It was in the autumn of 2010 that I first came face-to-face with one of the so-called Aldobrandini Tazze. I was a few months into a new research project on images of the Twelve Caesars in Renaissance and later art, and I already had a sense of the importance of this extraordinary set of 16th-century silverware.
Here was a Renaissance re-creation of those first 12 Roman rulers, from Julius Caesar (100–44 BC) to Domitian (AD 51–96), a portrait gallery of dynasts in miniature, their names clearly inscribed at their feet. But even more interesting for me, each dynast was attached to a dish decorated with four intricately chased scenes illustrating his reign, every episode taken from the biographies written by C Suetonius Tranquillus (circa AD 70–130). Suetonius, as we now usually call him, was the Roman writer who, through his set of 12 Lives (De vita Caesarum, known as The Twelve Caesars, a set of 12 biographies of Julius Caesar and the first 11 emperors of the Roman Empire) bequeathed to the world the very idea of the Twelve Caesars, as well as some of the most memorable and lurid anecdotes about them. The tazze have a good claim to be the earliest surviving systematic attempt to illustrate Suetonius’ text.
I had also picked up some hints about the intriguing complexity of the story of the tazze – how over the centuries they had been sold off, lost, disconnected, dispersed across the globe, and their parts so mixed up that several of the detachable imperial figures had landed on the ‘wrong’ dishes, accompanied by scenes from the ‘wrong’ imperial lives. But the Victoria and Albert Museum in London was supposed to have one of these objects in its original state – the figure of the notorious Roman tyrant Domitian standing on a dish that, at least since the late 19th century, had been identified as ‘his’, decorated with scenes from his Life. So I went to take a closer look.
The encounter was more surprising than I had anticipated. I watched with a mixture of awe and astonishment as expert curators donned their gloves and gently disassembled the thing. The figure of Domitian unscrewed so easily that it instantly became much clearer how the emperors could have migrated from dish to dish: once the statuettes were unscrewed, you would have to look very carefully at the details of the scenes to make sure that each one ended up back on his ‘right’ dish.
But there was a bigger surprise, and the start of a curious historical detective story, when I tried to match up the chased scenes on the dish with the text of Suetonius’ Life of Domitian. It was a triumphal procession that first caught my eye. According to the museum’s documentation, one of the scenes represented Domitian’s celebration of his rather overblown military success against German tribes, mentioned by Suetonius: ‘after battles fought with different degrees of success, he celebrated a double triumph over the Chatti and the Dacians’.
A triumphal procession does indeed stand out on the dish, and it includes many precise details of the ceremony as it was usually performed. The shape of the special ceremonial chariot reflects Renaissance scholarship on that subject, learning based on careful study of ancient descriptions and depictions of the ritual, and the animals to be sacrificed carry their correct Roman ornaments. But there is one strikingly unorthodox feature: the chariot itself is empty. The victorious general in military dress and wearing the triumphal laurel wreath, has brought the vehicle to a halt along the ceremonial route and dismounted in order to kneel in front of a seated figure attended by 12 official guards (or lictors), each holding a bundle of fasces – the rods of office that were the symbol of official Roman power. This can only be the occasion when, in AD 12 – almost seven decades before the reign of Domitian – the future emperor Tiberius included an unprecedented gesture in the celebration of his victories in Germany.
In the words of Suetonius’ Life of Tiberius: ‘Before he turned to drive up onto the Capitoline Hill, he got down from the chariot and dropped to his knees in front of his father [the emperor Augustus], who was presiding over the ceremony’. It was for Roman readers a sure sign of the appropriate deference of Tiberius, as heir, to the ruling emperor, and for me a sure sign that, whatever was claimed, the dish could not possibly ‘belong’ to Domitian.
That was quickly confirmed by the other three scenes, which also turned out to derive from the Life of Tiberius and had nothing to do with Domitian. One was as glaringly misidentified as a scene of triumph. It had been interpreted as Domitian’s wife travelling in Germany, where her husband was on campaign. But this is not only difficult to match up to the narrative of Suetonius, who in his Life of Domitian hardly refers to Domitia at all, and certainly not in Germany; it also fails to explain why on earth the woman in question is almost on fire (the convention here for representing flames being the same as on other dishes) and carrying a baby. The scene must represent the incident, described by Suetonius, involving the infant Tiberius and his mother, Livia, when they were on the run in Greece during the civil wars that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar: ‘Leaving [Sparta] by night, he very nearly lost his life when flames suddenly burst out from the woods all along the way and engulfed the whole party to the extent that part of Livia’s clothes and hair was singed’.
Of the other two scenes, one pictured a rare instance of Tiberius’ liberality. Meanness was this emperor’s usual trait, but after an earthquake in the province of Asia in AD 17, he sponsored relief measures and gave generous subsidies to the cities of the area. On one side of a river, we see the emperor, with his lictors behind him, receiving petitions from the local population; on the other side, buildings are toppling from the force of the quake. This vignette had been masquerading as Domitian receiving the submission of the Germans, but that hardly explained the collapsing buildings.
The remaining scene seems, at first sight, a generic image of battle between Roman forces and their enemies under the watchful eye of a splendid river god reclining next to his streaming waters. This had been identified as another episode from Domitian’s German campaigns. But the clear references to Tiberius on the rest of the dish suggest instead that it is a scene from his German campaigns, almost certainly his defeat of the Raeti and Vindelici in southern Germany in 15 BC. One tiny detail of the design more or less clinches it: the pine cone, the traditional symbol of the Bavarian city of Augsburg, shown on a couple of the German standards.
