Isabella and the Pot of Basil

The legend of Isabella and the Pot of Basil inspired many artists, especially those belonging to the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. You might have admired some of their paintings based on that legend, but do you know the story? It’s not as romantic as the paintings imply. It originated in Boccaccio’s Decameron (day IV, story 5). Here is the summary.

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William Holman Hunt

Three merchant brothers had a beautiful sister Isabetta. She fell in love with Lorenzo, one of her brothers’ clerks, and he returned her sentiment. Once, when she went to Lorenzo’s bedchamber at night, as she did most nights, one of the brothers noticed.

The brothers got angry, lured Lorenzo to a secluded spot in the woods a few days later, and murdered him. They told Isabetta that Lorenzo went away on a business trip.

She missed her lover terribly, cried, and prayed, and finally, he appeared in her dream and told her what happened and where the brothers buried his body. She went there and uncovered the body. She couldn’t take it home, of course, so she chopped off his head and brought it home, where she kissed it, washed it, and put it inside a big planter pot. She filled the rest of the pot with soil and planted basil on top. (I have some choice words here, but I’ll refrain from expressing my disgust.)

Edward Reginald Frampton

She watered her new basil planter with rose water and her tears exclusively, and the plants flourished, while Isabetta gradually declined. When the brothers saw that her attraction to the pot of basil robbed her of her health and beauty, they stole the pot away to check what was inside. Deprived of her beloved pot of basil, Isabetta died of broken heart.
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John Melhuish Strudwick

A nice romantic story, isn’t it? Who cares about the ghoulish slant, right?

In 1818, John Keats wrote a poem based on that story. Several of Pre-Raphaelite painters, inspired by his poem, created beautiful paintings. Some, like William Holman Hunt and John Melhuish Strudwick, even produced two different versions. Obviously, those paintings were successful. They throb with emotions, the girls in the paintings are the epitomes of a romantic female, so admired by the brotherhood, the backgrounds are richly detailed, but the legend itself grossed me out. I mean: she buried a cadaver’s head in a pot and kept it close to her bed, while the organics inside decomposed slowly. It’s so macabre, it doesn’t fit inside my mind. And they painted it. Yikes!

*** You could click on all the paintings in this post to see the larger versions. ***

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There are many visual interpretations of this legend, some of them contemporary, but I can’t show them all here, although below are a few more. They are all really beautiful paintings. Especially if you don’t know the story.

George Henry Grenville Manton

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Joseph Severn

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Arthur Nowel

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This entry was posted in art, Arts Musing, Open Charlie and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Isabella and the Pot of Basil

  1. Julie Reeser says:

    Oooh, I’d never heard of this! Thanks so much for sharing the story and the beautiful art. Strange the things that inspire one!

  2. I can’t believe I’ve never seen these paintings (or at least recognized them for what they were) or heard this story. It’s pretty much right up my alley. :p What a sad (and, yes, disturbing) story.

  3. Misha says:

    I have heard about this story. But somehow, the version I knew was less gross? At any rate, maybe the romantics weren’t as familiar with how much the decomposing head must have stunk.

  4. DEZMOND says:

    Always loved the preraphaelites! Love their love for legends and mystic myths

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