CJ Online Review | Belozerskaya, Medusa’s Gaze

Posted with permission:

Medusa’s Gaze: The Extraordinary Journey of the Tazza Farnese. Emblems of Antiquity. By Marina Belozerskaya. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xvii + 292. $24.95/£14.99. ISBN 978-0-19-973931-8.

Reviewed by Duane W. Roller, The Ohio State University

The Tazza Farnese is a sardonyx cameo made from a geode, 21.7 cm. in diameter, carved into the form of a shallow bowl. On the inside are representations of Isis, her son Horus, and a personification of the Nile: the entire scene is open to various interpretations but seems to relate to the abundance of the river. On the outside is the head of Medusa. Of exceptionally high artistic quality, it belongs in the flourishing Hellenistic/Roman tradition of carved stones, and is the largest of its genre to survive. It seems to have originated in the Ptolemaic court, and since the eighteenth century (with some exceptions due to warfare) has resided in the Naples archaeological museum. It acquired its modern name when in the possession of the Farnese family.

This intriguing book is, interestingly, not really about the Tazza Farnese. Rather it is a fascinating account of how one piece of ancient art survived the vicissitudes of over 2000 years to be visible in a museum today. Information about the Tazza itself, at least before the Renaissance, is exceedingly sparse and speculative. Although it can confidently be said that it was carved in late Hellenistic times, the piece is not documented until a drawing was made at the beginning of the fifteenth century by a calligrapher at the court of the Mongol leader Timur (or Tamurlane), perhaps in Samarkand (99). Samarkand is a long way from Alexandria, and how the Tazza got there is the focus of the first half of the book.

Belozerskaya’s account of this extraordinary journey is almost totally speculative, but somehow that does not matter, as she has presented a rich and thoroughly absorbing account of plausibilities, with solid attention to the environment of the art collecting world. Since there is no documentation of the piece before the fifteenth century, when and how it left the Ptolemaic court is its first mystery. Belozerskaya may certainly be excused for fixating on the most famous Ptolemy, Kleopatra VII, but the only hint that the Tazza may have belonged to her is its subject matter, as Isis was the queen’s alter ego. It may have been among the spoils that Octavian brought to Rome after her death, but there are other possibilites that Belozerskaya outlines (and some that she does not): it may have already been in Rome (Kleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, had many debts to prominent Romans), or even remained in Alexandria when the Romans took over, eventually to move to Constantinople. The possible locations of the bowl after the end of the Ptolemies are so tangled that it is difficult for Belozerskaya to choose, but this does not diminish the quality of her narrative. Whether or not the cameo belonged to Kleopatra VII, Belozerskaya later places it in Constantinople, eventually in the hands of the noted collector Constantine VII in the tenth century. Then she identifies it as the “large dish of onyx” owned by the emperor Frederick II in the thirteenth century. One can see that the spottings of the Tazza are infrequent, but Belozerskaya has filled out her narrative by absorbing vignettes of the world in which the object necessarily moved. There is a tendency to turn speculation into fact (see p. 80)—although to be sure healthy and astute speculation is a necessary part of good scholarship—but what is most interesting is the picture that Belozerskaya has presented of the world of art collectors in late antiquity and medieval times, supplemented with a good account of the Christianizing of ancient art, a strange world view that nonetheless insured its survival. One can sometimes lose sight of the Tazza itself, for its environment is so well described, with solid character studies of the personalities who probably saw or acquired it.

But it is in the early fifteenth century that the object emerged from obscurity, only to create another mystery: how did it end up at the Timurid court? This is perhaps the most remarkable event in its history, since it was now incredibly far from the locale of its origins (although Timur went as far west as Damascus and Aleppo). Belozerskaya describes well the world of the Timurid court and its interest in art, and offers—again—several different ways in which the piece could have made this latest extraordinary journey. But then it was back in Europe, perhaps the “dish of carved chalcedony” owned by Lorenzo di Medici in 1471 (p. 143). From this time—although sightings remain rare—the history of the Tazza is more linear, moving into the Farnese family and eventually to the Naples museum.

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.

Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews

I think I missed a week:

  • 2013.04.55:  Edward McCrorie, Homer. The Iliad. Johns Hopkins new translations from antiquity.
  • 2013.04.56:  Nadia Scippacercola, Il lato oscuro del Romanzo Greco. Supplementi di Lexis, 62.
  • 2013.04.57:  Therese Fuhrer, Almut-Barbara Renger, Performanz von Wissen: Strategien der Wissensvermittlung in der Vormoderne. Bibliothek der klassischen Altertumswissenschaften, nF, 134.bmcr2
  • 2013.04.58:  Stefano Maso, Carlo Natali, Gerhard Seel, Reading Aristotle’s Physics VII.3: “what is alteration?” Proceedings of the European Society for Ancient Philosophy conference organized by the HYELE Institute for Comparative Studies, Vitznau, Switzerland, 12/15 April 2007.
  • 2013.04.59:  Liz James, Constantine of Rhodes, On Constantinople and the Church of the Holy Apostles. With a new edition of the Greek text by Ioannes Vassis.
    2013.04.60:  Evina Sistakou, The Aesthetics of Darkness: A Study of Hellenistic Romanticism in Apollonius, Lycophron and Nicander. Hellenistica Groningana 17.
  • 2013.04.61:  Umberto Roberto, Le ‘Chronographiae’ di Sesto Giulio Africano: storiografia, politica e cristianesimo nell’età dei Severi. Collana dell’Ambito di Storia dell’Università Europea di Roma
  • 2013.04.62:  Costis Davaras, Philip P. Betancourt, Hagia Photia Cemetery II: The Pottery. Prehistory monographs, 34.
  • 2013.05.02:  Martti Leiwo, Hilla Halla-aho, Marja Vierros, Variation and Change in Greek and Latin. Papers and monographs of the Finnish Institute at Athens, 17.
  • 2013.05.03:  Andrew Crislip, Thorns in the Flesh: Illness and Sanctity in Late Ancient Christianity. Divinations: rereading late ancient religion.
  • 2013.05.04:  M. G. L. Cooley, Tiberius to Nero. Lactor, 19.
  • 2013.05.05:  Joseph E. Skinner, The Invention of Greek Ethnography: From Homer to Herodotus. Greeks overseas.
  • 2013.05.06:  Sarah J. Butler, Britain and Its Empire in the Shadow of Rome: The Reception of Rome in Socio-Political Debate from the 1850s to the 1920s.
  • 2013.05.07:  Florence Yoon, The Use of Anonymous Characters in Greek Tragedy: The Shaping of Heroes. Mnemosyne Supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin Language and Literature, 344.
  • 2013.05.08:  Thomas M. Brogan, Erik Hallager, LM IB Pottery: Relative Chronology and Regional Differences. Acts of a workshop held at the Danish Institute at Athens in collaboration with the INSTAP Study Center for East Crete, 27-29 June 2007. (2 vols.). Monographs of the Danish Institute at Athens, 11.1-2.
  • 2013.05.09:  Andrea Cucchiarelli, Alfonso Traina, Publio Virgilio Marone. Le Bucoliche. Lingue e letterature Carocci, 141.
  • 2013.05.10:  Vladimir F. Stolba, Eugeny Rogov, Panskoye I, Volume 2: The Necropolis. Archaeological investigations in Western Crimea
  • 2013.05.11:  William E. Metcalf, The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage
  • 2013.05.12:  Giovanna Tedeschi Grisanti, Heikki Solin, “Dis Manibus, pili, epitaffi et altre cose antiche” di Giovannantonio Dosio: il codice N.A. 618 della Biblioteca Nazionale di Firenze.
  • 2013.05.13:  Christine Walde, Lucans Bellum Civile. Studien zum Spektrum seiner Rezeption von der Antike bis ins 19. Jahrhundert. Bochumer Altertumswissenschaftliches Colloquium, 78.
  • 2013.05.14:  Lesley A. Beaumont, Childhood in Ancient Athens: Iconography and Social History. Routledge monographs in classical studies.
  • 2013.05.15:  Ralph J. Hexter, David Townsend, The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Latin Literature. Oxford Handbooks.

Caesar in Germania … the Evidence Mounts

Back in September, we were pondering some new evidence that Caesar’s troops may have been in Germany (Evidence of Caesar’s Troops … In Germany?) and it never did seem to make it to the English press. Now, however, a blog put out by the publishers of Ancient Warfare Magazine put out a nice summary (with appropriate links) of our long-time webfriend Jona Lendering’s investigations into same … definitely worth a look (and do follow the links to Jona’s blog):

Moles Working Epiacum’s Roman Fort?

From the BBC:

Epiacum is a site full of buried treasure, which no-one can reach – no-one human at least.

