Medusa's Gaze: The Extraordinary Journey of the Tazza Farnese
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Medusa's Gaze: The Extraordinary Journey of the Tazza Farnese

by Marina Belozerskaya
     
 

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The Tazza Farnese is one of the most admired objects from classical antiquity. A libation bowl carved from banded agate, it features Medusa's head on its outside and, inside, an assembly of Egyptian gods. For more than two millennia, these radiant figures have mesmerized emperors and artists, popes and thieves, merchants and museum goers. In this, the first

Overview

The Tazza Farnese is one of the most admired objects from classical antiquity. A libation bowl carved from banded agate, it features Medusa's head on its outside and, inside, an assembly of Egyptian gods. For more than two millennia, these radiant figures have mesmerized emperors and artists, popes and thieves, merchants and museum goers. In this, the first book-length account of this renowned masterpiece, Marina Belozerskaya traces its fascinating journey through history. That it has survived at all is a miracle. The Tazza's origins date back to Ptolemaic Egypt where it likely enhanced the power and prestige of Cleopatra. After her defeat by Emperor Augustus, the bowl began an amazing itinerary along many flashpoints in world history. It likely traveled from Rome to Constantinople. After that city's sack by crusaders in 1204, it returned west to inspire the classical revival at the court of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II at Palermo. The Tazza next graced Tamerlane's court at Samarqand, before becoming an obsession of Renaissance popes and princes. It witnessed the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the turbulent aftermath of the French Revolution, and the birth of the modern Italian state. Throughout its journey, the Tazza aroused the lust of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Mongol rulers, consoled a heart-broken duchess, inspired artists including Botticelli and Raphael, tempted spies and thieves, and drew the ire of a deranged museum guard who nearly destroyed it. More than a biography of the world's most cherished bowl, Medusa's Gaze is a vivid and delightful voyage through history.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Renaissance art historian Belozerskaya (To Wake the Dead: A Renaissance Merchant and the Birth of Archaeology) offers the fanciful biography of one object, a “sardonyx cameo bowl” nicknamed the Tazza, which was carved, possibly in Alexandria, in the first century B.C. This imaginative narrative is an epic romp through history using the Tazza as connective tissue between empires and collectors over a 2,000-year span. Belozerskaya weaves threads of history into a wide net of possibility cast over Cleopatra, Charlemagne, the Mongol leader Timur, and Lorenzo di Medici, among others, until the object was nearly destroyed by an angry museum guard in the early 20th century. More of a cultural history than an art historical analysis (and more fun to read), the book demonstrates the Christianization of Europe and the West through the reinterpretation of the Tazza’s iconography. The classical pagan deities that decorate the bowl lost their efficacy amid the rise of Christianity, making the object “just another beautiful artifact” that was perhaps reused as a Eucharistic chalice. Although the work cites both ancient texts and modern research throughout, it is admittedly speculative in parts, and may be more appropriate for general readers than scholars. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"This is an exciting book. It is well written, literally hard to put down, with good illustrations and solid notes and bibliography. In many places it is a work of speculation rather than fact, but such is the nature of the Tazza itself, and anyone who reads the book and then sees the object, or has seen it, will never look at it in the same way again."—Duane W. Roller, Classical Journal

"Marina Belozerskaya has made a well-researched and welcome contribution to Tazza scholarship. With much direct evidence missing, she has still connected the dots of this artifact's remarkable journey." —Amy Henderson, The Weekly Standard

"This imaginative narrative is an epic romp through history using the Tazza as connective tissue between empires and collectors over a 2,000-year span...More of a cultural history than an art historical analysis (and more fun to read), the book demonstrates the Christianization of Europe and the West through the reinterpretation of the Tazza's iconography." —Publishers Weekly

"Of all the pitfalls to collecting, however, surely none is more treacherous than the sheer changeability of taste, since what is adored by one generation may well be discounted by the next. That is a point that Marina Belozerskaya decisively proves in Medusa's Gaze: The Extraordinary Journey of the Tazza Farnese, which purports to be about an 8-inch-wide agate bowl carved with mysterious figures..." —Dan Hofstadter, The Wall Street Journal

"Thoroughly researched and well documented, written, and illustrated, this book is an engaging read."—Library Journal

"The Tazza Farnese is one of the most extraordinary—and beautiful—art objects to have survived from the classical world. Medusa's Gaze tells its intriguing and dramatic story from the first century BC to the twentieth AD. A gripping and very surprising book."—Mary Beard, Cambridge University

"With a good sense for both the scholarly and the sensational the author takes us through the history of the West's obsession with precious stones and gems, using as a key the probable history of one of the finest examples, from the days of Cleopatra to destruction at the hands of a museum attendant in 1925."—Sir John Boardman, Oxford University

"[A]n excellent choice for inspiring nonprofessionals to become excited by the cultural history of ancient objects." —American Journal of Archaeology

Library Journal
Called the largest existing cameo in the world by its owner, the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy, the 22-centimeter Tazza Farnese may have taken master carvers more than two years to complete. According to Belozerskaya (To Wake the Dead: A Renaissance Merchant and the Birth of Archaeology), the cameo cup, quite possibly owned by Cleopatra, shows, in its interior, the goddess Isis, whose domain was life and rebirth and with whom Cleopatra associated herself. In addition, the scene inside the cup may depict the annual life-giving flooding of the Nile River Valley. Belozerskaya traces as much of the piece's documented history as possible, from Cleopatra to Constantine, from Constantinople to Rome, and from conquerors to connoisseurs, collectors, and the cognoscenti. This is history told through the journey of a precious cup, by a serious researcher. VERDICT Thoroughly researched and well documented, written, and illustrated, this book is an engaging read. It includes one map and endnotes. Appropriate for lovers of art, history, and culture, from undergraduates to scholars.—Nancy J. Mactague, Aurora Univ., IL

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780199910823
Publisher:
Oxford University Press
Publication date:
09/04/2012
Series:
Emblems of Antiquity
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
File size:
4 MB

Meet the Author

Marina Belozerskaya is a cultural historian whose previous books include To Wake the Dead, The Medici Giraffe, The Arts of Tuscany, Luxury Arts of the Renaissance, and Rethinking the Renaissance: Burgundian Arts Across Europe.

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