The show must go on? The Silver Caesars mystery

There’s always plenty to see at Waddesdon Manor, perhaps the most famous Rothschild house in Britain. At the moment, in addition to the many and various splendours on show all year round, there’s a special exhibition about the Aldobrandini Tazze, a collection of twelve standing cups which depict the lives of various Caesars of ancient Rome.

Each standing cup or tazza comprises a statuette of a Caesar, with four episodes from his life, based on The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius (born c.70AD).  The narratives are almost wholly positive, in praise of the Caesars – though the Nero tazza shows him singing despite an earthquake and a fire, a version of the old saw about “fiddling while Rome burnt”.  Perhaps the creators thought this scene depicted a virtuous devotion to the arts – or maybe it was an early example of “The show must go on”…

More conventionally, the four scenes on the tazza for Vespasian (pictured above) show him putting an end to the rebellion in Judaea in AD 67-68; receiving a stray dog (who has brought him a human hand – how thoughtful) and an ox who bows to him while he is breakfasting; miraculously curing a blind man and a lame man; and returning to Rome in triumphal procession in AD 71 after military victory over the Jews.

At least five of the tazze entered various Rothschild collections, although their collective presence in this exhibition is the first example of all twelve being together on public display for over 150 years.  But the real mystery is this: who made them, when, where, for whom and for what purpose?  The Waddesdon exhibition suggests a hypothesis relating to a late 16th century Roman cardinal, Pietro Aldobrandini, and the Habsburg prince Archduke Albert VII of Austria. You’ll have to visit the exhibition, which is on until 22 July, to find out more. Whatever the answer to the mystery, the Silver Caesars together are a magnificent example of Renaissance art.

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