Basil pot

Artist or maker:
Place of production:
Manises, Valencia, Spain
tin-glazed earthenware
metallic lustre
Type of object:
Accession number:
Cat No:


Basil pots were items of luxury in Renaissance households. Planted with scented herbs, they masked unpleasant odours in a room. The distinctive lustred decoration of stylised bryony flowers and parsley leaves was developed by the Moors in southern Spain. By 1400 such vessels were so fashionable in Italy they were depicted in contemporary paintings. Very few survive; the Waddesdon pot is the finest known to exist.

The unicorn heads on blue fields, representing a 15th-century jousting shield, centrally placed on opposite sides of the Waddesdon pot are almost certainly representative of an Italian family, but the identity remains unknown at this time. As basil pots gained popularity in Italy in the 15th century, wealthy families often commissioned the addition of their crests or coats of arms to the decoration.

Known today as Hispano-Moresque ware, the techniques for making this highly valued tin-glazed and lustred pottery evolved in the Near and Middle East and were brought to southern Spain by Moorish craftsmen as early as the 8th century. The descriptive term for this type of vessel was 'alfabeguer', a derivative of the Arabic word 'al-'habac', which means sweet basil, and the Castillian 'albahaquero' or 'a pot for plants and flowers'. Records show such vessels decorated in 'melica' (lustreware) were made in late 14th-century Valencia. In the 15th century, Moorish potters in Manises and Paterna were selling large numbers of basil pots to clients in Valencia and Barcelona, as evidenced by contemporary trading ledgers. Pots were also shipped to Florence, Genoa and Venice.

Italian literature provides evidence of basil pot use. In Boccaccio's "Decameron" (1353), 'a beautiful plant-pot of the kind in which one plants marjoram or basil' plays an integral role in the fifth tale told on the fourth day. In this story the unfortunate Lisabetta secretly places the severed head of her forbidden lover, slain by her angry brothers, in a large pot beneath a plant of basil. Watered by her tears, the plant flourishes until her brothers' suspicion is aroused, the pot is destroyed and the pining Lisabetta dies of a broken heart. Boccaccio's story was later popularised by the poet John Keats in "Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil" (1818).

This is the best-preserved of the few surviving examples of this type. The composition is so complex that it is a small miracle for such an object to survive the firing processes. Each ring, finial and turret was formed separately and added piece by piece, making its construction very labour-intensive. Openings were cut into the body to allow water to reach the plant's roots, and a drainage hole in the bottom allowed excess water to escape. This pot came into the collection as part of a bequest from Baron Edmond de Rothschild, of the French branch of the family.

Diana Stone, 2012

Physical description

Dimensions (mm):
342 x 395 dia.
No. 13
[under foot]
Heraldry and mottos:
[under foot]


Probably acquired by Baron James de Rothschild ( b.1792, d.1868); by descent to his son Baron Edmond de Rothschild (b.1845, d.1934); by descent to his son James de Rothschild (b.1878, d.1957); inherited by his wife Dorothy de Rothschild (b.1895, d.1988); inherited by the present owner.
Exhibition history:
'Exposition des Arts Musulmans', Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, 1903.

'Beyond Boundaries – Islamic Art across Cultures’, Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, 22 November 2008 - 22 February 2009.
anonymous loan



Gaston Migeon; Exposition des arts musulmans: au Musée des arts décoratifs; Paris; Librarie centrale des beaux-arts; 1903; pl. LX.
Alfred Van de Put; Hispano-Moresque Lustreware of the Fifteenth Century. Supplementary Studies and Some Later Examples.; London; Art Worker's Quarterly; 1911; p. 74.
Manuel González Martí; Cerámica del Levante español, siglos medievales [t. 1] Loza; Barcelona; Editorial Labor; 1944; fig. 301.
Anthony Ray, The Rothschild 'alfabeguer' and other fifteenth-century Spanish lustred 'basil-pots, The Burlington Magazine, 142, 2000, 371-375; pp. 371-375, ill.
Anthony Ray; Spanish pottery 1248-1898: with a catalogue of the collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum; London; V & A Publications; 2000; p. 73.
Marco Spallanzani; Maioliche Ispano-Moresche A Firenze Nel Rinascimento; Florence; Studio Per Edizioni Scelte; 2006; p. 219, pl. 74.
Oliver Watson; Beyond Boundaries, Islamic Art Across Cultures; Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar, 4 November 2008 - 22 February 2009; Middle East; Museum of Islamic Art; 2008; pp. 64-65, ill.

Indexed terms