Near Alston in Cumbria, close to the Northumberland border, where now there are fields, there was once a thriving Roman fort.

Unfortunately for archaeologists, they cannot access any of the historic artefacts beneath the ground – because the site is a scheduled ancient monument.

Moles, however, pay no heed to the land’s protected status.

The velvety creatures have not only been digging up the earth, but doing their bit for archaeology by inadvertently pushing ancient objects to the surface.

Paul Frodsham, an archaeologist with the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), runs a project called Altogether Archaeology, which has signed up 500 volunteers to take part in digs under professional supervision.

Fifty of those have taken part in an effort to sift through the molehills at Epiacum and keep a record of what the animals dig up and where.

“I realise it sounds a bit ridiculous, but it’s actually quite serious,” Mr Frodsham said.

“We look at all the finds and we work out what’s going on in different parts off the fort and different kinds of pottery tell us what dates different buildings are.”

He stressed the work must be done with the permission of English Heritage.

As well as fragments of pottery and glass, the moles have dragged up some attractive and intact artefacts.

A molehill recently pushed up a piece of Samian ware – a type of brown pottery common on Roman sites – thought to be a stand for a vase or bowl, or possibly an egg cup.

Last year they discovered a jet bead and a decorative bronze dolphin.

Elaine Edgar, who with her husband owns a farm on the land, is trying to promote the site as a tourist attraction as part of an 18-month project, funded by a £49,000 lottery grant.

Mrs Edgar said she had run a series of events as part of the project, which had attracted higher than expected numbers and she had received “fantastic support”.

But she expressed mixed feelings about the subterranean creatures that were playing their own part.

“Moles are the bane of landowners’ lives,” she said.
Volunteers sifting through molehills Volunteers have been sifting through molehills to locate hidden artefacts

“They’re up there all the time digging away on the land and my husband generally wants to get rid of them.”

For the time being though, they are serving an important purpose.

“I’d like them to uncover as much as they can for the foreseeable future, until we can hopefully do an organised dig somewhere on the fort,” Mrs Edgar said.

“We’re looking towards our bigger vision, which is to establish a fully-fledged visitor centre on the farm.”

The fort dates back to about the 2nd Century AD, when it is thought the Romans wanted to control lead and silver mining in the north of England.

The Romans maintained a military presence there until the 4th Century, when they seem to have abandoned the fort.

A recent English Heritage survey also revealed there was an extensive civilian settlement, or vicus, beyond the ramparts.

There have only been two recorded digs of Epiacum, in about 1810 and 1957, covering small areas of the 100-sq-m site.

Despite such limited excavation, the foundations of the Roman buildings are still visible.

There are four rings of earthwork defences, which Mr Frodsham described as “spectacular”.

“From that point of view, it’s one of the best-preserved forts anywhere in the empire,” he said.

But, it seems, only the moles know the true extent of its treasures.

Just for the record, the BBC was kind of slow to pick this story up … the Journal had it three or four weeks ago (Moles at Epiacum). I only bring it up again because it seems kind of strange how the moles are being ‘credited’ in this (and the Journal) piece while years ago, badgers were just messing things up, but doing the same basic thing (links in the Journal piece). I guess archaeologists find moles a bit more cuddly or something …

d.m. Geza Vermes

From the Telegraph:

Professor Geza Vermes, who has died aged 88, was from 1965 to 1991 first Reader, then Professor, of Jewish Studies at Oxford and the foremost world authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls — early manuscripts of some Old Testament scriptures, the first of which were discovered accidentally in 1947 by a young Arab shepherd in a cave near the Dead Sea.

Vermes led a long and sometimes bitter battle with the Israeli archaeological authorities to secure publication of all the manuscripts and fragments, copies of which were eventually lodged in the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies in 1992. His own The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, first published in 1962, had four editions, the latest in 1997, and sold 300,000 copies. He was the first to identify the Scrolls as belonging to the middle of the 2nd century BC.

That Vermes was able to achieve anything in this area and in other important fields of Jewish history and religion owed everything to the fact that during the darkest days of the Second World War he was, in his native Hungary, a Roman Catholic priest and, although of Jewish family background, just managed to escape deportation to a German death camp. Both his parents, who had converted to Catholicism in the 1930s, were less fortunate: he never saw them again after their arrest in 1944.

Vermes remained a priest until 1957, when marriage required his resignation and, having also renounced Catholicism, he returned to his roots and became a non-practising Jew. Eventually, however, he became a member of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London and a member of the academic committee of Leo Baeck College, though he declared himself to be uninterested in “organised religion of any description”.

