Detail map of Roma, Lazio, Italy Overview map of Roma, Lazio, Italy

A: Roma, Lazio, Italy

The Mensa Isiaca or Bembine Table of Isis

Circa 50 CE
The Bembine Table of Isis from Athanasius Kircher

The Bembine Table of Isis from Athanasius Kircher's Œdipus Ægyptiacus. Photographed from a reprint in Manly P. Hall's The Secret Teachings of All Ages (1928) to provide clarity in reproducing this very complex image.

An elaborate bronze tablet with enamel and silver inlay mimicking Egyptian style, the Mensa Isiaca or Bembine Tablet or Bembine Table of Isis was probably created in Rome during the first century CE. It was discovered after the sack of Rome in 1527, soon after which Cardinal Pietro Bembo acquired it at an exhorbitant price.

"After Bembo's death in 1547 the Tablet was acquired by the House of Mantua, remaining in their museum until the capture of Mantua in 1630 by Ferdinand II's troops. The Tablet eventually came into the hands of Cardinal Pava, who presented it to the Duke of Savoy, who in turn presented it to the King of Sardinia. With the French conquest of Italy in 1797 the Tablet came to Paris, and Alexandre Lenoir wrote in 1809 that it was on exhibition in the Bibliothèque Nationale. It was later returned to Italy after peace was established. Karl Baedeker in his Guide to Northern Italy mentions that the tablet was a central exhibit in Gallery 2 in the Museum of Antiquities at Turin, where it is today."

In the seventeenth century the fame of the Bembine Tablet was such that Athanasius Kircher used it as the primary source for his attempt to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs, reproducing an engraving of the table in his misconceived Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1652-55).

The first scholarly study of the table was by the Padovan scholar and antiquarian Lorenzo Pignoria in Vetustissimae tabulae aeneae sacris Aegyptiorum simulachris coelatate accurata explicatio descriptio (Venice, 1605). This was the first detailed printed account of the table. In his description Pignoria compared the table to other known archeological objects, particularly Egyptian amulets and engraved gems. Unlike some of his contemporaries, who saw the table as a mystical relic from the dawn of creation, Pignoria concluded that the table was a Roman work of the Augustan period. The large folding plates of this edition were engraved by the Venetian engraver and publisher Giacomo Franco in 1600 to replicate the various parts of the Table, and were included, variously assembled and folded, in a handful of copies of the first edition, published by Franco in 1605. In later editions the large woodcuts were reproduced as copperplate engravings.

"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 temple to Isis Campus Martius: the Iseum Campense. Also it was 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 colored precious (silver, gold, copper and gold with much) and base metals. Perhaps the most interesting color on the table is the black, usually incorrectly as described on niello. In fact, analysis on similarly inlaid black-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 on a prestigious black bronze alloy, 'Corinthian bronze', Which contained gold and silver" (, accessed 02-19-2013).

James Stevens Curl, Egyptomania. The Egyptian Revival: a Recurring Theme in the History of Taste  (1994) 57-58.

Timeline Themes