Tazza Farnese / Allegory of the Nile

by Michael Riddick

Preview / download PDF at Academia.edu
Preview / download PDF in High Resolution


003 Tazza Farnese 01

TAZZA FARNESE / ALLEGORY OF THE NILE (No. 02 / Riddick collection)

Anonymous, after an antique carved banded agate
Egypt (probably Alexandria); ca. 100-150 BC | the present cast: Naples, Italy (Chiurazzi Foundry); late 19th or early 20th century
Brass/Bronze; 173 mm

Trinity Fine Art (John Winter, dealer, London, UK)

Modern cast of excellent quality. Rich black patina applied to obverse and reverse. Reverse exhibits evidence of cut and filed sprues with a large sprue located in the center, shaved with a large file. There is an unidentified blue chalk mark on the reverse, probably a number. Barely visible, along the margin of the reverse are a series of numbers, probably six digits, with the last three being “000” in black paint, over top of what appears to be an earlier painted number in smaller form and in red or burgundy ink. These are either dealer or catalog collection numbers.


The present plaque reproduces one of the most celebrated carved stones from classical antiquity, the Farnese Cup (Tazza Farnese), a banded agate admired for its natural beauty, sculptural accomplishment and technical excellence (Fig. 01).

The Farnese Cup is thought to have originated in Hellenistic Egypt and probably in Alexandria during the 2nd century BC. The allegory depicted on the cup’s interior, which constitutes the design of the present plaque, is thought to depict the divine triad of Egypt or correspondingly the Eleusinian triad of Greece. The two female figures at its base are indicative of the changing seasons while the two male figures in flight in the upper part of the scene depict the Etesian winds that blow over the Nile River during the summer. Some interpretations suggest that the figures may represent the Ptolemaic royalty, with Cleopatra (69-30 BC) represented as seated on the sphinx. There is also speculation that the imagery was at one time Christianized after the sack of Constantinople during the fourth Crusade. This may have helped preserve the object from the typical destruction met by other antiquities of the pagan world.

002 tazza
Fig. 01: The Tazza Farnese, anon., 2nd century BC (Archeological Museum of Naples)

Though unconfirmed, the Farnese Cup is suggested to have been the property of Cleopatra and its continued history of ownership includes a colorful myriad of characters including Frederick II (1194-1250), Timur (1336-1405), Alfonso V of Aragon (1416-58), Pope Paul II (Pietro Barbo, 1417-71), Lorenzo de’ Medici (1469-92) and Margaret of Parma (1522-86) from whose descent the cup remained in possession of the Farnese family to whom it owes its namesake. The Farnese Cup remarkably survived its long journey, completing its sojourn in Naples during the 1730s and presently residing in the city’s Archeological Museum (Inv. 27611).

In addition to being considered one of the finest art objects of the antique world, the Farnese Cup has also been held in high esteem by its many prominent owners. In Renaissance Italy it was particularly valued, deemed the most prized possession of Lorenzo de’ Medici, and serving as a source of inspiration during Italy’s revival of the classical era. Its influence can be seen in various paintings. Nicole Dacos (1989) notes that Raphael’s (1483-1520) teacher, Pietro Perugino (1446-1523), used the figure of Jupiter from the Farnese Cup for his figure of David on a painted tondo now at the Musee des Beaux-Arts of Nantes (Fig. 02). Though less apparent, the present author notes Raphael may have borrowed the same motif for Jupiter as depicted in his Council of the Gods fresco in the loggia of Agostino Chigi’s (1466-1520) Villa Farnesina in Rome. Also loosely suggested is Dacos’ observation that Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) seated portrayal of St. John in the Wilderness (Louvre) could be related.

