Lumachella Di San Vitale Marble Basin
Lumachella Di San Vitale Marble Basin
A marble water basin incorporating the head of Medusa in the centre of one side, with scrolling foliage carved around the basin. The Gorgon is depicted with large eyes, downturned mouth and wild, undulating hair. The white fossils which are clearly visible on her face, are an excellent example of why this variety of marble is also referred to as “bone marble”.
Provenance: A house in Buckinghamshire
Condition: Visible repairs, in particular, to the bottom right hand side of the basin.
Measurements: Height: 11.5 in 29 cm; Width: 26.7 in; 67 cm Depth: 17.7 in; 44 cm
Lumachella di San Vitale (figure 1) started to be mined in the early Renaissance. It can be found in buildings such as the Basilica di San Marco in Venice where there is a column, panel and a band of this marble in the floor of the central nave. It is also present in many ecclesiastical buildings throughout Italy.
This particular type of lumachella from Verona in the Veneto, is undoubtedly the most diffuse of the three Veronese lumachelle. It is a Jurassic limestone; matrix is fossiliferous micrite/microspar with molluscan debris and other mainly marine organisms such as seaweed, corals, fish etc. The large white recrystallized shells are of ‘Lithiotis’ bivalves. It is named after the village of San Vitale di Roverè, a source cited by both Pollini (1817, 1825) and Jervis (1889), but was also obtained from other locations in the Anguilla, Squaranto and Pantena valleys of Verona, as well as other places to the north and east. This particular variety was often used in Verona and in the province, where it almost always appears in interiors of buildings such as the Duomo, the churches of San Bernardino (for the altar of St Peter), Sant’Anastasia, Santa Maria in Organo, Sant’Eufemia and San Zeno to name but a few. Outside the region there are many examples of the use of Lumachella di San Vitale such as in the churches of San Lorenzo in Turin; the two columns and the yellow-red panels in the first altar on the right of the Duomo of Ravenna and the church of San Giovanni Battista, also in Ravenna.
The Lumachelle have appealed to man since antiquity as they were considered mirabilia and testimony of the transformation from sea to land and vice versa. The Romans were attracted by the beauty and decorative quality of some microasiatic lumachelle such as marmor triponticum or peacock’s eye. In Medieval times lumachelle and fossils invariably had superstitious connotations.
During the Renaissance there was a revival of classical forms and imagery such as Medusa carved on this marble basin. The face of Medusa, a monster from Greek mythology had the power to turn to stone anyone who beheld it. It was utilized as a symbol of royal “aegis” shield or protection.
Medusa was one of three sisters born to Phorcys and Ceto known as the Gorgons. According to Hesiod, the Gorgons were the sisters of the Graiai and lived in the furthest place towards the night by the Hesperides beyond Oceanus. Later authors such as Herodotus and Pausanias place the Gorgons’ abode in Libya. The Gorgon sisters were Sthenno, Euryale and Medusa; Medusa was mortal while her sisters were immortal.
Medusa, a sea nymph, the most beautiful of the three sisters, was courted by Poseidon and seduced by him in a temple of Athena. Furious, Athena transformed Medusa into a monstrous chthonic beast with snakes instead of hair whose frightening face could petrify onlookers. She was beheaded while sleeping by the hero Perseus who subsequently used her head as a weapon until giving it to the goddess Athena to place on her shield.
Having coupled with Poseidon previously, two beings sprang from her body when she was beheaded. One, Pegasus, was a winged horse later tamed by Bellerophon to help him kill the chimera. The other, Chrysaor of the Golden Sword, remains relatively unknown today.
In classical antiquity and today, the image of the head of Medusa finds expression in the evil-averting device. An interesting point to note is that the representation of Medusa on this lumachella basin does not show her with snakes writhing in her hair. Rather she is reminiscent of the head of Medusa in the Roman mosaic from Palencia (figure 2) where she has wavy hair. This mosaic is currently housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid.
Although the early depictions of Medusa emphasized her hideous appearance, a new human-appearing Medusa first surfaced in Hellenistic art and then became the norm. Medusa’s former snaky locks became just wild curls and Medusa even takes on traits derived from the representations of Alexander the Great and Hellenistic kings; like her wind-blown hair.
A further example of Medusa in classical antiquity is the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul which has two Medusa heads both of which are casually used as column bases; one positioned upside down; the other lying sideways (figure 3). Most probably the heads were removed from the Forum of Constantine in Constantinople.