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

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Neil Hen­nessy-Vass

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

(All images: © Neil Hen­nessy-Vass)

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