Sunday, September 17, 2006

Isabella and Why Pesto Suddenly Seems Like a Bad Idea

by Brenda Roger

Like many creative people, I have multiple jobs. Today, I’m being inspired by my job as a Museum Teacher at the Frick Art and Historical Center.

The art museum on site is currently exhibiting Pre-Raphaelite paintings from the Delaware Art Museum. One of the most striking and astonishingly detailed paintings on view is Isabella and the Pot of Basil by William Holman Hunt. It is very easy to admire its beauty without seeing why it is both romantic and disgusting. A rather striking woman with dark hair and Mediterranean features embraces a large pot with her head tipped over the leafy green plant contained within. The pot is on top of an elaborate piece of embroidery bearing the name “Lorenzo”. Isabella stands on a marble floor in a lavishly decorated room.

The detail is meticulous. William Holman Hunt, like many of his fellow Pre-Raphaelites, was obsessive about detail and authenticity. He went so far as to design the basil pot, have it cast and then decorate it using traditional majolica glazing techniques. Such juicy tidbits were the fruits of my routine research of a new exhibition. This time, that research also revealed a plot fit for a mystery novel.

The story of Isabella is your basic girl meets boy, girl’s brothers murder boy, boy tells girl in a dream where he is buried, girl digs up boy’s corpse and hacks off his head as a memento, type of story. You know, we’ve all read them. What???

The painting illustrates a poem by John Keats. Keats in turn, based his poem on a much older story that is Italian in origin. Keats very cleverly tells us that after her murdered boyfriend, Lorenzo, comes to her in a dream and tells her where he is buried, Isabella takes her nurse into the woods to look for him. The two women dig up poor Lorenzo, and much to the nurse’s surprise, Isabella pulls out a knife and hacks off his rotting head. She smuggles the molding, oozing souvenir into the house in a carpetbag and plants it in a pot of basil. She then drops out of life completely in order to cry over the basil and water it with her tears. She has the best looking pot of basil in Italy. A romantic would say it’s the tears, a scientist would say it’s the …uh…. fertilizer.

Her brothers can’t figure out why she has been doing this for months. They sneak the pot away one day and remove the basil plants only to discover dear Lorenzo looking up at them. Inasmuch as a moldy, decomposed head can look at anyone.

Imagine this plot set in the current time in this country. Sadly, people do such strange things with corpses that it may be less shocking written about in a current setting than it is when depicted with exacting detail in a nineteenth century painting. Still, I intend to file it away for future adaptation.

I thought that this exhibit would have me talking about red heads, Shakespeare and Fairy Tales. Instead, I am recounting the plight of Isabella to school children, and predictably, the bloodthirsty little buggers love it.

Well, at least it gets them excited about art. Sigh.


Anonymous said...

I probably would walk past that painting and think, my, lovely lady, but what's with the pot of basil? Obviously, to appreciate art, you gotta know the backstory, and some backstory here. I knew there was a reason I'm not fond of pesto. And I can just hear the relish in your voice as you recount this tale to the young visitors. My day job is a dreary drudge by comparison.

Meryl Neiman said...

How fascinating. I suggest an exhibit, "Murder in Art." That would pack 'em in. We're a morbid bunch aren't we.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Mike, my day job is an incredible good time. However, it really only pays gas money. I can't say that I ever have a feeling of dread on my way to work, though.

If you ever need some inspiration for complicated intertwined characters, I'll lend you all of my books on the Pre-Raph artists. What a soap opera!

Anonymous said...

The cutest, sweetest students are always the ones who like the blood and guts. Murder in Art would definitely get the numbers up!

Annette said...

I really must come see this exhibit! And while I DO like pesto, I don't know if I'll ever be able to look at it quite the same way.

By the way, the basil in my herb garden is doing wonderfully well this year. Should I go digging to find out what might be buried there???

Anonymous said...

Nothing like good drama to inspire a book, play, painting . . .

I'm not sure the tale would work quite as well in a modern setting. There's something about about time and distance that help me focus more on the romantic elements and less on the disgusting ones.

Besides, these days, who has a faithful nurse to help you dig up a body?

Anonymous said...

Great story, Brenda!

And I like the idea of a "Murder in Art" exhibit.

Anonymous said...

Ok, Annette is in charge of bringing pesto to our next gathering!

Tory, I think you are right. The setting shifts the focus. Very insightful. Gets me thinking about setting...hmmm.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating story, Brenda! I love the painting, and the story has me looking at basil (my favorite herb) a little differently now.

Annette, my basil plant is also growing with record speed. Must be something in the air or, um, the potting soil.