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Platter with the story of Hermaphroditus and cameos of the Twelve Caesars
Workshop of the Sarachi; Fontana, Annibale -Designer- (?); Trezzo, Jacopo Nizzola da (?); Anonymous
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Workshop of the Sarachi
Fontana, Annibale -Designer-(?)
Trezzo, Jacopo Nizzola da (?)

Platter with the story of Hermaphroditus and cameos of the Twelve Caesars

1570 - 1590. Rock crystal / Hyaline quartz, Enamel, Lapis lazuli, Gold, Pearls, Silver gilt. Room 079B

This O- 80 Made in a single piece of rock crystal, this masterpiece is a show of technical virtuosity. Its decoration permits philosophical, political or even alchemical readings, since it can symbolise the plenitude of the human being, the Universal Monarchy, or the transmutation of alchemy. Visually, it tells the story of Hermaphroditus, based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The fruit of the union between Hermes and Aphrodite, he is brought up by the nymphs. Now a strapping boy, he walks along a path through trees with towns in the distance. He then appears resting by a spring. As the nymph Salmacis, who is in love with him, bathes in a fountain, she embraces him and asks the gods to fuse them in a single body, resulting in a being with two sexes and two heads, one male and one female. All this is complemented by a representation of the ocean and its inhabitants, creatures like Tritons, marine centaurs or Naiads, who meet and do battle. Finally, the mount on the brim bears intercalated lapis lazuli cameos depicting the Twelve Caesars.

An analysis of the decoration of this piece is a complex task, since the story of Hermaphroditus is not a frequent subject, and it is to be supposed that this was a commission destined for a particular client. Some have tried to read it as directly related to the Ovidian myth on the power of water and amorous union, and also to the so-called Hermafrodito of Leonardo da Vinci and the Trattato dell’arte della pittura by Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo. There may also be other readings, since the presence of the Twelve Caesars would otherwise be incoherent and out of place. Whether they are contemporary with the rock crystal work or a later addition, they force us to propose other interpretations of the myth represented, since the motif of Hermaphroditus is of theoretical importance in both Neoplatonist philosophy and alchemy, as both were understood in the cultured circles of the late Cinquecento. This leads us to the thought of Marsilio Ficino, who had a powerful influence on the cultured milieu of Milan. Even so, this does not rule out a third possible perspective, this time a political one, perhaps related to the Spanish Habsburgs, since the conquest of the seas is an image of a great empire.

An examination with a magnifying glass of the treatment of profiles, hands, costumes, trees, plants, birds, etc., allows us to identify the technical language employed with that of the Sarachi workshop, perhaps following a design by Annibale Fontana. As regards the mount, Kris suggested in 1929 that the broad gold brim with overlaid enamels and cameos might be Spanish, something extremely difficult to prove since it follows an international style. Venturelli subsequently maintained that all the mounts were originals, attributing the excellent cameos to Fontana, brother-in-law to the Sarachi brothers, though the question remains open. Arbeteta has recently pointed out that the overall appearance of the platter is close to Spanish tastes, as well as suggesting that the cameos might be the work of Jacopo da Trezzo, a gemcutter who worked for Philip II and was the master of Gasparo and Girolamo Miseroni.

The Museo del Prado has the photograph by Juan Laurent y Minier, Plateau ovale, en cristal de roche gravé, montures d’or avec émail, camées et perles, fin du XVIe siècle, règne de Henri IV, c. 1879. Museo del Prado, HF 835/51

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 (L. Arbeteta, in press).

Arbeteta Mira, Letizia, El tesoro del Delfín: alhajas de Felipe V recibidas por herencia de su padre Luis, Gran Delfín de Francia, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2001, p.116,117

Technical data

Inventory number
Workshop of the Sarachi; Fontana, Annibale -Designer- (?); Trezzo, Jacopo Nizzola da (?); Anonymous
Platter with the story of Hermaphroditus and cameos of the Twelve Caesars
1570 - 1590 (Cameos); 1570 - 1580 (Platter); 1580 - 1590 (Adornments)
Chased; Enamelled; Carved; Mounted / set; Engraved; Esmerilado
Rock crystal / Hyaline quartz; Enamel; Lapis lazuli; Gold; Pearls; Silver gilt
Height: 3.9 cm.; Width: 38.6 cm.; Base/bottom: 32.6 cm.; Weight: 1543 g.; Ancho base: 16.6 cm.; Bottom of the base: 13 cm.
Tesoro del Delfín
Royal Collection

Bibliography +

Angulo Íñiguez, Diego, Catálogo de las alhajas del Delfín, Museo del Prado, Madrid, 1954, pp. 116,117.

Departamento Didáctico-Pedagógico, Alhajas del Delfín, Museo del Prado, Madrid, 1989, pp. 1-8.

Angulo Íñiguez, Diego, Catálogo de las Alhajas del Delfín, Museo del Prado, Madrid, 1989 (ed.rev), pp. 132-135.

Arbeteta Mira, Letizia, Nuevas noticias sobre las 'Alhajas del Delfín' (II), Boletín del Museo del Prado, 13, 1992, pp. 21-36.

Castellucio, Stéphane, Le partage de la prestigieuse collection du Grand Dauphin. La Part de Philippe D'Espagne, 2000, pp. 71.

Arbeteta Mira, Letizia, El tesoro del Delfín: alhajas de Felipe V recibidas por herencia de su padre Luis, Gran Delfín de Francia, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 2001, pp. 116,117.

Arbeteta Mira, Letizia, 'Taller de los Sarachi; Annibale Fontana (?).Copa de la Vendimia' En:, Arte transparente. La talla del cristal en el Renacimiento milanés., Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 2015, pp. 104-109 n.10.

Arbeteta, L. Azcue, L., El Tesoro del Delfín, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2018, 2018.

Other inventories +

Agates, cristaux, procelaines, bronzes, et autres curiositez qui sont dans le Cabinet de Monseigneur le Dauphin a Versailles. Núm. 238.

Inv. Felipe V, La Granja, 1734. Núm. 238.

Inv. Felipe V, La Granja, Tesoro del Delfín, 1746. Núm. 10.

Inv. Gabinete Historia Natural, 1776. Núm. 133.
Fuente enforma de vandeja

Inv. Real Museo, 1857. Núm. 133.
Alhajas y efectos preciosos que se hallaban colocados en el Gabinete de Historia natural y trasladados al Real Museo de Pintura y Escultura de S. M., en virtud de Rl. orden de 11 de Mayo de 1839 [...] 133. Una fuente en forma de bandeja de cristal de roca abierta de unas figuras, arboles e historiada en la falda de una guranicion grande de oro con sus molduras y picado el pie con sobrepuesto en dicha guarnicion de cartones esmaltados de verde, azul, blanco, negro y rojo, en los doce menores doce cabezas de los doce Emperadores o Césares, hechas en Lapiz-lazuli en forma de Camafeos, en los doce mayores nueve asientos de aljofar, los seis netos, y la faltan tres de ellos; en el pie otras doce piezas menores esmaltadas con otros doce asientos mayores tambien de aljofar.

Exhibitions +

Transparent Art. Rock Crystal Carving in Renaissance Milan
14.10.2015 - 10.01.2016

Location +

Room 079B (On Display)

Update date: 27-06-2020 | Registry created on 02-12-2015

Other works by Workshop of the Sarachi; Fontana, Annibale; Trezzo, Jacopo Nizzola da; Anonymous

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