Extraordinary work by Rennaissance silversmiths in the 1500s, twelve tall dish stands featuring the first twelve Caesars – but who did them, and why?
Some have feet attached by a 19th Century dealer (Can you tell which?)
Rich life portrayals by Rennaissance goldsmiths
White (ungilded ) silver might seem emotionally cold in the imagination but not in this unique collection, for there is something inherent in the match of gilded silver and the art of working it into sculpture and images on a surface in this extraordinary array of small foot high Caesars on top of wide dish pedestals that transcends its very high craft quality, and the brilliant display produced by curator Julia Siemon, that addresses the viewer heart to heart, a warmth that pervades the craftsmanship that speaks of its roots in the lost sixteenth century workshop where it was produced – the source is a great mystery but Siemon says that the Netherlands or Flanders is the likely region, since the sheer erudition involved and the busy-ness or horror vacui with which their surfaces are filled is unlikely to be Italian or German – at a time when such work was still human to human, bench to home, as it were, though in this case for a very noble or royal client, but still visibly a craft which while superb technically addresses the viewer as directly as a child’s history book, with a similar focus on people, in this case the first twelve Caesars, twelve Roman emperors in their costumes, whose small figures pose on short stands in the center of wide dish cups whose surface is worked with special skill to portray scenes from their imperial lives, though notably choosing only positive scenes reflecting their assumed glory, where Vespassian for example, who ruled from AD 69-79, is shown as he spits in the eye of a blind man, and touches a lame man’s leg with his heel (two acts which miraculously cured the two supplicants of their ailments), or seated at breakfast when a stray dog brings in a human hand and drops it under the table, a good omen of future power, or in triumphal procession after his military victory over the Jews in AD 68.
all drawn on paper then pricked in outline on the silver plate before being embossed and lightly gilded in the sixteenth century manner, and now collected and displayed by the Met with for the first time the right dish matched with the right Emperor, after their components got mixed up over the centuries, with their stories explained by finding the references in Suetonius’s history of Rome that the craftsmen drew upon, a copy of which is displayed too, where just a few lines give rise to an image, some of the larger ones embellished with Renaissance houses and townscapes in the background, with enhanced digital displays of two tazze on an upper wall with narration by Classicist Mary Beard of Cambridge also placed on the Net’s website.
(Met:) The superb technical virtuosity of Renaissance silversmiths is nowhere more evident than in the magnificent set of 12 silver-gilt standing cups from the 16th century known collectively as the Aldobrandini Tazze. Each of the Tazze stands over a foot tall and features a shallow footed dish surmounted by a figure of one of the first 12 Caesars. On the intricately wrought interior of each dish appear four episodes from the life of the corresponding ruler, as recounted by the Roman historian Suetonius. Although the Tazze are among the finest and rarest examples of 16th-century European silverwork, little is known about their creation. The questions of when, where, why, for whom, and by whom these splendid luxury objects were made will be addressed in the exhibition The Silver Caesars: A Renaissance Mystery, opening December 12 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The complete set has not been seen together since the mid-19th century, when it was disassembled and dispersed, its constituent parts misidentified and mismatched. In addition, the elements of all 12 Tazze will be displayed in their original configuration—a unique opportunity for modern viewers to appreciate one of the most enigmatic monuments of in the work of 16th-century goldsmiths.
The exhibition is made possible by The Schroder Foundation, Selim K. Zilkha, the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation, Nina von Maltzahn, and an anonymous donor.
The Silver Caesars will highlight the elegance and astonishing erudition of the Tazze, presenting them with a small selection of other works in silver and other media, including both ancient and Renaissance coins and medals and Renaissance prints, books, and paintings. The exhibition will consider such topics as 19th-century views of the Renaissance and Renaissance views of ancient Rome. Examples of 19th-century works that the Tazze inspired will be included. In addition to offering new insights into the Tazze and their history, the exhibition will explore the set’s famously mysterious reputation—engaging the visitor in tracing clues that may lead to a better understanding of this Renaissance masterpiece.
Within the exhibition, a digital component featuring high-resolution photography of two Tazze will enable visitors to explore these works and their fantastic antiquarian imagery in greater depth. This material, including narration by Mary Beard, Professor of Classics, University of Cambridge, will also be available on The Met website.