Welcome to August! In these dog days of summer, what could be more pleasant than a shady picnic? And what better tableware than a set of Renaissance serving-dishes and ornamental serving-cups? As this article explains, Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, England is featuring an exhibition of the ‘Silver Caesars’, twelve silver tazze (ornamental serving-cups) depicting scenes from Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars. The curator, Julia Siemon, notes the mysterious origins of the Silver Caesars (also known as the ‘Aldobrandi Tazze’, named after the Italian cardinal who came into their possession by the early seventeenth century). They are certainly Renaissance-era objects, as the scenes of ancient Rome (exemplified by the image above, of the Vitellius Tazza) are rendered through northern Renaissance imagery. Siemon posits that the Silver Caesars were produced in the Low Countries (hence the shallowness of the cups?) in the 1590s, perhaps for a Habsburg ruler (possibly Archduke Albert VI of Austria) ‘as a kind of flattering “mirror of princes”, instructing him how to rule’–given the Habsburgs’ self-image as latter-day Roman emperors (still evident in their statues and buildings in Vienna). Albert might then have given the tazze to Aldobrandi, who hosted Albert upon his wedding to a Spanish princess.
Early Modern Times’s Department of Renaissance Tableware has considered the question of what sorts of victuals the Silver Caesars would have held. Likely, the guests of Albert and Aldobrandi were offered, in these tazze, dishes of romaine lettuce with croutons, bacon bits, garlic, Parmesan cheese, and other ingredients; and washed down with a mixture of Clamato, vodka, hot sauce, and Worcestershire–in other words, Silver Caesar Salads and Silver Bloody Caesars. And among the images these guests would have visually feasted on were depictions of the Roman dictator pissing off those attending a meeting of vendors selling precious blood-red gemstones (Caesar crossing the Ruby-Con), and of the last Julio-Claudian emperor using edible fern fronds as toys while inhabitants of the imperial capital leave bread in their toasters too long (Nero playing fiddleheads while Rome burns).
In the meantime, the past month has seen other discoveries from the early modern period. Archaeologists of the Jamestown site in Virginia think that they may have uncovered the remains of Sir George Yeardley (see this video and accompanying article). Jamestown, the first English colony in North America and founded in 1607, succumbed to starvation and cannibalism in 1609 as a result of harsh winters and conflict with the local Powhatans. Yeardley, who later became Captain General and Lord Governor of Virginia, was a key figure in transforming Jamestown into a more democratic community governed by the rule of law and the Christian religion, even including the Powhatans in its commonwealth. But the colony also depended on African slave labour, and Yeardley became one of England’s largest slave owners. Tests are underway on a skeleton found under one of the first Jamestown churches; the skeleton matches the build and age of this controversial reformer, who died in 1627 when he was 40. Why have we forgotten this figure? Is it due to his mixed legacy? This archaeological discovery, if indeed of his remains, might decisively counter the expression: ‘Sir George, we Yeardley knew ya.’
Also on the archaeological front, a French mission is underway to find and salvage the wrecks of two warships from the early sixteenth century: the Cordelière and the Regent. The first vessel was the flagship of the Duchess Anne (the last ruler of the independent Duchy of Brittany), and commanded by the Breton officer and corsair Hervé de Portzmoguer (still celebrated even in marijuana-averse areas of France despite the fact that his name sounds like ‘heavy de potsmoker’). The Cordelière encountered the Regent, an even larger ship that was part of Henry VIII’s fleet, at the 1512 Battle of Saint-Mathieu–somewhere off the coast of Brest. As the article explains, ‘The Regent bore down on the Cordelière and for two or three hours there was close-quarters fighting. But then, and no-one knows why, it all ended with a massive explosion. The two ships, entangled in battle, sank together to the bottom. Hundreds died.’ Based on the study of naval sea-charts, contemporary accounts, and other archival materials, French marine archaeologists are deploying sonar, magnetic detectors, and undersea robots and divers to try to locate the two wrecks. Perhaps these archaeologists might also wish to find the remains of the two university applicants aboard the vessels, whose potential academic careers were wrecked by a fatal duel. The Breton, who had just been accepted to study theological geometry at the French equivalent of Harvard and Yale, mocked his English counterpart’s unsuccessful bid for entry to study the same subject at Oxford and Cambridge. The nicknames of these ill-fated under(water)-undergraduates? The Cour de Lierre (the Ivy Court) and the Reject, who both plunged to their watery graves at the Battle of Saint Math U.
‘Til next week,
Director Early Modern Underwater Undergraduates Studies Program