11014 A PAIR OF PATINATED AND GILT BRONZE MOUNTED OSIRIS-CANOPUS FORM VASES Probably Rome. Early Nineteenth Century. Measurements: Height: 15” (38.5 cm) Width: 6” (15 cm) Depth: 5 3/8” (13.5 cm).

Of patinated ‘green’ bronze with gilt bronze mounts on a later painted wooden plinth.  Each mounted on gilt bronze stands in the form of human feet standing on a plinth with an unusual angular block arrangement, the patinated bronze body of a cylindrical form raised on an ogee undermold with applied re-gilt meandering serpent motif decoration, surmounted with a carefully fashioned bust of gilt bronze with an Egyptian headdress. Formerly fitted as lamps with small filled entry holes to rear of headdress. A few replaced small “acorn” mounts. 

Engraved to the interior with the letter ‘B’

These vases display a bold and highly inventive rendering of the Egyptian taste, executed to a superb level of finish. The use of Egyptian imagery on decorative pieces underwent a series of phases during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, initially relying on sporadic and indirect sources, but increasingly borrowing from reliable archaeological discoveries as the decades progressed. However, despite the greater availability of genuine prototypes and publications, the style never seemed to lose its propensity to inspire artistic creativity and liberal interpretations, as in the case of the present vases. Designers working in Rome were at the vanguard of this taste; the most important of all was Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), who brought a new incisiveness to the genre in his Diverse Maniere d’Adornare I Cammini (Various Ways to Decorate Chimneypieces) (figure 1). After Piranesi’s successful application of the style in the interior of the Café Inglese in Rome in the 1760s it was confirmed as fashionable; even Pope Pius VI was enticed to deploy it in the Sala dei Papiri in the Vatican Museum, redecorated between 1771 and 1775 by Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779) (figure 2).

At the same time, the taste was transferred to decorative objects and furniture produced in Rome, where a characteristic inventiveness is especially observable. The Marchesa Margherita Gentili Boccapaduli was painted in 1777 by Laurent Péchaux in an interior surrounded by her collection, which included a side table in the Egyptian manner (figure 3). A similar marble table survives in the Pitti Palace in Florence, as does a carved and painted one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York;1 both are thought to be contemporaneous. Giuseppe Valadier, the preeminent maker of gilt-bronze objects in late eighteenth century Rome, produced objects in this style, as did important sculptors like Raffaello Rastelli; his clock now in the Reggia di Capodimonte Museum in Naples is in a similar creative spirit to the present vases (figure 4).2 Another prominent exponent of the Egyptian fashion in Rome was Francesco Righetti the Elder (1749-1819) who combined it with classical and other imagined forms to create remarkable objects including a center table in the collection of the Museum of Rome (figure 5).

French draftsmen working in Italy, such as Ennemond Alexandre Petitot (1727-1801) and Hubert Robert (1733-1808), stimulated this creativeness. Robert produced a set of curiously fanciful designs for Egyptian objects in 1763 that were published a decade later in the Abbé de Saint-Non’s Recueil des Griffonis (figure 6). In 1771 Petitot created a set of designs entitled Mascarade à la Grecque that was intended to satirize the newly fashionable goût grec. Some of these plates are reminiscent of the section that forms the footed pedestal on the present vases. It is likely that Petitot’s influential compendium of designs, Suite de Vases, which was published in 1764, would have been familiar to the manufacturer of these pieces.

