Riding the wave

The "Farnese Cup"

An object that lies somewhere between archeology and mythology is the Farnese Cup - the biggest cameo existing, unique by size, complexity and formal beauty - made of sardonyx, a variety of agate, with beautiful grain, carved in relief on both sides.

Like many works of art, has been the focus of study and controversy about its meaning, not yet resolved.

Farnese Cup Treasures from Italy, Readers Digest, 1975

Some consider it as a work of Hellenistic period made in Alexandria, used for ritual ceremonies at the Egyptian court. The images represent Cleopatra III, the husband Ptolemy VIII (died 116 BC) and his son Alexandros Ptolemy X; however, according to others, it shows Cleopatra VII, last queen of Egypt, defeated by Octavian in 31 BC.

According to another hypothesis, the central female figure is Isis, the symbol of Egypt, treated as Demeter , goddess of the harvest and fertile nature; on the left there would be Osiris, considered as equivalent to Hades/Pluto, with the cornucopia , a symbol of abundance, but could well be the personification of the Nile; in the center Horus/Triptolemus, symbol of the rising sun, with the yoke of the plow and the bag of seed; right two female figures, personifications of the Seasons. On top hover in flight two youths, one of which blows the trumpet, to represent the summer winds that cause flooding of the Nile. The representation as a whole is thus an allegory of the prosperity of the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt.

The American Journal of Archaeology , vol. 96/1992, published an article by Fred S. Kleiner, which proposes various hypotheses of two American scientists.

According to Eugene Dwyer, the cup was made in Alexandria in early first century BC at the Ptolemaic court. The representation would be an allegory of the Nile and of the creation, where the seven figures represent the planets surrounding Orion.

John Pollini believes instead that it dates from the late first century BC and was made at Alexandria especially for Augustus, to celebrate the golden age of the empire after the victory of Augustus at Actium.

After the conquest of Egypt, the cup became part of the treasury of Rome and after the fall of the empire was moved to Constantinople, but allegedly returned to Italy after the fall of Byzantium in 1204. It then came into possession of Frederick II of Swabia, but in the early fifteenth century returned to the East at the Persian court. Soon after it was in Naples at the court of Alfonso of Aragon and in 1471 was in Rome where it was acquired by Lorenzo the Magnificent, and thereafter came into possession of Margaret of Austria. At her death enriched the collections of Farnese family, who then gave it to the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.