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

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

By Marina Belozerskaya (Emblems of Antiquity). Pp. xix + 292, figs. 12. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2012. $21.95. ISBN 978-0-19-973931-8 (cloth).

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As classical art and archaeology programs continue to become more fully integrated into the humanities curriculum, the “afterlife” of ancient artifacts becomes an ever more fertile way to make connections across cultures, periods, and disciplines. Tracing the cultural history of a well-known object provides a natural thread for a larger narrative reflection on how the use, meaning, and significance of that object changed over time and place. This is the task undertaken by Belozerskaya, whose book follows the Tazza Farnese—a sardonyx vessel carved with an image of Egyptian gods on the inside and a head of Medusa on the outside—from Ptolemaic Egypt to its home today in the Naples National Archaeological Museum. The book is organized into nine chapters, each of which is designed to explore a significant time and place in the vessel’s history. A quick look at the table of contents, however, reveals that the emphasis of the book is clearly on the vessel’s travels post-antiquity. This lack of balance is somewhat understandable, though, as much more documentation can be found in connection with the later history of the vessel.

There is a lot to admire about the compelling story Belozerskaya has created in connection with the Tazza Farnese. The flow of the story is not interrupted by scholarly notes or bibliography, both of which have been relegated to the end of the book. In the main body of the text, many colorful details, characters, and events are discussed in association with the vessel, creating captivating vignettes, which will likely give the book popular appeal. However, the one drawback to this type of storytelling is that, at times, the focus on the vessel is lost; sometimes the vessel is subsumed under a larger and only tangentially related narrative, while other times one can become lost in the variety of potential journeys suggested for the vessel. For example, at the start of chapter 2, the text’s retrogression from Octavian’s defeat of Cleopatra to the time of Mithridates VI is not only somewhat jarring, but the narrative is interrupted for a rather general discussion about the established admiration of precious stones in Roman culture. Furthermore, this discussion is then followed by another regression that takes readers back to the Caesarian period in order to imagine an alternative form of transfer of the vessel from its cited Alexandrian origins to Rome. Because this portion of the vessel’s history is perhaps its most controversial, interruptions to the narrative flow during these periods seem particularly problematic. However, the book does try to mitigate the impact of such occasional disruptions to the narrative with the inclusion of a “Cast of Major Characters” at the front of the book, in which all the historical figures mentioned in the narrative are listed in order of their appearance and accompanied by their biographical dates; immediately following this listing is an equally helpful map that is labeled with all the places associated either directly or indirectly with the history of the vessel.

Even though an object serves as the narrative impulse and thread for the book, the focus of the text is one of cultural history, not art history. The lack of large, high-quality photographs—particularly for the Tazza Farnese itself—clearly reflects the distance between the written discussion and the object. Owners of the book will want to take good care of the dust jacket, where the only color images of the vessel can be found. Throughout the book, there is an overall lack of interest in close visual observation. A small but indicative example can be found in figure 3.4, which is identified as a detail of the hole drilled for the attachment of a foot; in this photograph, the hole can be found in the upper quarter of the image rather than in the center, as one would expect. Similarly, later drawings and engravings of the vessel are used more as evidence for the people and places that could be associated with the vessel rather than being subjected to the sort of art historical examination that might shed more light on how the vessel was viewed by later admirers. Most significantly, though, is the degree to which the iconography of the vessel is underutilized. For example, despite the title of the book, the shifting mythology surrounding Medusa and the ways in which she was conventionally depicted—both during and after the time of the vessel’s creation—is discussed only sporadically. A closer analysis of the visual culture through which the Tazza Farnese moved would have provided even more opportunities to elaborate on the reconceptualization of the vessel through history.

This book is an excellent choice for inspiring nonprofessionals to become excited by the cultural history of ancient objects. As a scholarly book, however, the notes need to be much more extensive. For example, although the iconography of the Tazza Farnese is cited as important evidence for its Alexandrian origins in chapter 1, the text assigns labels to these figures with only limited explanation; some notes in this section (e.g., n. 31) fail to include any bibliographic references at all. However, even when specific bibliography is cited, there is often not enough explanation as to how Belozerskaya’s evaluation or interpretation of the bibliography led to the choices presented in the main body of the text. For example, even though Ptolemy XII Auletes is mentioned in connection with both Rome and long-distance trade in chapter 1 (11, 16), his possible patronage of the Tazza Farnese is not noted until chapter 8 (196), and even there it is simply mentioned as part of a larger discussion of the 18th-century study of the vessel. Ultimately, it is admiration for the goals of this book and its absorbing storyline that makes one want to see improvements so that this text might have an even wider audience in the professional field of material culture, particularly within an academic context.

Glenda Middleton Swan
Department of Art
Valdosta State University
Valdosta, Georgia 31698

Book Review of Medusas Gaze: The Extraordinary Journey of the Tazza Farnese, by Marina Belozerskaya

Reviewed by Glenda Middleton Swan

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 2 (April 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1182.Swan

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