11041 A PAIR OF UNIQUE GILT COPPER CEREMONIAL LANTERNS WITH NARWHAL TUSK SHAFTS Probably Venice. Seventeenth Century. Measurements: Height: 72″ (183 cm); Width: 10.25 (26 cm).

Of narwhal tooth, beaten copper, cast brass, iron and lead-glass. The horn shaft carved to emphasize its spiral form, lower finial of copper, iron hook midway up shaft, additional carved collar of horn over join to upper neck support, of copper with spherical section in cast brass, curving neck with curling decorative protrusion, dividing to from a semi-circular holder for lantern head, held on either side with original screws and nuts with rosette heads. Evidence of original glue on shaft is present in various locations. Lantern head formed of a crimped hood with finial, with air vents beneath, joined to the base with three long supports, one pane across mid-way, all with engraved markings. Lower section formed by a semi-spherical base with three crescent-shaped holes and semi-circular detailing around lower section. Evidence on inside of use. Metallic sections all with lead-based gold paint, one lantern with remaining original lead-glass shade with spiral-optical pattern. Two gilt copper rosettes replaced. William Gudenrath of the Corning Museum of Glass fabricated one replacement shade.

Corning Museum of Glass confirmed the date and Venetian origin of the glass.

An Old Stoke-on-Trent, UK Private Collection

The present lanterns are mounted on shafts of carved “tusks” from the narwhal, a medium sized whale endemic to the Arctic Circle. Rather than tusks, however, the shafts are, in reality, made of large canine teeth that protrude from the animal’s mouth, which it uses for fighting and breaking ice.

A dating of the lanterns to the seventeenth century means that when they were first made, many still believed that these tusks were alicorns, the horns of the legendary unicorn, and as such had considerable magical and spiritual significance. A pair of lanterns made from this material would have offered the vehicle to which they were originally attached the twin boons of lighting and spiritual protection on a journey, whilst also likely acting as an expensive and rare enhancement designed to impress and astound.

These lanterns appear to be entirely unique; no other Narwhal-shaft example is yet to come to light. Family tradition of their last owner stated that it had always been thought that they were Venetian. This supposition has now likely been confirmed by the existence of related pieces in the Museo Correr in Venice, technical evaluation on the spiral glass shade and, fascinatingly, that the existence of high levels of chlorine in the glue and on the metal, most likely resulting from a reaction brought on by exposure to salt water.1 Furthermore, Bill Gudenrath, an internationally respected authority on historic hot glassworking techniques, and Resident Advisor at the Corning Museum of Glass, confirmed that the glass shade is most likely Venetian. The optic molding of its grooves was used in that region for beautification, but also for refraction and the enhancement of the strength of the light, a similar effect to what was later patented by Augustin-Jean Fresnel for lighthouse lenses in the eighteenth century. The piece also displays evidence of being made in a typically Venetian double-ended furnace. Lead glass is more unusual for Venice, but far from unheard of, and may have been selected in this instance for practical reasons, with the aim of making the light from within the lantern yet more brilliant.

Although sturdy, it is clear that the lanterns were not made for a sea-faring vessel; Venetian ships did often have elaborate lanterns known as fanale in their sterns, however they were invariably fastened to the deck by means of a pole or built into the ship in order to withstand the tumult of stormy seas and combat.2 What is more likely is that these lanterns were made for a ceremonial barge, used by a Venetian grandee to traverse the city’s calm waterways and canals. Such barges were frequently treated as an opportunity to signify status and power to the public, the most famous of these was the Doge’s, the Bucintoro, the eighteenth century incarnation of which was 115 feet long, 26 feet high, featured innumerable sculptural ornaments and was filled with paintings and tapestries; effectively a floating palace.3 Other members of the city’s elite used smaller, but still intensely grand barges called Peatoni, which generally measured around 43 feet.4

The presence of a pair of “unicorn” horn lanterns on one of these barges would have appeared astounding to the seventeenth century viewer. The horn from which the lanterns are made has been heavily worked to additionally emphasize its natural spiral formation and to create a perfectly smooth and lusterous (as opposed to the natural dry texture) surface, a technique that is in evidence on other Italian examples, such as a horn now in the collection of the Museo Civico Medievale in Bologna, which is thought to have been originally owned by the ruling Medici Family of Florence (figure 1). A further example of this reworking occurs on a walking stick in the Danish Royal Kunstkammer at Rosenborg (De danske Kongers kronologiske Samling, Nr. 13.304).