This emblem has often been taken as a clue to the place of the tazza’s manufacture, on the assumption that patriotic craftsmen had smuggled in a subtle reference to their own home town. But whether that is true or not, the pine cone image is a clear pointer to the location of the campaign (Roman Augsburg – or Augusta Vindelicorum – eventually became the capital of the Roman province of Raetia) and may hint again at Tiberius himself, for according to tradition, it was he who during that war established the town as a Roman base.
There is more to this story than a simple case of mistaken identity, of the life of Tiberius being misread as the life of Domitian. For a start, there is a piquant irony in the present combination of emperor and dish in the Victoria and Albert Museum that goes back only to 1956. When the tazza first entered the museum (originally on loan) in 1927, it displayed the figure of the emperor Vitellius above what was then taken to be Domitian’s dish.
The combination we now see was the result of a well-meaning international collaboration between three museums, each of which owned one of the original 12 tazze and was keen to reunite the right emperors with their dishes. The figure of Vitellius from London was sent to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to stand above the Vitellius dish in place of the ‘wrong’ figure of Otho; the Metropolitan Museum sent the figure of Otho to the Royal Ontario Museum to rejoin its original dish; while the Royal Ontario Museum sent its figure of Domitian to the V&A to preside over the ‘Domitian’ dish. The only trouble was that – as it wasn’t really the Domitian dish at all – the V&A’s tazza remained just as mongrel as it had been before. Despite all the excellent intentions, in this case one wrong emperor had been swapped for another.
There is also the obvious domino effect. If the so-called Domitian dish really ‘belonged’ to Tiberius, where did that leave the so-called Tiberius dish in Lisbon, which had been at some point wrongly attached to the figure of Galba (3 BC–AD 69)?
The answer to that question exposed another series of misidentifications, not far short of farce. It did not take long to see that Galba was actually standing on top of the dish that depicted the deeds of Caligula (AD 12–41).
Thanks to some truly astonishing wishful thinking, the notorious stunt in which Caligula pranced on horseback over a bridge of boats joining Baiae and Puteoli, the neighboring port on the Bay of Naples, had been interpreted as the retirement of Tiberius to the island of Capri. And a famous incident in which, as a toddler and army mascot, Caligula managed to shame Roman soldiers out of mutinying (they repented when they realised the tiny prince was being taken away to safety) had been squeezed to fit a scene from Tiberius’ German campaigns.
Meanwhile, in the final piece of the puzzle, what had been taken to be the Caligula dish at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, wrongly attached to the figure of Augustus, proved to be that elusive Domitian dish. The drastic misreading in this case involved the scene of the burning Capitol. According to Suetonius, in the civil war at the start of Vespasian’s reign (r AD 69–79) the emperor’s young son Domitian barely escaped Rome with his life. To fit the Caligula narrative, the scene had been construed as an image of the popular disturbances that followed the death of the future emperor’s father, Germanicus.
These confusions have dogged the history of the tazze over the last century and probably much longer. n
The convoluted tale of the ALDOBRANDINI TAZZE
The Aldobrandini Tazze have a chequered history and there is still no knowing definitively where they were made, why, or for whom. Latest research, carried out by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and published in the book accompanying the exhibition, suggests they may have been made at the end of the 16th century, probably in the Netherlands, for a member of the Habsburg dynasty.
The 12 tazze (dishes) were first recorded as a set in the 1603 inventory of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini (1571–1621), the nephew of Pope Clement VIII Aldobrandini (1535–1605).
Six had been offered for sale in Milan in 1599 but from where Cardinal Aldobrandini, one of the great patrons of late-Renaissance Italy, obtained these tazze, or the other six, is unknown. The tazze remained in his family’s hands until Napoleon’s invasion of Italy, when it is thought that the English artist and dealer Alexander Day (circa 1751–1841) arranged for them to be sent to England. There, they were exhibited by Kensington Lewis, a retail goldsmith who specialised in antique plate.
Optimistically attributed to Benvenuto Cellini (1500–71), the suite of 12 ‘Emperor Tazze’ appeared together for the last time in an auction at Christie’s, in London, on15 May 1861. They were sold as ‘white silver’, indicating that they were not yet gilded. Six were bought at the auction by the Paris-based collector Frédéric Spitzer (1815–90), who replaced the original feet with more elaborate versions. Before it was split up, the whole set was also gilded (which would have more accorded with the taste of the time).
It is known that, in 1872 Anselm, father of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, who built Waddesdon Manor, had one of the tazze in his Viennese collection. Four more also passed through Rothschild collections. The Spitzer collection was auctioned in 1893, the ‘Vespasian’ tazza going to JP Morgan in the USA; thereafter the set was dispersed around the world. In a further twist, in 1974 Princess Olimpia Anna Aldobrandini married the French banker Baron David René James de Rothschild, thus bringing some elements of the story full circle.
• The Silver Caesars: A Renaissance Mystery: an illustrated catalogue has been published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (where the exhibition originated), in paperback, at £35. This feature is an excerpt from Professor Mary Beard’s essay in the catalogue.
All images © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.