As Queen Mary appreciated, the Rothschild Orpheus Cup rewards close inspection. The cover is made of gold and is enamelled en ronde bosse on the cover and foot. The cup is decorated in painted enamel. On a luscious grass covered hill the goddess Diana sits back to back with a diminutive figure of Orpheus who vigorously plays his lyre, charming the host of animals arranged on the hill below him. Both Diana and Orpheus are accompanied by faithful dogs, whilst a seated bear reaches out to touch Orpheus’ left leg. Eleven putti sit in a circle on the next level down, below which recumbent jewel encrusted animals lounge peacefully. The animals comprise a horse, a camel, a white stag, a lion, a unicorn, a bull and a goat. Interspersed around these larger animals are rabbits and dogs and, most charming of all, a seated green monkey eating a fruit. The cup is decorated with painted enamel scenes taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and, on the underside of the cover, with hunting scenes. The cup and cover are supported by a gold figure of Atlas who kneels on a small mossy promontory crawling with lizards and snakes and surrounded by a painted enamel representation of a river or lake.
The iconography of the cup might be interpreted as Atlas holding the world up above a primordial land inhabited by lizards and frogs. The bowl of the cup illustrates scenes of humans engaged in various escapades, from mythological encounters with gods to a rural scene of hunting. The top of the cup is the vision of Mount Parnasus, the sacred mountain of the gods, a land of peace and harmony. Thus the Rothschild Orpheus Cup is a seminal example of a Schatzkammer treasure which was admired for its virtuosic craftsmanship as well as its instructive meaning.
The Provenance of the Rothschild Orpheus Cup
The Orpheus Cup is first recorded as one of the exhibits at the 1862 International Exhibition on loan from the collection of Baron Lionel de Rothschild (1808-1879). It is not documented where Baron Lionel acquired it; however, he had a particularly developed taste for Schatzkammer objects which he inherited from his grandfather, Mayer Amschel. Baron Lionel has left accounts of his visits to the Grünes Gewölbe in Dresden and the Habsburg collections in Vienna, and he bequeathed over three hundred Schatzkammer works to his three sons. The Orpheus Cup was inherited by his second son, Alfred de Rothschild (1884-1918) and displayed, appropriately, in the Green Room at 1 Seamore Place, London. There it was described on various occasions and was illustrated, exceptionally, with two full page photographs in Charles Davis’s 1884 catalogue of the collection. Davis illustrates a photograph of the Green Room with the Orpheus Cup visible in a cabinet of objets de vitrine to the left of the fireplace (fig. 2). In his short introduction to the catalogue of Seamore Place, Alfred wrote: 'The principal objects, and those which, needless to say, I most prize, I inherited from my dearly beloved father, and, in addition to the great pleasure they afford me, they constantly remind me of his perfect judgment and taste'. This certainly applies to the sumptuous Orpheus Cup. Lady Carnarvon (1876-1969), Alfred's illegitimate daughter, inherited Seamore Place and most of its contents including the Rothschild Orpheus Cup. When Lady Carnarvon sold it is not recorded, but by 1928 it was with the firm of S. J. Phillips, having been acquired from Joseph Duveen. The Rothschild Orpheus Cup has remained in the collection of S. J. Phillips for the past 88 years.
The Attribution of the Rothschild Orpheus Cup
The catalogue for the 1862 International Exhibition, where the Orpheus Cup is first mentioned, attributed it to Johann Melchior Dinglinger (1664-1731) (Franks, op. cit.). This attribution is not tenable however, because Dinglinger's work is stylistically much later. Perhaps Baron Lionel's knowledge of the collection of Dinglinger's works in the Grünes Gewölbe encouraged this description. It would seem that Alfred de Rothschild soon rejected this idea, despite the profound respect he expressed for all the objects he inherited from his father, in favour of a description as Italian, ‘Cinque-cento’ as it was listed by Charles Davis in 1884. The Cup is published on numerous occasions in descriptions of Alfred’s collection with increasing adulation. The long review of Seamore Place published in The Connoisseur in 1902 singled out ‘the celebrated Orpheus cup’ as one of the highlights of the collection (Steurat Erskine op. cit.).
By 1928, when Queen Mary sought out the Rothschild Orpheus Cup at the The Exhbition of Art Treasures, an association with Benvenuto Cellini and a link with the patronage of François I of France was already proposed. This was taken up with enthusiasm by numerous reviewers of the exhibition and further discussed by W. Augustus Steward in his article on ‘Goldsmiths and Silversmiths’ Work – Past and Present’ in the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts in 1933.
The myth of Benvenuto Cellini
In his pioneering 1883 monograph on Cellini, Eugène Plon devoted a chapter to goldsmith works without specific documentation, but attributed to the Florentine artist. He concluded in his introduction that it was legitimate to publish these unrecorded works not least as a way to highlight the more doubtful attributions that had been made to Cellini of works which were neither Italian nor 16th century (Plon, op. cit., partie 3, p. 261).
