The Silver Caesars
This exhibition is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the 12 together, complete in one room, because when it is over they will be disassembled, REASSEMBLED IN THE ‘WRONG’ CONFIGURATION AND returned to their owners and museums
Like all good mysteries this one leaps from the pages of an ancient book. The story starts early in the 2nd century CE from the Roman historian Suetonius and his seminal work The Lives of the Twelve Caesars written during the reign of Hadrian, recording the lives and conquests of the first 12 Roman rulers from Julius Caesar to Domitian. The book was used as inspiration for the creation of 12 silver-gilt standing cups known as the ‘Aldobrandini Tazze’, at the end of the 16th century for the Habsburg dynasty, probably made in The Netherlands. Each figure has a corresponding cup with four scenes chased from the silver on the saucer.
After this the trail goes cold until 1826 when they appear on the market in a London dealer’s showroom. In keeping with 19th-century tastes, all twelve tazze were also gilded – so, today they look as if they are made of gold, not silver as in their name.
Complicating matters is the fact that they were designed to be easily dismantled for transportation. After the sale the Caesars were separated from their saucers or ‘historical context’ and scattered across the globe. The Metropolitan Museum, New York has spent the last four years reassembling the 12 Caesars from private collections and museums and reconnecting the right Caesar with the right saucer and foot (the leg on which each stands). This is no mean feat as many of the parties have been hard to trace and for legal reasons are not allowed to ‘touch’ another element. In practical terms this means the use of discreet spacers between figure, saucer and foot.
They are currently on display at The National Trust's Waddesdon Manor, having first been on show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. This is quite fitting, as over the life of the Caesars at least half have been owned at some point by the Rothschild family collections.
In 1872 Anselm, the father of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild who built Waddesdon Manor, had one tazza made from the Augustus figure and the Domitian saucer. Pippa Shirley, Head of Collections at Waddesdon says, “We are delighted to be working with the Metropolitan Museum on this extraordinary exhibition, which amongst other things illuminates an aspect of 19th-century
collecting for which the Rothschilds were renowned.”
One of the great mysteries is there is no record of who they were made for. The weight alone (over 80lb in silver) suggests an important owner. There is no exact date or what they were intended for. The 48 tableaux on the twelve saucers (four on each) tell of the achievements of each ruler. But there is a certain amount of ‘air brushing’ going on here, as notorious rulers such as Caligula and Nero and their bad behaviour, which was noted in Suetonius’s original, have been sanitized.
The Caesars are certainly historic but with an element of censorship. Scholar and classicist Mary Beard has been keenly involved in the unity of the Caesars and tracing their journeys through the centuries. Whilst studying the figure of Domitian at the V&A, she noticed that that a triumphal procession supposedly from Domitian’s life in the V&A did not match the description in Suetonius. It did, however, match up to an event in the life of Tiberius, before he was emperor, when he got out of his chariot (says Suetonius) to kneel before his father, Augustus. It turned out that the V&A’s Domitian had been displayed for decades above the dish showing the exploits of Emperor Tiberius.
"We owe it to the designers and craftsmen behind these marvellous objects, to those who commissioned them, to Suetonius himself, and even to the emperors – brutal rulers though they might have been in real life – to get these scenes sorted out, connect the right man with the right deeds and see them all together as originally intended. And I think at last we have done just that,” she said.
This exhibition is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the 12 together, complete in one room, because when it is over they will be disassembled, reassembled in the ‘wrong’ configuration and returned to their owners and museums.
The Silver Caesars: A Renaissance Mystery is showing until 22 July 2018. There is a free shuttle bus from Aylesbury Vale Parkway station to the house until 28 October. www.waddesdon.org.uk
Above, clockwise from top left: A detail of one of the saucers; Close up of the figures; Reunited: The correct figure and saucer
Left: The different Roman rulers