002 tazza tondo 2
Fig. 02: David tondo, by Pietro Perugino (Musee des Beaux-Arts of Nantes, France)

The Etesian winds of the Farnese Cup are famously borrowed for Sandro Botticelli’s (1445-1510) masterpiece, The Birth of Venus (Fig. 03) while Raphael’s Expulsion of Attila and Piero di Cosimo’s (1462-1522) Myth of Prometheus likewise use the Etesian winds as models for characters in their paintings. Martha Dunkelman’s (2010) suggestion that Michelangelo (1475-1564) may have modeled the airborne and reclining God in his famous Creation of Adam for the Sistine Chapel after the Etesian winds is a remarkable possibility (Fig. 04). This idea is conceivable when considering his later large fresco of the Last Judgment in the same chapel borrows its composition from the reverse of a small bronze medal designed by his early instructor, Bertoldo di Giovanni (1420-91), informing of Michelangelo’s appreciation for small glyptics fostered under the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici.

Little scholarship has been given to the study of bronze casts of the Farnese Cup. In 1989 Dacos commented on their scarcity, noting only two examples.[1] Francesco Rossi (1989) commented on their fine quality, suggesting they could have been cast in Renaissance Florence. Doug Lewis (2001) later conducted a census counting six examples,[2] and even later (2008) proposed that Baron Boissel de Monville (Thomas Charles Gaston, 1763-1832) may have owned a cast,[3] suggesting it to be the example now at Yale University. Perceived from its obverse, the Yale cast features an attached suspension loop comparable to the type used by Monville. However, a recent visual inspection of its reverse has shown that the suspension loop of the Yale cast is not the precise type used by Monville for the display of his collection.[4]

002 tazza_boticelli_birth_of_venus__uffizi
Fig. 03: The Birth of Venus, by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1484-86 (Uffizi, Florence)

There are several opportunities in which casts of the Farnese Cup could have been made. Marina Belozerskaya (2012) cited the present cast,[5] suggesting it may have been made while the Scottish goldsmith, William Dugood (d. 1767), had access to it in Florence ca. 1722-23. Dugood had been commissioned by Dorothea Sophie of Neuburg (1670-1748) to assess the Farnese jewels and took thousands of casts of the Farnese collection, in wax, sulfur, plaster and lead. While bronze casts haven’t been identified, Dugood did make a sulfur cast of the Farnese Cup which is now located in the collections at Burton Castle Hall in the UK where it was acquired by William Constable in the mid-to-late 18th century. Belozerskaya suggests that 18th or 19th century bronze casts of the cup could have been made after this sulfur cast but this seems unlikely judging by the divergence in quality between the bronzes and the sulfur example.

There has been an early predilection among scholars to attribute an old production to the bronze casts of the Farnese Cup, chiefly on account of the proclivity for its past owners to render bronze copies of their prized gems, such as Pope Paul II and Lorenzo de’ Medici. It has also been suggested that casts may have occurred during the 16th century while the cup was owned by Margaret of Parma. The gem-engraver and plaquette producer, Giovanni Bernardi (1494-1553) visited Margaret to create a cameo of her likeness, providing the opportunity for him to have rendered a bronze cast of the Farnese Cup during his visit. The cameo was commissioned by Bernardi’s friend and patron, Alessandro Farnese (1520-89), who himself desired the cup for his own collection but was unable to wrest it from Margaret’s possession. A cast would have whetted his interest. However, there is no documentary evidence to support this theory as enticing as it may be.

002 tazza _ michelangelo
Fig. 04: The Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo, ca. 1508-12 (Sistine Chapel, Vatican City)

Another opportunity to cast the Farnese Cup could have occurred during Catherine the Great’s (1729-96) extensive commission for requested casts of the Farnese collection in 1780, executed by Bartolomeo Paoletti in Rome, though no documentation has verified Paoletti specifically made casts of the object. Lewis (2001), however, has commented on plaster casts of the Farnese Cup intended for collectors that were produced during this period, possibly accounting for the origin of the bronze casts.

The present author counts thirteen casts of the Farnese Cup with a possible fourteenth,[6] all of which are suggested here to be modern casts.[7] A tentative visual analysis suggests two independent productions are possibly responsible for the documented casts. The distinction is based on summarily reproduced flaws or minor characteristics that imply the casts could derive from two independent workshops or master molds. Although the categorization of the plaques into two types must remain conditional the author distinguishes them as a: Variant A (Florentine?): Yale (Inv. 1960.36), AD&A (Inv. 1964.484), and Victoria & Albert (Inv. A.18-1930) examples; and Variant B (Naples): Budapest (Inv. 5175), Amedeo Lia (Inv. Bp45), Lederer collection and the present example.

