Writing in her 12th-century book Records on Metal and Stone, the Chinese poet Li Ch’ing-Chao reflected, ‘Where there is possession, there must be loss of possession; where there is gathering together, there must be a scattering – this is a constant principle of things.’ It is a wonderfully fitting conclusion to Marina Belozerskaya’s delightful little book on the history of the Tazza Farnese, and it could also act as an epigraph to every book written about objects over the last two decades. Just as any good biography requires an arresting individual who has lived an interesting and varied life, so any book tracing the vicissitudes of an object through time and space needs an eventful narrative of discovery and loss, rediscovery, jeopardy and ultimate triumph. While most historians have chosen either a generic object or substance (such as the tulip or salt, to take but two recent examples) or an artwork to be investigated along the lines of the ‘private life of a masterpiece’, Belozerskaya has cleverly chosen something that stands between the two and that offers a rich social panorama across the centuries.
The so-called Tazza Farnese is a banded agate bowl, just 22cm in diameter, carved at some time in the first century BC, probably in Alexandria. It shows Medusa’s head on its outside; on the inside a group of Egyptian deities, including Isis, presents an allegory of the wealth and fertility