The myth of the great Benvenuto Cellini was at its height around the middle of the 19th century. The phenomenon of great luxury silver-gilt objects having the name of Cellini appropriated to them was discussed by John Culme in 1973 (op. cit.). Nearly a century before the Rothschild Orpheus Cup was believed to be by the Italian sculptor, a fabulous nautilus cup crowned with a figure of Jupiter was acquired in 1823 by George IV with an attribution to Benvenuto Cellini. John Flaxman, who was principal designer at Rundell, Bridge and Rundell, from whom the cup was acquired, is supposed to have accepted this attribution, although the piece is actually marked by the Nuremberg silversmith, Nicholas Schmidt, a pupil of Wenzel Jamnitzer. What was good for a King was desired by many eager collectors. Culme has demonstrated how during the 19th century Cellini's name was used in association with silver and gold objects in three ways. Firstly, it was used as a means of marketing exceptional authentic 16th century works, as with the George IV nautilus cup or the Rothschild Orpheus Cup. Secondly, from the early 1840s, Cellini's name was used by entrepreneurs like Jean Valentin Morel as a way of assessing and promoting the virtuosity of contemporary silversmiths, such as Antonio Cortelazzo. Lastly, forgeries were produced by 19th century craftsman with the intention to deceive, for example the silver-gilt cup and cover discussed by Culme (ibid., fig. 1). Certainly the Cellini phenomenon created some outlandish claims, such as 'Joan of Arc's sword chased by Benvenuto Cellini' described by Comte Horace de Viel-Castel. Perhaps the Rothschild Orpheus Cup has more claim than many other works to be considered amongst the best goldsmith's works that can be associated with the style of Cellini, although it was sadly unknown to Eugène Plon in the 1880s. Certainly up until the middle of the 20th century this was still being proposed. In 1956 Connaissance des arts published an article which postulated that, at least the en round bosse enamelled gold cover could have been one of the objects which Cellini is supposed to have left unfinished in France when he fell out of favour with François I and returned to Italy in 1545.
Dating the Rothschild Orpheus Cup
Whilst a Cellini myth developed around the Orpheus cup from the beginning of the 20th century, more recent scholarship has provided an alternative theory. The key comparison is with a gold and enamel cup in the Rijksmuseum (BK-17095) (We are grateful to Mag. Paulus Rainer for drawing this comparison to our attention). The foot and stem are analogous to the Orpheus Cup with a main figure of Orpheus surrounded by animals and putti enamelled en ronde bosse, which are so close as to suppose they come from the same workshop as the figures and animals on the cover of our Cup. The stem of the Rijkmuseum Cup and the cover and foot of the Rothschild Orpheus Cup are stylistically consistent with the late 16th or early 17th century. For comparison a pendant in the Waddesdon Bequest at the British Museum (WB. 161) of a warrior on a white horse has rubies mounted in gold on the body of the horse in a similar fashion to the animals on the cover of the Orpheus cup. This is considered to be German, mid-sixteenth century. A similar pendant representing St George and the Dragon is in the Grünes Gewölbe (inv. VIII 265) and described as German, late sixteenth century. Finally, a gold and enamelled lion holding an orb and inset with a ruby and two diamonds also in the Grünes Gewölbe (inv. 1997.1), attributed to a German craftsman working from 1580-1590, makes a close comparison in style and technique with the work on the cover of our cup. Whilst this establishes a convincing date of around 1580 for the cover and animals on the foot of the Rothschild Orpheus Cup and locates it in southern Germany, the attribution of the painted enamel Cup is quite different.
The Rijksmuseum Cup also has a painted enamel bowl similar to the Orpheus Cup. Based on the visual sources for the mythological scenes on the former, which are derived from the work of Johann Wilhelm Baur (1607-1640), these cannot date before around 1640. In addition the inside of the Rijksmuseum Cup is initialled G LOT F and IGB. The first initials have been linked to the Augsburg goldsmith Georg Lotter, the elder or younger, and the second initials to Baur (Joannis Guilielmi Baur). Published by Ulrike Weinhold in 2000 both cups were considered as early examples of Augsburg enamel datable to around 1660.
Recent study has not clarified the exact connection between the magnificent en rond bosse enamelled parts of these Cups, which must date around 1580, with the later painted enamelled parts, which date to around 1650. Whether the initials on the Rijksmuseum Cup do indeed refer to Georg Lotter, whose known corpus of work is quite different from these two cups, is also far from conclusive. It might be proposed that a goldsmith or enameller in southern Germany, probably Augsburg, in the first half of the 17th century had elements from an unfinished or dismembered cup of around 1580 which they incorporated into two new objects later in the 17th century.
It is extremely rare for a late Renaissance gold and enamelled object to have stimulated such comment and adulation as exists for the Rothschild Orpheus Cup. The attribution to Benvenuto Cellini has no doubt been inspired both by the quality of the en ronde bosse enamel parts and by the wonderful imagination of the maker whose vision of the goddess Diana seated next to Orpheus on Mount Parnassus, with all the exquisite animals spread around the luscious landscape, which is the principle fascination of this work. That it was owned by the Rothschild family is consistent with its sumptuous quality and intriguing mixture of styles. But whilst the difference of styles between the cover and the cup may exercise modern art historians, this does not detract from the immediate fascination of the viewer today who can marvel at the superb menagerie in enamelled gold, exactly as did Queen Mary nearly a century ago.
E. Plon, Benvenuto Cellini. Orfévre, Médailleur, Sculpteur. Recherches sur sa vie sur son oeuvre et sur les pièces qui lui song attribuées, Paris, 1883, partie III, pp. 258-262;
J. Culme, ''Benvenuto Cellini' and the nineteenth-century Collector and Goldsmith', Art at Auction: The Year at Sotheby's Parke Bernet 1973-74, London, 1974, pp. 293-296
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