Bringing an inanimate thing to life has tantalized story-tellers from Aeschylus (Prometheus Bound) to Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) to Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein). But when the life spirit is encased in a mesmerizing artifact rather than a rampaging monster, the goal is to inject the object with a compelling life story rather than to inspire man-eating romps. In the case of the Tazza Farnese, an ancient libation bowl carved from banded agate, the story begins in Ptolemaic Egypt and continues until today. But like the mythological monster, the Tazza’s spirit is deadly: Its exterior is carved with the head of Medusa, whose gaze was said to turn people into stone.
Over the past decade, cultural historian Marina Belozerskaya has invented a fascinating career doing the opposite of what most historians do: Rather than the infinity-in-a-grain-of-sand approach, she casts her web broadly across centuries and cultures. Describing her previous book, The Medici Giraffe, she explained that she “looked for stories that would allow me to reconstruct in vivid detail the feel of particular moments in history.” What interested her was “telling . . . stories set in different times and places” so that she could untangle and decode the cluttered past. The Medici Giraffe consisted of eight separate biographical tales, beginning with Ptolemy in Egypt in the third century B.C., and ending with William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon in the 20th century. In The Arts of Tuscany: From the Etruscans to Ferragamo, she similarly created a broad-ranging landscape encompassing time, geography, and the arts.
Belozerskaya’s newest exploration, described as “the first book-length account of the ‘life’ of this renowned masterpiece,” is an odyssey the author began after seeing the Tazza at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. Entranced, she decided to “try to recapture something of that sense of wonder and greed that the Tazza incited in those who were able to own it.” The result is “a cultural history of the vessel.” Because of the foibles of time, the story has huge gaps, but Belozerskaya stitches it all together by focusing each chapter on owners who “gave it its shifting meanings.”
The Tazza’s origins were likely in Alexandria, during Cleopatra’s rise and fall as queen of Egypt (69-30 B.C.). The largest ancient cameo known today, it was carved out of sardonyx, and includes figures that depict a temporal allegory of the Nile and of creation. It is supposed that Cleopatra used the Tazza to dazzle her guests, since “its style, quality, and subject matter all suggest that it was likely made for and used at the Ptolemaic court.”
After Cleopatra’s death, the Tazza’s trail probably included Rome and Constantinople; the author thinks it possible that, in the late fourth century, it “went through a Christian conversion” when paganism was outlawed. The Tazza then took on an identity not as a sacred object of antiquity but as a historical and cultural artifact rooted in classical Roman life. It is also probable that it was used as a Christian chalice. In 1204, Constantinople was besieged by crusaders, and the Tazza likely was pillaged. Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor who aimed to revive Roman rule across the Mediterranean, was said to be a great lover of cameos and apparently bought the Tazza for 1,230 ounces of gold in 1239. Upon his death in 1250, we lose track of the Tazza for the following century-and-a-half—until its reappearance in Timur in 1401, when the Mongol warlord Tamerlane acquired it.
Records are murky, but the bowl next appears in the 1450s, when a merchant arrived in Naples with the Tazza in his baggage. He sold it to King Alfonso of Aragon before, at some point over the next two decades, it came into the possession of Lorenzo de’ Medici. In 1537, the Medici pope died, and a new pontiff, Alessandro Farnese, ascended the throne as Paul II, retaining ownership of the bowl now known as the Tazza Farnese. The Tazza remained hidden from view for the next 200 years, until the Farnese treasures were transferred to the Royal Gallery in Naples. With the excavations at Herculaneum, and later at Pompeii, Naples was emerging as a center for learning and “Grand Tourists.” An extensive account of the bowl was published in 1738, and its display became so popular that it was touted as the most spectacular artwork in Southern Italy.
During the next century, the Tazza changed hands periodically until 1860, when it was placed in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. But—and with the Tazza there always seems to be a “but”—the bowl was nearly destroyed when a museum night-watchman attempted to steal it in 1925. The robbery was botched, and the bowl shattered when it was dropped. Its shards were scattered across the museum floor, but all the pieces were found, and the Tazza was successfully restored. It remained unscathed during extensive Allied bombing in World War II, when it was encased in a padded, zinc-plated box and secreted into a cavity of the museum’s massive walls.
In recent years, the Tazza’s fame has lessened. It is currently displayed in a small suite on the Museo Archeologico’s ground floor, but the public flocks, instead, to the museum’s frescoes of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Contemporary taste has also rendered ancient gems and hard-stone vessels less fashionable than the paintings that now dominate the art world.
Marina Belozerskaya has made a well-researched and welcome contribution to Tazza scholarship. With much direct evidence missing, she has still connected the dots of this artifact’s remarkable journey. Yet her method of rehashing history does prove tedious as the story plays out, century after century: The rhythms of history are in constant flux, and the book would have benefited from a livelier sense of change in time and place. Instead, there is a rather bland uniformity of style. Through it all, however, the Medusa’s gaze remains unperturbed.
Amy Henderson is a writer and museum curator in Washington, D.C.