Suggestive of their modern origin is the earliest recorded provenance for the documented casts, identifiable with Sigmund Morgenroth’s example now at the AD&A Museum and acquired by him from the Florentine collector and specialist dealer of plaquettes: Guido Pini. In Ulrich Middeldorf’s (1944) catalog of Morgenroth’s collection, the plaquettes acquired by Morgenroth from Pini are suspect in regard to their quality, age or modified subjects. Graham Pollard (1989) elaborated on these suspicious casts[8] while Lewis noted via private communication (March, 2016) his detailed and unpublished revelations on further suspect plaquettes emanating from Pini’s shop. In light of these observations regarding Pini’s activity, whether personally involved in forgeries or simply a distributor of them, it’s possible the Variant A casts of the Farnese Cup are due to the activity of a Florentine foundry perhaps in possession of a late 18th century plaster mold from which to derive their casts. Stefano Bardini, also an active Florentine dealer, should also not be ruled out as a possible channel through which modern Florentine casts of the Farnese Cup could have been sold.[9]

Gigi Buttazzoni (Bigli Fine Art) (private communication, 2015) suggested the Chiurazzi foundry in Naples could be a possible source for the late 19th century manufacture of bronze casts of the Farnese Cup. With the kind assistance of Carol Mattusch, it was confirmed that bronze casts of the Farnese Cup were produced by the Chiurazzi foundry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The object is listed in their catalog, in-print until 1929 and identified as No. 417, available in two patinas: Herculaneum and Renaissance.

The Chiurazzi foundry began operating in the 1860’s and during the 1870’s was granted authorization to reproduce antiquities belonging to the Archeological Museum of Naples, a prestige nowadays prohibited. Many of their productions are unmarked and on occasion have been so convincingly reproduced as to be mistaken as original antiques. The high quality of casts belonging to Variant B identifies them as the product of the Chiurazzi foundry, executed ca. 1870s-1930s. Miriam Szocs at the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts, has communicated (email, 2016), that plans have been made to conduct XRF testing on the cast of the Farnese Cup in their museum. It should be interesting to observe if the results further confirm their modern facture.

Special thanks to Neil Goodman for his early feedback, Doug Lewis for his details regarding the Pini shop, Gigi Buttazzoni for his observations, Carol Mattusch for her kind resources regarding the Chiurazzi foundy, Miriam Szocs in Budapest, Danielle Thom and Gabriella Swaffield at the Victoria & Albert Museum for their help providing photos of the V&A cast of the Farnese Cup and Jane Miller for the photo of the reverse of the cast at Yale University.

003 Tazza Farnese 02


1. Dacos must refer to the Sigmund Morgenroth example now at the AD&A Museum and an example in the Lederer collection, both published before 1989.

2. See Lewis (2001) footnote 31.

3. Lewis suggested Lot 57 in Monville’s 1861 sale catalog described a cast of the Farnese Cup: “Fond de la coupe de Benvenuto Cellini.” However, this lot more likely refers to a very popular cast of Athena Introducing the Arts and Sciences, mistakenly considered a work by Cellini during the 19th century but more likely the work of an artist working in the manner of Hans Jakob Bayr, ca. 1600. For a discussion of this plaquette see Ingrid Weber (1975): Deutsche, Niderlandische und Franzosische Renaissanceplaketten. Bruckmann Munchen, Germany; No. 786, pp. 339-40, plate 218.

4. In light of this, Lewis, via private communication (February, 2016) commented, “I now incline to feel —as you do— that all the examples of the “Nile” may perhaps be Chiurazzi casts (or at least relatively modern ones).”

