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

Marina Belozerskaya. Oxford Univ., $24.95 (296p) ISBN 978-0-19-973931-8
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.)
Reviewed on: 07/30/2012
Release date: 10/01/2012
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