The Farnese Cup

The Farnese Cup, or Tazza Farnese, is made of sardonyx agate and dates back to the late 2nd century BC. Many believe this Hellenistic glyptic was created in Alexandria, Egypt, although its origin history is not known. 

The Farnese cup is considered to be the largest hard stone vase from the ancient world, measuring 20 cm in diameter. It is a rare artifact in that it is not an archeological find like most objects of its age. It has been passed down from hand to hand throughout the centuries. Mostly passing through the hands of kings and queens, as it was a coveted piece of beauty and wealth.

The attraction that strikes the visitor to the National Museum of Naples enchanted in the admiration of the magnificent cup, has its own explanation that can be said to be historical, for the direct transmission from the ancient to the present day that keeps vivid and inescapable the deep sense of human experience. Even without knowing the fascinating and complex history of its vicissitudes, the Cup continues to shine with that light that illuminated the courts of princes, kings, emirs, cardinals, popes and emperors without ever being buried, but passed from hand to hand as an extraordinary object of royal ownership.

Matilda De Angelis d’Ossat

The Farnese Cup

At the time of his death in 1492, Lorenzo the Magnificent was in possession of the cup. It was during the time in his hands that the hole in the middle was made. It was likely added to attach a foot to the cup.

The inner side of the cup has eight figures carved on a layer of ivory. There have been various interpretations of the figures, the most accepted being an allegory of the Nile floods and creation.

The Farnese Cup
Dwyer, E.J. (1992). The Temporal Allegory of the Tazza Farnese. American Journal of Archaeology, 96, 255 – 282.
Image credit American Journal of Archaeology, 96, 1992.

While the inner side is a mixture of influences from ancient Greek and Egypt, the outer side has a more Romanesque feel to it. The head of a gorgon is meticulously carved into the yellowish-black sardonyx agate, thought by some to ward off evil.

There have been numerous reproductions of the cup, since it has been around for centuries. From drawings to sulphur and paper-mache, it was revered as a “relic of ancient magnificence”. 

Over the years, the Farnese cup was known to be in the possession of the following people throughout his-story: Frederick II from southern Italy, Herat or Samarkand in Persia, Alfonso V of Aragon, Cardinal Ludovico Trevisan, Pope Paul II, Lorenzo the Magnificent (who acquired the cup in 1471 and considered it to be the most rare and important object in his collection), Alessandro de’ Medici, Margaret of Austria, Octavio Farnese. 

The strangest drawing is a copy of the “Tazza Farnese”, as demonstrated by Blanck. Kühnel noted, that the sketch has the signature of a Muslim artist Muhammad b. Mahmūd Šāh al-Hayyām, who left several copies of Chinese and timurid (?) pictures and calligraphies, one dated to 1409, giving a chance to date him into the middle timurid period.

Brentjes, B. (1996). The “Tazza Farnese” and its way to Harāt and Naples. Oriente Moderno15 (76)(2), 321–324. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25817419

In 1537, the cup fell into the possession of 15 yr old widow, Margaret of Austria, when her husband at the time, Alessandro de’ Medici, was murdered by her cousin. It was from Margaret’s dowry that the cup came into the Farnese collection when she married Octavio Farnese a year later. And this is when it adopted the name that it is now know as, the Farnese Cup.

This Hellenistic work of art currently resides in the National Archeological Museum of Naples, Italy.

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