1. Titus visiting Egypt (detail from the Titus dish of the Aldobrandini Tazze) circa 1587–99, gilded silver. © Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon.

12 Caesars in New York

In 2014, a dozen silver-gilt standing cups, known as the Aldobrandini Tazze, were reunited for the first time since the 1860s for a colloquium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Now the museum is displaying the complete set of 'cups', 'dishes' or 'bowls' until March 2018. The tazze will then travel to Waddesdon Manor, near Aylesbury, where they will be displayed with Renaissance objects from the Rothschild collection until June.

Originally silver, and now silver-gilt, the set, which was made in the late 16th century, is named after one of
its early owners, the Aldobrandini family.

Each bowl is 14 or 15 inches wide, chased with four elaborate scenes from each chapter of Suetonius' Twelve Caesars, and topped by the figure of the relevant emperor. The mystery is not just who made the bowls and where, or who commissioned them and first owned them. It is how the bowls took their present form, and how they were spread across public and private collections in Europe and America.

2. Detail of the emperor on the Otho tazza, circa 1587–99, gilded silver. © Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, from the Collection of Viscount and Viscountess Lee of Fareham, given in trust by the Massey Foundation.

In 2014, Professor Mary Beard announced her discovery that the bowl known as the 'Domitian bowl' (now in the Victoria & Albert Museum) is really the Tiberius bowl.

'At this point I was hooked,' wrote Beard. 'For a start, it was clear that if the Domitian bowl was really Tiberius, then the Tiberius bowl couldn't be Tiberius. That one turned out to be Caligula, and the Caligula bowl turned out to be, of course, Domitian.' 

Beard believes that eight of the 12 emperors now stand on top of the wrong bowls. As to how this happened, she points out that 'the figures unscrewed', and she suspects that the figures were removed for cleaning, then screwed back on to the wrong bases.

The exhibition and the accompanying catalogue essays trace the set from its creation to its dispersal.

3. The Caligula bowl, circa 1587–99, gilded silver, minus the central figure of the emperor. © Casa-Museu Medeiros e Almeida, Lisbon.

The bowls were probably made in the Netherlands around 1570; some designs seem to draw on sources published at that date. By the end of the 16th century, they were in Italy, with the heirs of Ippoliti Aldobrandini the Elder, also known as Pope Clement VII.

They remained in the Aldobrandini family until the early 1800s, when they appeared on the London market, possibly having been stolen by family retainers, and wrongly attributed to Cellini.

Around this time, the bowls were gilded. By the end of the 19th century, the fluted bases of six bowls had been replaced with decorative bases, perhaps taken from a 16th-century set of Spanish reliquaries, and possibly by the dealer Frédéric Spitzer.

They have not been reassembled correctly for The Silver Caesars exhibition, so visitors will have to do some sleuthing of their own.

• The Silver Caesars: A Renaissance Mystery is on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2017/silver-caesars) until 11 March 2018, and then at Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury (www.waddesdon.org.uk), from 28 March to 3 June 2018. • The catalogue, edited by Julia Siemon, is published by Yale University Press at £35/$50.
Dominic Green