The Tale of Isabella and Lorenzo

You will never look at basil the same way again.

The group of English painters who dubbed themselves the pre-raphaelites in the mid 1800s held an unusual view. Those Michelangelo and Raphael guys, the pre-raphaelites said, yeah they’re no good. In the one of the more specific instances of golden age thinking, the group sought to return to the good old fashioned style of 15th century Italian art.

When not busy rallying against the biggest masters in western art, the pre-raphaelites explored romantic themes, focused on nature, and returned to medieval style symbolism. The pre-raphaelites loved visual interpretations of moralistic tales, Shakespeare’s plays, and English poetry. Amongst all these grand, romantic themes one oft produced story stands out: the Tale of Isabella and Lorenzo.

Once upon a time a lovely noblewoman named Isabella fell in love with this guy named Lorenzo. However, Isabella had brothers who wanted to marry her off to another wealthy noble. Thus, the brothers were rather displeased when they discovered the love affair between Lorenzo and Isabella. But, they had an easy fix. They murdered Lorenzo and told Isabella that he ditched her. Isabella was understandably upset until Lorenzo’s ghost appeared to explain what really went down. Isabella found Lorenzo’s body, presumably cried a bit before quickly gathering her wits and doing what any grieving girlfriend would do. SHE CUT OFF THE HEAD OF HER DEAD BOYFRIEND AND BURIED IT IN A POT AND THEN A BASIL PLANT GREW OUT OF IT.

Also, she went crazy.

Given the touching and not at all morbid nature of this tale, two major pre-raphaelite masters, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, both painted versions of the story. In Millais’ painting below, he depicts the moment when Isabella’s brother discovers the forbidden romance. Isabella, in grey, and Lorenzo in a dashing off-red smock, share a blood orange. But, Millais and the pre-raphaelites were really into symbolism, so that blood orange isn’t just a blood orange. It’s a fruit that foreshadows Lorenzo’s impending post-mortem decapitation. Also the guy kicking the dog is the jerk brother, in case you couldn’t guess.

Isabella and Lorenzo by John Everett Millais (1849)

In contrast, William Holman Hunt choses to showcase Isabella’s grief and spiral into insanity. There she is with her beloved basil plant/dead boyfriend’s buried head, lost in mourning. Things get further macabre — yes, it is possible — when one considers that Hunt likely used his late wife as model for Isabella. To round out the sense of tragedy, Hunt decorates the basil plant vase with skulls. Because, why not.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil by William Holman Hunt (1868)

In art history strange, bizarre, and morbid stories often end up on canvas, so it’s tough to rank the weirdness of the tale of Isabella and Lorenzo. Personally, it’s near the top for me. But, the unusual story just adds to the fun in exploring the highly detailed, symbol loaded paintings of the pre-raphaelites. I just think twice when I eat basil now.


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