Exhibitions/ The Silver Caesars: A Renaissance Mystery/ Exhibition Themes

The Silver Caesars: A Renaissance Mystery

At The Met Fifth Avenue
December 12, 2017–March 11, 2018

Exhibition Themes

This exhibition investigates an extraordinary and enigmatic achievement of Renaissance European metalwork: the twelve monumental standing cups traditionally known as the "Aldobrandini Tazze." These splendid silver table ornaments celebrate the twelve Caesars, notorious rulers of ancient Rome. Each standing cup (or tazza) includes a statuette of one of the Caesars as well as four episodes from his life intricately wrought in low relief. These marvelously detailed scenes, carried out by a team of anonymous goldsmiths, are at first glance very difficult to appreciate—they demand careful looking, but reward the patient viewer with an enchanting fantasy of the ancient past.

The forty-eight scenes on the tazze illustrate passages from a book called The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the ancient Roman historian Suetonius (born ca. A.D. 70). However, while the book is filled with tales of the emperors' shockingly bad behavior, the tazze deliberately ignore the twelve Caesars’ misdeeds in order to create a flattering image of imperial power. This distinctly positive mood, in combination with the luxury, artistic quality, and scholarly ambition of the set, suggests that the tazze were made for an important Renaissance ruler.

But this is the mystery of the Silver Caesars: there is no record of their origin. We do not know exactly when, by whom, for whom, or for what purpose the set was made. To make matters worse, in the centuries following their creation, the twelve tazze were disassembled, incorrectly reassembled, misidentified, and widely dispersed. This exhibition reunites the Silver Caesars for their first public display in more than 150 years and proposes a possible solution to the puzzle of their past. Misidentifications have been corrected and each tazza is temporarily presented in its original configuration, or as close to that arrangement as possible. The result is as magnificent as it is mysterious.

This exhibition is made possible by The Schroder Foundation, Selim K. Zilkha, the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation, Nina von Maltzahn, and an anonymous donor.

This diagram shows the different parts that compose each standing cup, or tazza (plural, tazze).

Illustration by Chris Heins

The Silver Caesars were designed for easy disassembly. Although convenient for storage or travel, this feature has caused a terrible muddle.

While the Caesar statuettes are labeled, the dishes are not. Once separated from their Caesars, they become extremely difficult to identify—matching them with their proper emperors requires a vigilant reading of Suetonius's Lives of the Twelve Caesars. By the end of the nineteenth century, only the Julius Caesar and Claudius figures remained correctly paired with their dishes; each of the other Caesar statuettes stood proudly above episodes from another ruler's history, and most still do.

For this exhibition the tazze have been reconfigured into their original states, but at its conclusion they will be returned to their modern, mismatched arrangements.

The four tazze shown below are (clockwise from upper left): Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, Tiberius, and Caligula.

Selected Artworks

The modern history of the Silver Caesars begins in 1826, when the set appeared—seemingly out of thin air—in the shop of a London dealer. The tazze caused a great stir and were at first celebrated as the work of Benvenuto Cellini, the most famous goldsmith of the Italian Renaissance. Nevertheless, the set was modified to suit contemporary tastes. There was a presumption that Renaissance silver should be gilded, and so the tazze were covered with a thin layer of gold. Toward the end of the century, a Parisian dealer replaced six of the refined, highly classicizing feet with elaborate substitutes; one replacement appears in the nearby case, and five more can be seen on the tazze in the center of the gallery. (The diagram above reflects the original design of the feet.)

Selected Artworks

Sixteenth-century scholars investigated the ancient past by reading Roman authors like Suetonius and by examining surviving ancient artifacts, such as statues, buildings, and coins. The results of their labors were shared in popular books and prints, which served as an essential resource for the creators of the Silver Caesars. Imagery from these materials is integrated into the low-relief scenes with extraordinary sophistication. The range of references and depth of historical knowledge make it clear that the goldsmiths must have been guided in their work by one of the period's most accomplished antiquarians.

Selected Artworks

The twelve Silver Caesars—traditionally known as the Aldobrandini Tazze—are first recorded in the possession of the Roman cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini in 1603. Pietro was not, however, their original patron. Where then were they manufactured, and for whom? Several clues suggest they were made north of the Alps, probably in the Southern Netherlands, and most likely for a member of the Habsburg dynasty, the ruling family of the Holy Roman Empire. 

The Habsburgs validated their imperial status by drawing parallels between themselves and their ancient Roman predecessors. To underscore the connection, they redeployed ancient imagery of precisely the kind found on the tazze. The Habsburgs ruled throughout Europe, but the style of the low-relief scenes links the set to Renaissance silver produced in the Southern Netherlands, where, at the end of the sixteenth century, there was a thriving community of scholars and artists who were well equipped to devise and manufacture the tazze. 

So might the Silver Caesars have been made for the Habsburg ruler of the Southern Netherlands? In the late 1590s, this was the Habsburg prince Archduke Albert VII of Austria. Perhaps it is no coincidence that in 1598–99, celebrating his wedding to a Habsburg cousin, Albert traveled from Brussels to northern Italy, generously distributing presents along the way. In Italy, Albert's host was none other than Pietro Aldobrandini. The cardinal's account books indicate that he paid for only six of his tazze—could the other six therefore have been a gift from his Habsburg guest? The timing is particularly suggestive: the earliest reference to the Silver Caesars, from spring 1599, puts Albert and six of the tazze (probably the six later bought by Pietro to complete his set) in the same place within a matter of weeks. Lacking definitive proof, this proposal remains speculative. But no matter their origin, the Silver Caesars reflect the complex interplay of art and power in Renaissance Europe.

Selected Artworks

Above: Anonymous (Netherlandish?) goldsmith. Detail of the Domitian dish from the Aldobrandini Tazze, ca. 1587–99. Gilded silver, 15 1/2 in. (39.5 cm) diam. Minneapolis Institute of Art, The James Ford Bell Family Foundation Fund, The M. R. Schweitzer Fund, and The Christina N. and Swan J. Turnblad Memorial Fund. Below: Anonymous (Netherlandish?). Detail of the Titus dish from the Aldobrandini Tazze, ca. 1587–99. Gilded silver, 14 3/4 in. (37.6 cm) diam. Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon