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Tazza Farnese (Farnese Cup) – Mysterious, Never Explained And Debated Ancient Gemstone

It sometimes happens that notable works of art are a subject of long-lasting scientific controversies. One such great masterwork is the so-called Farnese Cup (Tazza Farnese), stored in the Museo Nazionale of Naples.

Drawing of Tazza Farnese.

Tazza Farnese represents a significant artwork of ancient agate gemstone engraving of outstanding quality.

“Once the prized possession of the mightiest of rulers, the Tazza Farnese – a banded agate bowl nearly 22 cm (8.5 in.) in diameter, with figures inside and outside probably carved in the first century – is known today only to specialists. A preeminent masterpiece for two millennia, it has fallen into relative obscurity as taste has shifted from incised gems to paintings that now dominate museum walls. These days the Tazza is less well known – even to ancient art historians.” 1

What Do We Know About This Mysterious Artifact?

Unfortunately, there is no surviving evidence regarding when and why the piece was made.

It has a form of a plate c. 200 mm in diameter. One theory suggests it was made for a Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt in the 1st century BC. On the other hand, John Pollini dates it to the time of Octavian Augustus, the first Roman emperor, reigning from 27 BC to 14 AD.

Scholars have debated the artifact’s creation date and purpose for over two centuries. One scholar, Eugene Dwyer, believes that the Tazza Farnese was made at the Ptolemaic court in Alexandria between 100 and 31 BC and has the symbolic meaning associated with the Nile River and creation.

Farnese cup, sardonic agate, 2nd-1st cent. BC – Naples, National Archaeological Museum via Fame di Sud

According to Dwyer, the seven figures symbolize the planet. They are arranged to form the pattern of constellations surrounding Orion in the Greek astronomical sphere and the zodiacal signs of Taurus, Gemini, and Cancer.

He argues that through this apparent night sky map, the Tazza creator referred to the time of the Nile flooding to present more fully the concept of the divine creation of life.

Another scholar, John Pollini, on the other hand, argues that the Tazza Farnese is a piece of art created between 30 and 10 BC, most probably by an artist from Alexandria who was focused on working for the emperor Augustus.

Pollini says that the central figures of the Tazza are Saturnus and Gallus, symbolizing the new Golden Age initiated by Augustus in the year following his decisive victory at Actium, dated 31 BC.

“Tazza Farnese,” sardonyx cameo bowl (exterior), 1st C. BCE, Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Image courtesy of Mary D. Garrard.

While Ennio Quirino Visconti (1751 -1818), an Italian antiquarian and art historian, saw in the figures depictions of Isis, Horus, and the personified Nile River.

As we see, the dating of this treasure range from the 3rd cent. BC to the 1st, and therefore, it remains controversial, so the purpose of the artifact’s creation is also.

Apperance Of The Tazza Farnese

The inner surface of the cup depicts an image with seven figures: a Sphinx, on which sits a female figure holding ears of wheat in her hand; a prominent bearded male figure on a tree holding a cornucopia; a young man holding a plow and carrying a sack of seeds over his shoulder; two seated female figures, one of which contains a phiále; two male figures in flight near the upper edge.

The Greeks depicted sphinxes with wings; the Egyptians did not. Therefore,  the presence of the Sphinx places it in Egypt.

The figures have long puzzled scholars. They are perhaps personifications, but they correspond to no other known representation and have been interpreted differently.

The artifact’s external surface is decorated with a large gorgon, of which the nose bears a small hole, probably to insert support for displaying the artifact. The gorgon head is occupying most of the area, probably intended to ward off evil.

The Artifact’s Colorful And Dramatic Life

“…The Tazza may have moved from Alexandria, where it was almost certainly created, to Rome and then Byzantium where it likely ended up for several centuries, before reappearing briefly in Southern Italy and intriguingly in Central Asia.

From the mid-fifteenth century on, we are on former ground and can trace the Tazza’s movements with clarity as it passed through the hands of Pope Paul II, Lorenzo de Medici, Margaret of Austria, the Bourbon Kings of Naples, and into the Naples Museum where it resides today…” 1

As we see, this beautiful and mysterious artifact lived its own life for a very long time, and due to many journeys, it, in a way, “experienced” various historical events. For example, it witnessed Cleopatra’s rise and fall, the dramatic sack of Constantinople by Christian knights in 1204, the atmosphere of Renaissance Naples and Florence, and very turbulent aftermath of the French Revolution, and the birth of the modern state of Italy.

In 1538, the Farnese Cup became the property of the Farnese family, to which it owes its name.

Finally, at the end of the 18th century, along with other family treasures, it came to Naples and is now in the collections of the National Archaeological Museum

In 1925, the Tazza was accidentally seriously damaged during an unusual accident. A mentally unstable security guard employed by the museum ‘in a fit of madness’ smashed the window that protected the relic with an umbrella, breaking it into several pieces. However, skilled artisans reassembled the treasure.