5. Belozerskaya references the present cast in Chapter 7, footnote 33; pp. 245-46.

6. AD&A (Inv. 1964.484); Amedeo Lia (Inv. Bp45); Budapest (Inv. 5175); Victoria & Albert (Inv. A.18-1930); Yale (Inv. 1960.36); private collection (Dorotheum auction, 7-9 May 1923, No. 224); private collection (Bonhams auction, 2 Nov 2011, No. 98); private collection (Cambi d’Aste auction, 18 Nov 2014, No. 208); private collection (Meeting Art SPA, Vercelli auction 7 Nov 2015, Lot 475); ex- Smolderen collection (Künker auction, 9 Sep 2016, Part Lot 4849); private collection (Pierre Bergé & Associés auction, 1 Jun 2017, Lot 27); an example on consignment with Altomani & Sons in 2017 and the present cast. Lewis (2001) cites an art market example in Milan (1998) which is either a thirteenth example or possibly the example sold through Cambi in 2014 or offered by Altomani & Sons. Avery (1998) cites a bronze cast of the Farnese Cup at the Museo di Palazzo Venezia because Pietro Cannata’s plaquette catalog of the Palazzo Venezia collection features three pages of figures depicting “after the antique” plaquettes in its introduction (Cannata, 1982; pp. 14-16), one of which is a bronze cast of the Farnese Cup (Fig. 6M; p. 15). While Cannata features an appendix regarding these featured plaquettes (pp. 26-27) he does not cite their source. However, the images reproduce cropped plates from Ernst Bange’s 1922 catalog of the Staatliche Museen Berlin collection of plaquettes with the exception of the photograph reproducing the cast of the Farnese Cup which Lewis has clarified is the Lederer collection example.

7. Most recently, examples at the Victoria & Albert and Amedeo Lia Museums have been published as 19th century casts while Lewis (2001) updated the Morgenroth cast to a 19th century dating.

8. See Pollard (1989) footnote 15.

9. Lynn Catterson (Columbia University) has been a chief proponent in analyzing Bardini’s involvement in the sale of forgeries. Quantities of plaquettes sold through Bardini are certainly suspect and given the size and diversity of his collection he had a reasonable knowledge of the subject.


Marina Belozerskaya (2012): Medusa’s Gaze: The Extraordinary Journey of the Tazza Farnese. Oxford University Press.

Riccardo Gennaioli (2012): Gems of the Medici. Contemporanea Progetti; p. 14

Martha Dunkelman (2010): From Microcosm to Macrocosm: Michelangelo and Ancient Gems. Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 73. Bd., H. 3; pp. 363-74

Douglas Lewis (2008): Collectors of Renaissance Reliefs: Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) and Baron Boissel de Monville (1763-1832). Collecting Sculpture in Early Modern Europe, Studies in the History of Art 70, Symposium Papers XLVII. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; pp. 128-43

Laurie Fusco and Gino Corti (2006): Lorenzo de’Medici, Collector of Antiquities: Collector and Antiquarian. Cambridge University Press; pp. 248-49

Carol Mattusch (2005): The Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum: Life and Afterlife of a Sculpture Collection. Getty Museum Publications; p. 351

Douglas Lewis (2001): Rehabilitating a Fallen Athlete: Evidence for a Date of 1453/1454 in the Veneto for the Bust of a Platonic Youth by Donatello. Studies in the History of Art, No. 62; Symposium Papers XXXIX. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; pp. 33-53

Charles Avery (1998, Amedeo Lia), No. 206, p. 285

Carol Mattusch (1996): Classical Bronzes: The Art and Craft of Greek and Roman Statuary. Cornell University Press; pp. 110-17

Nicole Dacos (1989): Le rôle des plaquettes dans la diffusion des gemmes antiques: Le cas de la collection Médicis. Vol. 22, Studies in the History of Art. Italian Plaquettes. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; pp. 71-91

J. Graham Pollard (1989): The Plaquette Collections in the British Museum. Vol. 22, Studies in the History of Art. Italian Plaquettes. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; pp. 227-33

Francesco Rossi (1989): Le Gemme Antiche e le Origini della Placchetta. Vol. 22, Studies in the History of Art. Italian Plaquettes. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; pp. 55-69

Charles Avery (1985, Lederer Collection), No. 44, pp. 94-95

Ulrich Middeldorf (1944, AD&A Museum), No. 291, p. 41

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s