Dish with the story of Hermaphrodite and cameos of the Twelve Caesars1580 - 1590. Rock crystal / Hyaline quartz, Lapis lazuli, Gold, Pearls, Silver-gilt
An oval platter made from a single piece of rock crystal with an adornment at the foot and another on the edge. The latter constitutes a wide molded band of matting with enameled-gold appliqués bearing a design of Cs and scrolls enameled in opaque white, green, sky blue and light green, and red and green over gold. Similar frames bear twelve lapis-lazuli cameos. The small adornment that forms the seating ring is enriched with a design that alternates twelve enameled S and twelve pearls. The 1746 inventory lists three of the latter as missing, but they have since been replaced. What have not been conserved, however, are the pearls or precious stones that once enriched each of the appliqués on the outer adornment. With its dimensions and craftwork, this piece is a marvel of technique. Its surface is ringed by a sequential story whose various narrative episodes are linked by a continuous landscape of trees and more distant landscape elements that are developed by expanding the scene towards the platter’s lip, as well as a composition whose empty spaces on one half are resolved with a pair of flying birds. The narration refers to Hermaphrodite, as narrated in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, beginning with the union of Hermes and Aphrodite. Their child, Hermaphrodite, is raised and educated by the nymphs. He then appears as a svelte young man, walking with spear in hand and preceded by Cupid on a path in which distance is suggested by various settings and two cities in the background. In the following scene, while resting beside a spring, he is called by Salmacis, a water nymph that has fallen in love with him. When he bathes in the lake, she strongly embraces him and begs the gods to merge the two of them into a single body. This, they do, creating a being with both sexes, represented here with both a female and a male head. The base of the platter is inscribed with ocean waves that run parallel to the narrower inner adornment. They include images of fights and meetings of sea creatures such as tritons, sea centaurs or naiads, in a depiction of the ocean and its inhabitants.
As early as 1927, Ernst Kris considered this platter the work of the Sarachi’s workshop, and Diego Angulo shared his opinion in 1944, as do later specialists. The specific treatment of the profiles, hands, clothing, trees, plants, bird and other elements corresponds to a technical and esthetic language very close to those from several works attributed to this workshop, including the Grape Harvest Goblet (00081). The piece’s main story may be based on a design by Annibale Fontana. With regard to the adornment, Kris wondered whether the with gold lip with enameled appliqués and cameos might be Spanish, although this is very difficult to determine, as it follows international style. Venturelli later considered all of the adornments original, and attributed the excellent cameos to the Sarachi brothers’ brother-in-law, Fontana, although the matter has yet to be fully resolved. Analysis of this piece is even more complex with regard to the scenes it contains, as the story of Hermaphrodite is not a common one, which suggests it was commissioned by a specific client. One suggested interpretation draws directly on the relation between Ovid’s myth and the powers of water and amorous coupling, as well as on Leonardo da Vinci’s Hermafrodito and Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo’s Trattato dell’arte della pittura. Without denying this possibility, we should recognize other possibilities as well, as limiting ourselves to them would make the presence of the Twelve Caesars incoherent and out of place. Regardless of whether they are original or a later addition to this piece, they oblige us to propose other interpretations of the myth presented by it, as the motif of Hermaphrodite bears enormous theoretical content in terms of both neo-Platonic philosophy and alchemy, as both wee understood in the erudite setting of the second Cinquecento. Once again, this brings us to the though of Marsilio Ficino, which was enormously influential in Milan’s cultured circles. That, in turn, does not rule out a third perspective -a political one that may be related to the Spanish Habsburgs- as the conquest of the seas is an image of the great empires.
This is one of the pieces in the Dauphin’s Treasure, a group of precious vessels from the sumptuous collection of Louis, Grand Dauphin of France, which were brought to Spain by his son and heir, Philip V, the first Spanish monarch from the Bourbon dynasty. Louis of France (1661-1711), was the son of Louis XIV and Marie Theresa of Austria. Influenced by his father, he began collecting at an early age, acquiring his works in a variety of manners, including gifts and purchases at auctions. Following the Dauphin’s death, Philip V (1683-1746) inherited a group of vessels, which were sent to Spain with their respective cases. In 1716, they were at the Alcázar in Madrid but were later moved to La Granja de San Ildefonso, where they were listed in the so-called Casa de las Alajas following Philip V’s death. In 1776, they were deposited in the Royal Cabinet of Natural History at the behest of Charles III, and they remained there until it was sacked by French troops in 1813. These works were returned two years later, although some were lost. The Dauphin’s Treasure entered the Royal Museum in 1839, but was again stolen in 1918. During the Spanish Civil war, these works were sent to Switzerland. When they were returned in 1939, one vessel was missing. They have been on exhibit at the Villanueva Building since then (Text drawn from Arbeteta, L.: El Tesoro del Delfín. Catálogo Razonado, 2001, pp. 116-117, and from Idem: Arte transparente. La talla del cristal en el Renacimiento milanés, 2015, pp. 104-109).