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The Silver Caesars: A Mystery in Buckinghamshire

12 May 2018 | Suzanne Frost

In 1862 a London antiques dealer came across a set of Renaissance silver that caused a great stir: 12 standing cups – known as the Aldobrandini Tazze – each made of a foot, a dish and adorned with the figure of one of the Caesars, the rulers of ancient Rome. Where did they come from, who made them, for what purpose? It is a mystery. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and curator Julia Siemon along with classicist and scholar Mary Beard immersed themselves in research, uncovering secrets and theories around the enigmatic treasures.

So how did these treasures end up somewhere in the English countryside of Buckinghamshire? Waddesdon Manor is the seat of four generations of the English side of the Rothschild family, one of the richest and most powerful European families of the 19th century. At least 5 of the Silver Caesars were in the family’s possession when research began – collecting art is in their blood - so it was in the Rothschild’s particular interest to display the Silver Caesars at Waddesdon. Most of the Caesars belong to private collections scattered around the globe. To make matters worse, the fact that the Tazze can be disassembled into seven parts, presumably to facilitate travel, resulted in them being mixed up over the centuries, misidentified and widely dispersed across Europe and America. Some of the original feet had been replaced by an eager Parisian dealer at the end of the 19th century and one figurine, the emperor Titus, has been permanently lost (most Renaissance silver got melted during the wars). The 12 Tazze, reassembled in the correct way and on display together, is something that hasn’t been seen for 150 years, and will never be seen again.

Image Credit: Mike Fear
 
They are an intriguing lot. There is no record of their origin. They were in the possession of cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini in 1603 but he was not the original patron. Each dish over which the figure of the Caesar resigns majestically depicts 4 scenes from his life, divided by columns. The scenes are specifically chosen to celebrate imperial power and show off the Caesars as good rulers. “The Caesars are depicted on their best behaviour”, laughs curator Julia Siemon. Even the pyromaniac Nero is celebrated for his devotion to the arts (he was singing while Rome was burning) and emperor Otho, who reigned for three sorry months, has his defeat and suicide depicted as a noble gesture for the empire. Some Caesars were pretty horrible rulers but the artist of the Tazze went out of their way searching for atleast one good deed in each of their lifetimes, which leads historians to believe that the silver dishes were a political gift, intended to celebrate leadership and serve as a reminder of greatness and responsibility. Silver was historically a political gift - it is art literally made out of money! - and these big fruit dishes were most definitely not intended for use. They were most likely shown around the table and then locked away. They are story-telling objects though and you can imagine that the silver relief profile of the scenes would really stand out in candlelight and could be ‘read’ by turning the dish around.
 
One hypothesis that seems likely is that they were a gift to the Habsburg family, the rulers of Europe. Cues in the manufacturing and the landscapes depicted in the dishes suggest they were made north of the Alps, possibly in the Southern Netherlands. Each Tazze was made by a one artist but together, they point towards the work of an artists studio. Bowing to 19th century taste, the Tazze were later guilded, which makes them appear gold and also unfortunately somewhat depletes the sharpness of the original relief. It does however confirm that the collection was still in one hand at this stage. The Silver Caesars tell us some of their story but remain shrouded in mystery.

Image Credit: Suzzanne Frost

The rest of Waddesdon Manor has more treasures to offer from Baron Ferdinand’s collection of French calendars to the trail of Reynolds paintings throughout the house, the atmospheric and surprisingly cosy smoking room that Ferdinand called his “Renaissance Museum”, to the weapons arsenal his sister Alice, one of the few women collecting armoury, displayed in the hallway. Renowned for their Bordeaux wine, you can also admire two columns made entirely of Chateau Lafite bottles in front of the manor house or tour their wine cellar where priceless bottles (some vintages date from 1865) rest in incredibly glamorous looking vaults lit tastefully by chandeliers. The vast grounds of Waddesdon Manor boast fields of daffodils in the wild flower valley, a rose garden and a cast-iron aviary housing some amazingly colourful exotic birds.

Image Credit: Suzanne Frost

The Silver Caesars will be on display until 22 July with a curator’s tour on 14 June. Entry to the Silver Caesars is free with house and grounds admission. Waddesdon Manor is open Wednesday – Sunday from 21 March - 28 October with the grounds accessible 21 March - 4 November. There is a free shuttle bus service from Aylesbury Vale Parkway station to the visitor Welcome Pavilion. Waddesdon Manor is in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, HP18 0JH.

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