The Magazine

A Vessel's Voyage

The journey of a cameo, from Cleopatra's Egypt to modern Italy.

Jan 28, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 19 • By AMY HENDERSON
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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.