Monday, June 10, 2013


Marina Belozerskaya, Medusa's Gaze: The Extraordinary Journey of the Tazza Farnese. Emblems of antiquity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xvii, 292. ISBN 9780199739318. $24.95.

Reviewed by Robert Steven Bianchi, La Fondation Gandur pour l'Art/Genève (

Version at BMCR home site


The Tazza Farnese, one of the largest, figural banded agate vessels known, has only recently been reinstalled in the galleries dedicated to the antiquities of the Farnese collection within the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. This book is a popular presentation of the history of this cup (but the statement on the dust jacket notwithstanding, this is not "the first book-length account of this renowned masterpiece").1

Belozerskaya's history of the tazza can be divided into two chronological periods, before and after its acquisition in the 1450s by King Alfonso of Aragon. The modern history is filled with rich detail. One is reminded of the use of the tazza's interior scene as a source of inspiration for Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. Its retention by the Farnese family and the reasons by which it entered the collections in Naples are well-documented. Its removal and secretion in September 1943 to insure its safety must be considered within the context of similar precautions undertaken in Hannover and elsewhere during those troubled times. Like other great works of art, it was the target of a theft in 1903 and the object on which one sought to exact revenge in 1925. The recounting of these and other episodes are fascinating in the extreme and make for interesting reading, resonating as they do with concerns still faced by museums today.2

This rich, modern history of the tazza may have been a motivating reason for Belozerskaya to attempt to suggest an equally compelling history of its pre-1450s past, but this attempt appears to be less satisfying, couched as it is in uncertainty. As an antiquity without a provenance, any reconstruction of the tazza's origins must remain speculative. Relying on its perceived accomplished execution and complexity of its iconographic program, Belozerskaya suggests that the tazza was created in Alexandria in a royal atelier associated with Cleopatra VII.

Such a suggestion is in keeping with a persistent trend in scholarship which regards Alexandria as an extraordinary artistic center of the Hellenistic period3 despite repeated challenges to such a position.4 Where and when the tazza was created must remain an open question.

The transfer of ownership of the tazza into the hands of Frederick II Hohenstaufen is based primarily on the identification of a vessel in an inventory described as unam magnum scutellam de Onichio. Here Belozerskaya translates onichio, as "onyx" (page 70) not as "agate," and is content to leave it at that. In an effort to link the tazza with the Byzantine court, Belozerskaya suggests that it was modified by the addition of a metal foot (page 63), ostensibly secured by the drilling of a single hole, which transformed this shallow plate into a chalice. This putative transformation would have had to be reversible if the tazza was to have served as the model for the ink drawing of its interior by Mohammed al-Khayyam, traditionally dated to the early 15th century AD. The treatment of the physiognomies of the figures and the style of their coiffures in that drawing conform to Mogul artistic tenets,5 which securely place it in time, but provide no hard evidence of its ownership.

In all fairness, however, one must stress that Belozerskaya presents the pre-1450s history of the tazza as speculation, not as fact. Her prose style is felicitous: the book is an easy read, unencumbered by the notes and bibliography which are relegated to the back. The single major flaw of the volume, in my view, is the absolutely lamentable lack of high resolution illustrations. None of the details of the Tazza Farnese and of its seductive qualities about which Belozerskaya waxes so eloquently (pages 5-6) are anywhere to be seen and appreciated in any of the accompanying illustrations.


1.   Eugenio La Rocca, L'Età d'oro di Cleopatra. Indagine Sulla Tazza Farnese. Roma: "L'Erma" di Bretschneider, 1984.
2.   As the cold case file about the theft of paintings from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum so poignantly reveals.
3.   Inter alia, Achille Adriani, Lezioni sull'arte alessandrina. Naples. Libreria Scientifica Editrice: 1972.
4.  To date, although there is yet to appear a single monograph addressing all of these challenges, there are any number of individual journal articles questioning the attribution of specific typologies of art to Alexandrian ateliers: M. Bailey, "Alexandria, Carthage and Ostia (not to mention Naples)," in Nicola Bonacasa and Antonino Di Vita (eds.). Alessandria e il mondo ellenistico-romano. Studi in onore di Achille Adriani. Rome; "L'Erma" di Bretschneider: 1984, 265-272; and Klaus Parlasca, "Alexandrinische Aschenuren," Chronique d'Égypte LXXXV (2010), 278- 294. The challenges even extend to perceptions about just how Alexandrian was the dialect of the Greek spoken in the city, for which see the review by Georges Nachtergael in Chronique d'Égypte LXXXV (2010), 357-8 of Jean-Luc Fournet, Alexandrie: use communauté linguistique? Ou la question du grec alexandrine. Cairo; Institut français d'Archéologie orientale: 2009.
5.  Berlin, Staatsbibliothek Nr. Diez A fol. 72: Günther Grimm, Alexandria. Die erste Königsstadt der hellenistischen Welt (Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1988), 117, figure 114a, 118, and 121.

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