Geza Vermes was born at Mako, southern Hungary, on June 22 1924. When he was four the family moved to Gyula, where his father was the owner and editor of the town’s weekly newspaper until it was closed down by anti-Jewish laws in 1938. Geza was sent to a Roman Catholic school where in 1942 he obtained top marks in every subject and qualified easily for university entry. He decided, however, that because of his Jewish origins he would never secure a university place, so he opted instead for the Catholic priesthood.

He was in the second year of a theological seminary when the Germans invaded Hungary and rounded up all Jews and those of Jewish origin.

Although not yet ordained, he was carrying out the functions of a deacon under the certification of the local bishop, enabling him to escape arrest. The remainder of the war was spent in hiding, protected by the Salesian and Dominican Orders in Budapest.

Although refused admission to the Dominican Order because of his Jewish background, Vermes was accepted by the Fathers of Sion — a community dedicated to prayer for the Jews. By this time he had recognised his calling to be a scholar and was at the community’s house in Louvain, Belgium, from 1946 to 1952 before moving to its central house in Paris, where he remained until 1957.

Having decided to specialise in Old Testament studies, he became particularly interested in the discovery of what became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and from 1950 he began translating and interpreting the new texts. He took a doctorate, with the highest honours, in their historic framework at the Institut Orientaliste in Louvain. The doctorate was published as Manuscripts from the Judaean Desert (1953).

Following his move to Paris, Vermes became assistant editor of Cahiers — a journal devoted to the furthering of Catholic-Jewish relations — and began campaigning for an end to anti-Semitism in the Church. This was influential in the reconciling statements of Vatican II. Although still a young priest, he was becoming widely recognised as a scholar of distinction, and it was after attending an international conference in Oxford in 1954 that he went to stay with a friend at Ottery St Mary in Devon.

There he made the acquaintance of an Exeter University professor and his wife Pam . Vermes and Pam fell in love, and her marriage broke down soon afterwards. After much soul-searching, she and Vermes married in 1958 — a union that brought great happiness and fulfilment to both until Pam’s death in 1993.

On leaving the priesthood, Vermes secured an appointment as a lecturer in Divinity at King’s College, Newcastle upon Tyne — then part of Durham University . The teaching duties were light, and over the next eight years he devoted a good deal of time to research and writing. Besides work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, he became interested in the ways in which the Old Testament was interpreted at different points in Jewish history and how this affected the New Testament — discussed in his Scripture and Tradition (1961).

In 1961 he responded to an advertisement for a Reader in Jewish Studies at Oxford, and such was his reputation that he was appointed without interview. He also became a Fellow of the newly-founded Wolfson College .

A major undertaking was the co-editing of a revised edition of The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ — a classic three-volume 19th-century work by a German scholar. This occupied him, on and off, for several years and encouraged him to embark on a trilogy devoted to the Jewish background of the life and work of Jesus — Jesus the Jew (1973), Jesus and the World of Judaism (1983) and The Religion of Jesus the Jew (1996).

These portrayed Jesus as a typical 1st-century Jewish holy man — a preacher, healer and exorcist — who was executed because it was feared that his words and deeds might lead to insurrection: “He died on the cross for having done the wrong thing (causing a commotion) in the wrong place (the Temple) at the wrong time (just before the Passover). Here lies the real tragedy of Jesus the Jew.”

The trilogy was followed in 2000 by The Changing Faces of Jesus, a survey of the various representations of Jesus in the New Testament; and, in 2003, a companion volume, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus .

Although Vermes did not share the Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus, he acknowledged him to be “second to none” among the Jewish teachers and prophets, and the trilogy was found illuminating by many Christian scholars.

Notwithstanding his high reputation worldwide and his popularity in Oxford, Vermes — a distinguished-looking, bearded figure — always craved further recognition, and this came almost at the end of his academic career when he was elected to the British Academy in 1985 and awarded an Oxford DLitt in 1989 — in the same year he was appointed to the chair of Jewish Studies.

In 1998 he published an autobiography, Providential Accidents, and he continued to write and lecture until he was well into his eighties. In 2012 he published Christian Beginnings from Nazareth to Nicaea AD30–325.

He married secondly, in 1996, Margaret Unarska, a Polish scientist, who survives him with a stepson and two stepdaughters.

Professor Geza Vermes, born June 22 1924, died May 8 2013