Mensa Isiaca

Mensa Isiaca

Roman Period, 1st century AD

Mensa Isiaca

 

Bronze inlaid in other metals
Roman Period, 1st century AD
Provenance: acquired in Rome from Pietro Bembo 1527, acquired by Charles Emanuel I of Savoy in 1628, first displayed in the Museo Egizio, 1832
Inv. Nr. C. 7155
Egypt held great appeal for the Romans, who eagerly absorbed the Isis cult. However, after, the battle of Actium (31 BC) and the deaths of Cleopatra and Mark Antony (30 BC), the cult was persecuted until later in the first century AD when the Emperor Caligula (AD 12-41), descendant of Augustus and of Mark Antony, built a great Isis temple in Campus Martius: the Iseum Campensis. It was also sometime in the first century AD when this remarkable table was produced, probably in Rome. The hieroglyphs are nonsense and the cult scenes are Egyptianising, but do not depict true Egyptian rites. Some of the bizarre attributes make it unclear whether the figures are divinities or kings and queens, and whether or not a god, instead of the king, is depicted making an offering to another god. Egyptian motifs appear helter-skelter throughout. Nevertheless, the central figure in a chapel can be recognised as Isis, suggesting that the table comes from a place where the Isis cult was celebrated, possibly even the Iseum Campensis. The table is an important example of metallurgical knowledge in the ancient world, with its surface decoration of different coloured precious (silver, gold, and gold with much copper) and base metals. Perhaps the most interesting colour on the table is the black, usually incorrectly described as niello. In fact, analysis on similarly black-inlaid Roman objects reveal that this was made by alloying copper and tin with small amounts of gold or silver (about 2 %) and then ’pickling’ the object in organic acid. Pliny (Natural. History) and Plutarch (Moralia) both described a prestigious black bronze alloy, ‘Corinthian bronze’, which contained gold and silver.