11536 A LARGE PAIR OF SHELLWORK PICTURES REPRESENTING THE RUINS OF THREE TEMPLES AT PAESTUM AND THE TEMPLE OF ISIS AT POMPEII Italian. First Half of the Nineteenth Century. Measurements: Height: 32 1/4″ (81.9 cm) Width: 37″ (94 cm) Depth: 1″ (2.5 cm).

Two views of ancient ruins, one depicting three temples at Pastaeum (formerly Poseidonia) labeled in shellwork VEDUTA DEL TRE TEMPIO DI PESTO, the other depicting the Temple of Isis, Pompeii, labeled in shellwork VEDUTA DEL TEMPIO D’ISIDE, each comprised of a variety of shells and algae, on a watercolor painted ground.  Each within a later giltwood frame.

One inscribed on back:

This extraordinary pair of pictures is executed almost entirely using various small shells and algae to depict ruins of ancient Greek and Roman temples at Paestum and Pompeii, respectively.

Paestum was located on the Tyrrhenian Sea in Magna Gracia, present day southern Italy. Originally called Poseidonia by the Greeks, the colony flourished in the 6th century BC due to its strategic position on trade routes with Etruscan cities to the north, as well as its geographic location in the fertile plains.1 By the third century Rome had taken possession of the area and renamed the city Paestum.

The city was laid out with two sacred areas to the north and south, separate from the spaces containing public buildings and houses. Poseidonia/Paestum also contains three of the most well-preserved ancient Greek temples in the world, illustrated here in the picture labeled “Veduta del Tre Tempio Di Pesto.” In the southern zone, and represented in the foreground, is the second Temple of Hera dating to 460-450 BC. The first Temple of Hera was erected in this area circa 550 BC, and is the largest, pedimented temple at the center.  As the chief goddess of Olympus, Hera was the sister and wife of Zeus, and was worshiped as the protector of women, particularly relating to marriage and childbirth. The third temple, in the northern part of the complex, was built circa 500 BC and was dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom and warfare, and is depicted in the background. This temple is notable for being the first Greek temple known to incorporate both Doric and Ionic elements.2

Due to its relative inaccessibility, it was not until the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the eighteenth century that the site of Paestum was rediscovered. Artists like Giovanni Battsita Piranesi and Hubert Robert documented the complex in their drawings, which were widely disseminated. “No less than eight fully illustrated accounts of Paestum were published between 1764 and 1784.”3 The prospect of the temples in the present picture is most closely related to a view engraved by J. Millar, and published in 1767 by John Berkenhout in The Ruins of Poestum or Posidonia, a City of Magna Graecia in the Kingdom of Naples (figure 1).

The second picture, identified as “Veduta Del Tempio D’Iside,” shows the Temple of Isis in Pompeii. It was the second edifice constructed on the site, after the original was destroyed by an earthquake, and dates from between the late 2nd and early 1st century BC. Unusually, it is a Roman temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and is the “only well-preserved edifice of Egyptian nature in the area of Vesuvius.”4 Its purpose is confirmed by a dedicatory inscription that reads: “Numerius Popidius Celsinus, son of Numerius, at his own expense restored from its foundations the Temple of Isis, which had collapsed in the earthquake.” The temple itself is a fusion of Egyptian, Greek and Roman architectural features, and is richly decoration on both the interior and exterior.

Isis was a deity who rose through the ranks of Egyptian divinities over time to become one of the most important and widely-venerated of the gods. The cult of Isis had spread throughout the Graeco-Roman world as a result of trade and diplomacy, particularly after Hellenistic rule of Egypt began with the command of Alexander the Great and the Ptolemaic dynasty in in 305 BC. This lasted until the death of Cleopatra and annexation of Egypt by the Romans in 30 BC. As a mystery religion, its secrets were revealed only to initiates and, therefore, little is known about the Roman worship of the goddess.5 However, it is known that, like Hera, Isis too was recognized as protector of women, newborns and family, as well as fertility and fortune, and her imagery was assimilated and incorporated into the Greek and Roman pantheons.

The Temple of Isis was one of the first structures to be excavated upon the discovery of Pompeii in 1764 and, once again, notable artists flocked to the region to capture the ruins in their drawings. The depiction that seems to have served as the source of the present shell picture is the engraving by Jean-Louis Desprez found in Jean-Claude Richard, Abbé de Saint Non’s Voyage pittoresque ou descrption des royaumes de Naples et de Sicile. Seconde partie du premier volume… Les Antiquités de Pompéii, (1782, Vol. I, Tav. 74) (figure 2).

The present pictures are remarkable for their faithful representation of the two landscapes in mosaic using miniscule shells for all of the architectural elements and algae as vegetation. The vogue for pictures in shell-work was an extension of the fascination and desire for grottoes, artificial caves decorated with rocks, glass, shells and other natural materials as well as water features. In some instances the materials were arranged to give a naturalistic aesthetic, but in other cases the walls were dressed with large scale geometric or pictorial mosaics. Grottoes were “consistently popular as garden features throughout Europe in the later 16th and 17th century,”6 fashionable as both a commercial enterprise as well as a domestic pastime. Producing shell-work was a careful and particular operation that required cleaning shells, sorting them according to type, size or color, varnishing to painting them, and gluing them to make a design were all delicate time-consuming tasks that required attentiveness and dedication.7 Furthermore, the shells required were expensive and, depending on the project, could number in the millions. By the eighteenth century shellwork was an especially popular feature in England, inspired in part by the masterpieces witnessed in Italian villas and acquired as souvenirs during the Grand Tour.

Pictures in shellwork of this size and complexity are extremely rare, and form a small and highly-prized group, including a pair of shell and coral pictures of classical buildings (substantially smaller than the present pieces) in the collection of Donnington Grove and the Hon. Ms. Daisy Fellowes sold at Dreweatt-Neate, 1 May 1991, Lot 180 for £50,000; and a pair of Louis XV shell, coral and quartz pictures of Labrador Retrievers sold at Chistie’s London, 10 December 2009, Lot 768 for £139,250.


  1. Wilson, Nigel. Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2013. 529.
  2. Ibid., 530.
    Early Publications
  1. Lang, S. “The Early Publications of the Temples at Paestum.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 13, no. 1/2, 1950, pp. 48–64. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/750142.
  2. Bricault, Laurent, M J. Versluys, and P G. P. Meyboom. Nile into Tiber: Egypt in the Roman World : Proceedings of the Iiird International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005. Leiden: Brill, 2007.
  3. Petersen, Lauren H. The Freedman in Roman Art and Art History. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011. 38
  4. Banham, Joanna. Encyclopedia of Interior Design. London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997. 535.
  5. Goggin, MaureenDaly. Women and Things: Gendered Material Strategies. Florence: Routledge, 2009. 96.

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