A Gold Star for "The Silver Caesars"

Catherine Lambert |

The mysterious silver cups known as The Aldobrandini Tazze have arrived at the Met — and thankfully, Mary Beard is here to make sense of them.


 A scene from the tazza ascribed to Domitian, but with a scene from the life of Tiberius: the infant Tiberius is carried by his mother through a forest fire (image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum).
A scene from the tazza ascribed to Domitian, but with a scene from the life of Tiberius: the infant Tiberius is carried by his mother through a forest fire (image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum).

Cambridge Classicist Mary Beard needs no introduction. Seriously — a friend of mine recently revealed to me that even she knows who Mary Beard is. (This friend is not a classicist, and that’s when you know.) Beard is the reason why, at 2 p.m. on the 28th of January, the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium in the Metropolitan Museum of Art was bursting at the seams. She was joining Assistant Research Curator Julia Siemon for an event called “The Story of the Caesars,” a discussion related to the museum’s new exhibition: The Silver Caesars: A Renaissance Mystery. From my seat there spanned a sea of tweed jackets and black-knit turtlenecks, dotted by the occasional crest of a Sunday Times newspaper. That is what you get when Britain’s best-known Classicist comes to “the city.” On Sunday, I had zero regrets about not watching the Grammys — I got to hear firsthand what Mary Beard gets up to when she’s not taking down toxic masculinity.

The “Silver Caesars” refer to what are officially called the Aldobrandini Tazze, crafted in the 16th- century, possibly in the Low Countries. These tazze, or “cups,” look like preposterously outlandish fruit-dishes, and atop each stands one of the so-called “Twelve Emperors,” as Suetonius categorizes them in his Lives of the Caesars. Engraved with staggering detail on the dishes are episodes that occur in Suetonius’s biographies of the emperors. The tazze themselves aren’t actually silver but rather a brilliant gold, gilded over later by some people who thought the Renaissance must have done “better than that.” Before the event, I had briefly perused the exhibition, but I will confess that, after inspecting the tazze of Caligula and Claudius and pretending to understand what was going on in the hairpin-fine engravings, I thought to myself, “It’s all gold to me.”

But in “The Story of the Caesars,” Mary Beard redeemed these tazze for me (and probably for everyone else except New York’s resident expert in Renaissance silversmithery, because New York is the kind of place that “has everything”). Such is Beard’s enviable power as a story-teller, to take a topic as unsexy as 500-year-old fruit receptacles and an emperor as short-ruling as Galba and transform everything into a tale that puts over seven-hundred people on the edges of their seats, eliciting side-splitting laughter from the crowd (apparently silver can be rather hilarious if you actually know what it is you’re looking at), and even some audible “aww’s” when Beard revealed that the figure of Titus, tragically, has been lost to the jaws of time.

How did Beard get involved with these fancy cups in the first place? A number of years back, she explained to us, she had paid a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to see their silver bowl of Domitian. Though a “Johnny-come-lately amateur,” Beard noticed that something was rather off about the scenes engraved on Domitian’s dish. As any classicist worth her salt would do, Beard whipped out her copy of Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars that she naturally had in tow and she soon realized that the four scenes on Domitian’s bowl were actually episodes from the life of Tiberius! It turns out that, since the 1860s, all the tazze (except Julius Caesar’s, whose figurine is soldered on!) had been scattered across the world in “completely mad configurations” (Caligula on Galba’s dish, Galba on Caligula’s!) which, as Beard put it, “If you’re a Roman historian, that is just dreadful!” Cue laughter.

“The Story of the Caesars” embodied, in several ways, the kind of stuff that I wish more professional academics — especially classicists — would do. First, classicists have a regrettable tendency to become apologetic for the remoteness of their area of research. But Beard provided a model for how scholars of antiquity can make the distant past come alive for a broader audience in a new, exciting, and meaningful way. Beard teased out the details of how the creators of these cups were reading their Suetonius, and she did so in a manner that was clear, accessible, and pleasant for everyone, regardless of their background. As I sat in awe of her perfectly timed wit (on Caligula: “I won’t go through the appalling vices of the Emperor Bootykins”) coupled with her rhetorical prowess and natural knack for connecting what she loves to the broader public, I simply thought to myself: “Goals.”

But what I admired most was how Beard handled a question posed to her by Julia Siemon, the co-leader of the event. After referencing Christopher Buckley’s recent piece in the NYT in which Donald Trump is compared to Caligula, Siemon asked Beard to reflect on the “usefulness of comparison.” Beard deftly spun the question into a more pressing one: why do we still bother to study ancient history? She then crafted a beautiful, moving image of the student of history as one who walks on a tightrope, seeing on one side people who look like they’re from the moon, and on the other people who look like they’re our “mates.” This, Beard explained, is why studying the past is important: “It gives you a way of looking at some of your characteristics from the outside.” She also cautioned against making direct comparisons between Trump, or any modern leader, and a Roman emperor, citing the tazze themselves as artifacts that attest to the way readings of the past have been skewed for the sake of drawing such direct links. As Beard then explained, whoever made these dishes performed a highly selective reading of Suetonius’s portrayals of the Caesars (which are, generally speaking, critical), extracting only pieces that could be read in a flattering, positive way.

Essentially, the tazze represent imperial propaganda that draw a straight line from the “glory” of the Roman emperors to the Habsburg dynasty, which the tazze construct as the “inheritor” of Roman imperial power. Latent in the discussion spurred by Beard lies another important point for reflection that, I think, shows how these Renaissance tazze are helpful for us to think with today. On the one hand, they demonstrate that a selective, non-capacious, uncritical reading of antiquity can produce stunning, luminous beauty. But such “beauty” necessarily comes at a great expense. At what (and at whose) expense will there continue to persist certain readings of the past that illuminate “us” as the putative heirs of a self-contained “Western civilization”?

The Silver Caesars” runs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Lehman Wing until March 11, 2018.


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Catherine Lambert

Lead Teaching Fellowship (2019 - 2020), Columbia University


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