|Isabella and the Pot of Basil
by William Holman Hunt
Oil on Canvas.
currently in the Laing Art Gallery,
Newcastle upon Tyne
I have been doing some reading and research on plants and herbs lately. I know a lot about the earth as a whole but I have been enjoying learning about the things that grow on the rocks I love so much.
I found a book at my used bookstore a while ago called Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants by Charles M. Skinner. It is an older book and my printing is from 1939. I am really enjoying the little stories and myths with different plants though. Last night I looked up basil and discovered a wonderful story (and some amazing paintings of it) that I had never heard before!
It is the story of Isabella and the pot of Basil. There is also a Johns Keat’s poem about the story. If you had read Hyperion then you would understand why I always perk up at the mention of Keats. I think re-reading those books is in my very near future. I will do my best to summarize the story without ruining it.
Isabella was a Maid from Messina in Sicily Italy. She lived with her brothers who were very successful business men. Lorenzo was a manager of one her brothers businesses and she and him fell in love. Her brothers pretended not to notice the interactions between the two of them for a while to avoid scandal.
After a while though they sent Lorenzo to a festival outside of the city. On the way there they killed him. They told their sister that he was away on a long trip. After a while though when he didn’t return she worked up the courage to ask where he was. Her brothers coolly replied “Why do you care where he is? Don’t ask about him again”.
Isabella was worried and spent the rest of the day in her room. She called out to her lover asking for him to return. That night when she fell asleep Lorenzo did return to her in her sleep. He appeared before her as a ghost covered in blood and told her “I can never return to you! Your brothers have killed me!” and then he told her where she could find his body.
When she woke up the dream had such an impression that she went to the location it revealed to her. There, as if in sleep she found the body of Lorenzo. She at first wanted to move it to holy ground but realizing that this would likely lead to its discovery removed the head and placed it in folded in fine linen in a large pot. She filled the pot with earth and planted basil in the pot. She took comfort from guarding the pot and tending the basil that grew in it.
She watered the plant with tears and it grew strong. Her brothers grew suspicious of her always being home with the basil pot and thought she had some mental malady and decided to help by taking away her basil plant. She cried uncontrollably for its return and her brothers still worried about her decided to see if she had anything hidden under the plant in the large pot. There they discovered the head. They buried the head again and fled to Naples. Isabella died of an broken heart still crying for her pot of basil.
I hope you enjoyed that story! I recommend reading the Keats poem as well. It really is always fun to learn new things. To finish off this post I am going to leave you with a photo of my awesome book, and of the basil we have growing happily in the garden!