16th century, each featuring one of Suetonius' Twelve Caesars. A screw on (named) emperor fits into the centre of the bowl -- which features 4 scenes, drawn from Suetonius, from that emperor's life. They were once kept together (as intended), but were broken up in the nineteenth century and have gone their separate ways, some substantially reworked. When I was preparing my Mellons, I went to see the one in the V and A (that's him in the picture), supposed to be the figure of Domitian on his bowl with the four scenes. On the right you can see what the scenes look like close up (this is Vespasian healing the lame and the blind).
It didn't take long face to face (in the company of the V and A curators plus Tazze expert, Tim Schroder) to see that , although the figure in the middle was named Domitian, the scenes of the bowl -- long assumed to be him too -- could not possibly be so.
There was one scene that was an instant give-away: that is, a scene of a triumph. Sure, Domitian had a triumph over the Germans; but this depicted the triumphing general getting out of his chariot and kneeling down in front of another Roman. That just had to be Tiberius (as Suetonius relates, he got off his triumphal chariot and went to kneel at Augustus' feet). Then it was clear that the scene that was supposed to be Domitia (Domitian's wife) travelling through Germany had to be Livia leaving Sparta with the young Tiberius and nearly getting burned alive (else what on earth were all the flames doing?).
At this point I was hooked. For a start it was clear that if the Domitian bowl was really Tiberius, then the "Tiberius bowl" couldn't be Tiberius. That one turned out to be Caligula, and the "Caligula bowl" turned out to be -- of course -- Domitian. But it wasn't just the re-matching of the emperors with their bowl. The problem there was pretty clear.. the figures unscrewed and there had always been a danger that they would get screwed up to the wrong base (as I called it, the "cleaning person problem", but probably unfair to cleaning persons).
There was also the question of how these bowls had got split up (when I first came across them, the whereabouts of a few were unknown, and their homes are now in three continents); of where they were made, and for whom; what they were for; and drawing on what sources. They are called the "Aldobrandini Tazze" because they were once owned by that family, but pretty certainly not commissioned by them.
Anyway, the clever people at the Metropolitan Museum have managed to get all the Tazze back together for a brief stay in New York (and there are hopes of an exhibition to follow). And they had invited a whole range of people with some knowledge of, or investment in, them to come along to present a brief paper, from their angle. I talked about the identication of the Suetonian scenes on the bowls (one of the most straightforward aspects, to be honest; but new stuff emerged at the conference). Others discussed where they were made (Italy or Germany seemed to be the main candidates), the sources of the designs, the scientific analysis of the metalwork, and the use of the objects (would you seriously load them with grapes?).
I'm not sure if we got to any firm answers. But it was one of the best conferences I have ever been to. There was a clear target, the material was there to be looked at close up, and everyone was an expert in sone different aspect (and that included the current private owners of some of them!). It actually felt like a real exchange of ideas (not just a series of papers). I do hope a full blown show comes out of it.