In the Archaeological Museum in Naples, in a small side room in which a collection of ancient gems is exhibited, there is probably one of the most unusual exhibits – the so-called Tazza Farnese – a stone plate with a diameter of about 20 cm. Whenever I look into Naples and stand before this masterpiece, I can’t get over the artistry of former craftsmen. But beyond beauty, there is something else about it: an amazing story that would be a good script for a fascinating movie.
But one by one: the plate was made in Egypt no later than in the first century BCE, probably at the end of the Ptolemaic reign. It was made of layered, translucent stone – onyx, so that the individual layers formed an image whose meaning is not entirely clear today. There are many interpretations. The old man on the left with the “cornucopia” is interpreted as the god of the underworld Hades or his Egyptian equivalent – Osiris. The young man inside is sometimes identified as Horus. The woman below him is probably the goddess Isis (which may be indicated by the characteristic knot of a robe on her chest), women on the right – probably an allegory of sown fields or seasons, and at the top – male figures symbolize successful winds. The group is complemented by the Sphinx at the bottom (only it’s head can be clearly seen because the entire torso is carved in stone of a darker colour). One hypothesis says that a half-reclining female figure can portray the image of Cleopatra VII – the last queen of Egypt. On the bottom of the plate, you will find the image of a Medusa gorgon with snake hair.
The details are hard to see – many details can only be seen against the light. Others on the contrary – viewed against the light cease to be visible.
Although there are many interpretations, no doubt the images on the plate in some way express the happiness and prosperity prevailing in Egypt under the rule of the Ptolemy.
This item was not part of the furnishings of an ordinary Egyptian house. He wasn’t even the property of some aristocrat or other rich man. The highest quality of its performance leaves no doubt that it had to be owned by the kings of Egypt, its further fate indicates that it probably belonged to the famous Cleopatra. Who knows? Maybe she was holding him in her hands?
When I read about the fate of this subject, it occurred to me with the beautiful film “The Red Violin” (1998), the hero of which is the title musical instrument – passing hands through generations, and for centuries changing owners. With an unusual onyx saucer, it was similar – along with the entire treasury of Cleopatra, it fell into the hands of the Romans after the annexation of Egypt by Octavian. One can venture to say that he was probably, along with other spoils of war, transported through the streets of Rome in a triumphal procession, which Octavian celebrated by defeating Antony and Cleopatra. And from that time it became part of the Roman imperial treasury. One can only beg, how many hands of known Romans had to go through: Caligula? Nero? Hadrian? Trajan? Marcus Aurelius? Commodus? It is known that later the plate was in Constantinople and was there until the crusaders plundered this city. I have no further data on this subject, but I suppose that this item was so valuable that it remained uninterruptedly owned by Roman emperors, then Byzantines.
In the 13th century, after the sacking of Constantinople, traders came into possession of the plate and sold it to the court of the Duke of Swabia. Two centuries later he found himself at the Persian court, and later at the court of the King of Naples. Along the way, for some time also “visited” Venice. Finally, it became the property of the Farnese family, whose magnificent collection of antique works of art now forms the basis of the exhibition of the Archaeological Museum of Naples.
Ironically, this magnificent object survived two millennia, survived the fall of Egypt, Rome and Constantinople. It survived antiquity and the Middle Ages. Half the world travelled in all directions without any damage. Unfortunately, during the interwar period, he was unlucky – a madman smashed a museum display case, and with it a plate. Today, an attentive eye will see the places where individual pieces have been glued.