On initial inspection one might assume that the present vases are an interpretation of a canopic jar of the kind used to hold the viscera removed from mummies during the ancient Egyptian embalming process. However, they are in fact a rendering of an Osiris-Canopus, a particular representational idol of the ancient Egyptian god Osiris, designed to be carried in a procession, where the jar section held water symbolizing the god’s role as the bringer of life.3 The Osiris-Canopus was an especially popular representation of the Egyptian god in ancient Rome, where cults of Osiris survived up until the Christian era.4  Several Osiris-Canopus vases were found across the ancient world; an especially important example was discovered at Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli in the middle of the eighteenth century (figure 8).5 Bernard de Montfaucon reproduced an Osiris-Canopus vase in his influential publication on the ancient world Antiquité Expliquée6 (figure 9), popularizing their use as inspiration in art objects such as the present pieces. The decorative potential of the Osiris Canopus was also recognized by Wedgwood, who used exactly the same source as design inspiration for one of his productions (figure 10). Similar smaller versions of the vases are employed by Valadier as decoration on his Egyptian clocks (figure 11).7

The decorative symbols on the present vases refer to the fertility rites in which the original Osiris-Canopus vases were used. They bear a rectangular compartment containing two baboons. It is clear that this is derived from a pectoral, a common form of jewelry in ancient Egypt worn on the chest, which was often depicted on these vases, and is present in the Montfaucon design and on the Wedgwood version. Baboons are frequently shown in ancient Egyptian art as greeting the rising sun and actual pectorals have been found in Egyptian tombs that are decorated with two of the creatures arranged around a winged sun symbol, similar to the arrangement on the vases. In ancient Egyptian mythology, baboons were most closely associated with the god Thoth, the maintainer of the universe.  Beneath them is a winged sun motif which has lost the flanking Uraei or rearing cobras, symbolic of royal sovereignty, that are so prominent on the Wedgwood version and its Montfaucon prototype. However, rearing serpents being attacked by a bird are shown elsewhere on these vases. Here again the designer has found a creative and unusual way to present these traditional images. Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the afterlife and mummification, is clearly shown on the vases in full-length profile. He presided at the weighing of the heart ceremony that Egyptians believed greeted newly-dead souls as they entered the afterlife. He was close to Osiris, who was simultaneously god of new life and king of the underworld. The scarab beetle, a popular symbol to the ancient Egyptians, is also present. It represented the sun god Ra, who they thought rolled the sun across the sky much like the beetle rolled its ball of dung across the ground. These symbols are associated with the mythology of the new day and the beginning and end of life, appropriate decoration for an idol of Osiris.

As was the case with numerous other Egyptian inspired pieces of the eighteenth century, the present vases feature fictive Egyptian hieroglyphs. The ancient writing was not understood until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which was finally used to translate the language in 1820. However, the beauty and mystique of the lettering made it a popular decorative element in objects produced in the Egyptian taste.

Egyptian-inspired design emerged at various times throughout the eighteenth century, but reached its high point towards the end of the century and beginning of the following, owing to Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaigns in the Middle East. In 1802 Napoleon’s artistic advisor Dominique Vivant, Baron Denon (1747-1825), designed the impressive Sèvres Egyptian service, and in the following year published his Voyage dans la basse et la haute Egypte. Its lavish illustrations immediately increased the taste for all things Egyptian further. The style would continue to exert an influence in Italy, particularly in the works of Antonio Niccolini (1772-1850) who worked for the King of Naples. His canopic-inspired decorative vases at the foot of the Scala di Capimonte in Naples, installed in the early 1830s, retain the inventive tradition of the present examples (figure 12).

The fashioning of these vases has been executed at a very high level; the intricately-worked mounts are of an unusual character, eschewing the more formal Gallic approach in favor of naturalism, particularly evident in the treatment of the scarab beetle, serpent and bird.

1. Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Table [Italian (Rome)],” Inventory No. 41.188.
2. Alvar Gonzalez-Palacios, Il Tempio Del Gusto – Le Arti Decorative In Italia Fra Classicism e Barocco, Roma E Il Regno Dell Due Sicilie, (Milano: Longanesi & C., 1984) 132.
3. Anne Roulle, The Egyptian and Egyptianizing Monuments of Imperial Rome, (London 1972) 99.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid. (Vatican Museums, Museo Gregoriano Egizio, Osiris-Canopus, Inventory No. 22852).
6. Bernard de Montfaucon, L’Antiquité expliquée, Tome II, (1722) 322.
7. Gonzalez-Palacios, 112.

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