The Silver Caesars: A Renaissance Mystery

An intriguing exhibition at Waddesdon Manor near Aylesbury – Wednesday to Sunday, 18 April – 22 July 2018. Peter Morrell reports

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For the first time in more than 150 years some of the most extraordinary and enigmatic treasures of the Renaissance, a set of 12 European silver-gilt standing cups – known as the ‘Aldobrandini Tazze’ – have been reunited and displayed together at Waddesdon Manor.

These beautiful table ornaments celebrate the Twelve Caesars, notorious rulers of ancient Rome. Each standing cup (or tazza) includes a portrait of one of the Caesars, as well as four episodes from his life on the supporting dish. The forty-eight vignettes bring to life the book, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, by Roman historian Suetonius (written in the early second century AD).

One of the great mysteries surrounding the Silver Caesars is that no record exists to explain their origin. No one knows when the set was made, by whom, for whom, or for what purpose. However, new research revealed in the exhibition, curated by Julia Siemon of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, now goes some way to answering those questions.

To further complicate matters, the Silver Caesars were designed for easy disassembly to facilitate travel, and whilst the Caesar statuettes are labelled, the dishes are not. Therefore, in the centuries following their creation, the 12 tazze were taken apart, incorrectly re-assembled, misidentified, and then widely dispersed across Europe and the Americas

I recently went to Waddesdon Manor to see the exhibition. Waddesdon was built in the 19th century by the Rothschild family as a weekend retreat and to house and display their extensive collection of art works. The house is now open to the public and managed by the Rothschild Foundation within the framework of the National Trust.

Julia Siemon, the curator gave a group of us a a tour of the exhibition. The Tazze are stunningly beautiful and we learn from Julia that after extensive research they were made at the end of the 16th century by craftsmen in the Netherlands for a member of the Hapsberg dynasty.

The level of details showing the scenes from the Caesars’ lives is incredible and a quadrant from the Julius Caesar’s Tazza will be of particular interest to people in the UK as it depicts the invasion of Britain by the Romans.

The collection was originally assembled for display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The choice of Waddesdon Manor as the venue for the exhibition in the UK was driven by the fact that over the past two centuries nearly half the Tazze have at one-time formed part of Rothschild family collections. By 1872, Anselm – father of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, who built Waddesdon Manor – had in his Viennese collection a Tazza made up of the Augustus figure and the Domitian dish.

This is truly a once in a lifetime chance to see this unique collection which will be disassembled at the end of July and the pieces returned to their owners.

However for me a mystery still remained, why had I never heard of Waddesdon Manor before?

It is an elegant French Chateau style building in a beautiful setting. The interior is very atmospheric with the permanent collection of artworks exhibited in their original setting. I found the smoking room and adjoining billiard room had a particular resonance and one can easily imagine powerful, cigar smoking men assembling there after dinner to discuss high finance and matters of state.

Some of the highlights of the collection are works by Reynolds and Gainsborough, fine examples of Dutch Golden Age and Renaissance paintings, Sevres ceramics, Limoges enamel and a collection of arms and armour. An unmissable curiosity is an automaton of an elephant complete with swaying trunk and flapping ears surrounded by whirling dancers

In addition there is a wine cellar featuring bottles from the extensive Rothschild vineyards, an aviary and a pristine parterre in the formal garden to explore. If you feel hungry then a bite to eat in the quaint old servant’s hall is a must as it and the adjoining kitchen give you a glimpse of life ‘below stairs’

Do get to see The Silver Caesars: A Renaissance Mystery, it’s a complete one off and when you visit leave enough time to explore the rest of this historic house which in its past has charmed dignitaries like the Shah of Persia, Edward VII and Queen Victoria

The Silver Caesars

Waddesdon Manor
HP18 0JH