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Annual Bulletin 2, 1978-1979

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A Christianized and Neo-Classicized Roman tazza

by Philippe Verdier

Article en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  

The National Gallery of Canada acquired in 1976 a work of art extremely interesting because of its beauty and because of the series of alterations it underwent. It is a bowl with handles, or tazza, harking back to the High Roman Empire, made of ocellate brown agate, (1) of the kind named "Indian" by Pliny the Elder. (2) (See figs 1 to 4.) It was transformed into a liturgical vessel in the Early Christian era and ultimately, under Napoleon I, adapted as an oil lamp, mounted in silver gilt and ormulu; as a result, it received the honour of being shown in the 1972 London exhibition, The Age of Neo-Classicism, the fourteenth exhibition of the Council of Europe. (3)

The tazza was then the property of Mr Fabrizio Apolloni of Rome. It had been in the collection of J. Pierpont Morgan. After Congress had passed the Payne-Aldrich Act in 1909 (exempting works of art from import duty), Morgan decided to bring back to the United States the riches he had piled up in Europe. From the end of 1911 to 31 March 1913 when Morgan died, in Rome, 351 crates were shipped from London to New York. The fabulous collection, comprising more than 4,100 works of art, was stored in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The entire collection was put on exhibition in the museum in June 1914. But only some 3,000 items were permanently added to the Metropolitan Museum collections. The rest, of which the tazza was a part, was sold to defray the cost of succession duties. (4)

The tazza has the shape of a flat cup on a foot with two handles, one of them broken together with its attachment. The neo-classical mounts hide the damage; the broken agate has been repaired. No Latin word accurately describes the shape of the tazza; patera is the nearest to it, because it indicates a shallow vessel with a broad opening, (5) although the Latin patera was technically a bowl without handles, used for pouring blood or wine libations over an altar. However, a patera, or flat glass chalice, of the fourth century A. D., adorned with s-shaped handles attached to the lip, was found in the catacombs of Saint Calixtus in the Roman countryside. (6) The National Gallery tazza could as well be termed a kylix, or flat-footed cup. It belongs to the category of luxury vases, made for display without a precise religious or utilitarian function, and corresponding to Alexandrian taste.

Alexandria and the Near East transmitted to Rome the fashion of luxury vessels. They were made of precious metals or gems, either mounted in gold or silver, or left plain. Quoting the philosopher and historian Posidonios, who was born in Apamea, Syria, around 135 B. C., Athanaeus notes in his Deipnosophists the existence of drinking glasses of various sizes, skyphoi, made of onyx. (7) Pliny the Eider emphasized that such vessels were introduced into Rome by Pompey's triumphal procession, which carried through the streets of Rome the treasure looted by Pompey after his victory over Mithridates in 61 B. C.  (8)

According to Appian, it took a full month before the quaestor was able to draw up the inventory of the spoils brought back by Pompey. (9) The gem collection (dactyliotheca - etymologically, a collection of rings), was deposited in the treasury of the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol. There were enough gems and gold vases paraded during Pompey's triumphal march to fill nine dressers. (10) Afterwards, six dactyliothecae were dedicated by Caesar in the Roman temple of Venus Genitrix, and another one by Octavia's son, Marcellus, in the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine. (11) After the victory at Actium in 31 B. C., the Ptolemies' treasure fell into the hands of Augustus (12); this treasure was fabulously rich both in vases cut from precious or semi-precious stones, sometimes carved with mythological scenes, and in rock crystals. After the establishment of the Pax Romana under Augustus, gem cutters (gemmarit) flocked from Greece, Egypt and the Near East to the western provinces of the Roman Empire. They set up guilds and founded hereditary workshops in Taranto and Aquileia, and later at Cologne and Trier. (13)

A precious clue for dating the tazza is provided by the surviving handle. It is fashioned as a ring for the thumb to thread into, topped by a ledge for the index and middle fingers to rest on, and ending with a talon. A graceful scroll connects it with the tazza lip. Smaller but similar handles, intended to be held between thumb and forefinger only, characterize skyphoi made in Asia Minor as early as the first-century B. C. (14) The tazza handle is almost identical in shape to the handle on a contemporary rock crystal skyphos from Alexandria, in the San Marco treasure in Venice (fig. 5); on a chalcedony tazza dating from the Early Roman Empire at the Pitti Palace in Florence (15); and on a chalice in the Bamberg cathedral treasure, which is a rock crystal skyphos with mountings of the eleventh century.

The two-handled tazza of the National Gallery corresponds to a type of vessel that appeared during Augustus's reign and of which there are examples in goldsmith's art: for instance, the silverware from Boscoreale in the Louvre, the cup from Alesia and the two-handed cup in chased silver found near Hildesheim in 1868. (16) The big agate tazza in the Weltliche Schatzkammer at the Hofburg in Vienna measures seventy-five centimeters in diameter compared with the National Gallery tazza which measures 42.5 centimeters (fig. 6). The Vienna tazza has two handles cut out as vine scrolls in a dried up style whith, corroborated by the incised name of its maker, Flabius Aristo, a gemmarius of Trier, indicates a date in the early fourth-century, or during the reign of Constantine the Great.

In post-medieval times, after 1564 (the date of the first documented mention of the Vienna tazza) and maybe already in the Middle Ages, the inscription Fl(a)b(ius) Aristo Tr(eviris) f(ecit) xx p(ondon) was deciphered as B. Christo Ri xxpp, a misreading which anachronistically christianized the cup. This misinterpretation explains why the Vienna tazza was used for baptizing the archdukes of Austria, as is stated in the inventory of the Schatzkammer, drawn up in 1677. (17)

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