Most of the metal sections of the lanterns are made from copper and brass, the former of which was a major product of Venice from the mid fourteenth to the eighteenth century. At times Venetian copper was the most sought after type available in Europe; as early as the fourteenth and fifteenth century there is evidence that the trans-Saharan caravan trade preferred Venetian copper to the products of other centers.5 The closest regional sources for the raw materials needed to make copper objects were in the Upper Veneto in the Belluno dolomite rocks and the Valle del Fersina where immigrant families of miners from the Tirol and Carinthia had been settling since the thirteenth century.6  However, it seems that in later centuries, as in the case of Venetian glass, raw materials were brought from further afield to the city for processing into fine objects, often from Hungary and Poland, transported via Vienna.7 It is interesting to note that the Jewish area of medieval Venice was originally the site of the Ghetto Vecchio, the city’s municipal copper foundry,8 causing the area to be referred to as ‘Ghetto’, the root of the word which is still in widespread use today.

The Museo Correr, the Museum of the History of Venice, has a collection of copper lanterns made in the city that share a number of the characteristics of the present pair. Two of these are fully closed except for a front light fitted with a lens, were called the so-called dark lantern or bailiff, and were used to directly illuminate the subject whilst leaving the carrier in the shadows (figure 2). One of these additionally appears to retain traces of oil gilding similar to that on the present lanterns. Another example has a body of faceted cristallo, which would appear to be of a similar standard of technical sophistication as the spiral shade on the present lanterns (figure 3). These lanterns have certain other commonalities with the present pieces in the method of their manufacture, such as their crimped ‘hoods’ with air vents beneath, plain friezes with ‘D’ shaped molds and exposed soldered joints.

The intensity of the reverence and awe held in Europe during the middle ages and into the early modern period for Narwhal of tusks is hard to imagine today. Yet for centuries such horns were considered among the most valuable and rare objects in existence. For this reason they were occasionally gifted between monarchs and princes; one on display at the Musée National du Moyen Âge in Paris was presented by the Caliph of Bagdad to the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne in 807.9 The Habsburg Schatzkammer in Vienna contains several fine objects made from the tusk, including one of the most important pieces, the imperial scepter, made for Emperor Matthias in 1615. At this time it was believed that only a young Virgin girl could catch a Unicorn, causing them to symbolize purity, and linking them to the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ. The horn therefore became a symbol of the power of Christ, and when integrated into the scepter, represented how the Emperor wielded that power.10 This may have been the inspiration for the now lost ‘Hand of the Unicorn’, one of the scepters in the French Regalia, also made from the tusk. The apparent religious significance of such pieces is reflected in such horns being used to make processional candlesticks and torches, as with an example in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, thought to date from the thirteenth century (figure 4). The king of Denmark, Frederick III, commissioned an entire throne made from the tusks, which was finished between 1662 and 1671 by Bendix Grodtschilling, the court Furniture Maker. It was used at all Danish coronations between 1671 and 1840, and remains in the Danish Royal Collections today (figure 5).

The belief in the unicorn is confirmed by its appearance in proto-scientific books where unicorns were frequently presented next to animals we would recognize today.  The Historiae Animalium or Histories of the Animals by Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) was in many respects continuing the tradition of the medieval Bestiary, whilst displaying some attributes of a modern work of zoology. It is clear that belief in the unicorn lasted much longer than other legendary animals largely owing to the horns, which for centuries were taken by many learned scholars as proof of the animal’s existence. The belief began to wane in 1638 when Ole Worm (1588-1654), an early Danish zoologist, published a treatise explicitly outlining how such horns came from narwhals, and how this probably meant the unicorn did not exist. However, it still seems that in spite of this evidence to the contrary, belief in the magical power of the horns persisted surprisingly late; Queen Caroline of Great Britain owned one of these horns in her collection of curiosities she formed in the 1720s and 30s,11 and powdered ‘unicorn horn’ was still being employed by the French court to protect against poison right up until the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789.12


  1. Report from Cranfield University.
  2. Peta Motture, Michelle O’Malley (Eds), Re-thinking Renaissance Objects, Design, Function and Meaning, London 2011, p. 85
  3. Sarah Bonnemaison. Christine Macy (Eds), Festival Architecture, New York 2007, p. 95
  4. Motture & O’Malley, op. cit., p. 83
  5. Lawrin Armstrong et al, Money, Markets and Trade in Late Medieval Europe: Essays in Honour of John H.A. Munro, Boston 2007, p. 447
  6. Ibid
  7. Alan M. Stah, Zecca: The Mint of Venice in the Middle Ages, Baltimore, 2000, p. 178
  8. Robert C. Davis, Benjamin Ravid, The Jews of Early Modern Venice, Baltimore, 2001, p. 9
  9. Yvonne Caroutch, Le livre de la licorne: symboles, mythes et réalités, Paris 1989, p. 231
  10. C. H. Beck, The Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna: The Imperial and Ecclestiastical Treasury, Volume 1, Vienna 2009, p. 18
  11. Joanna Marschner, Phd thesis: Caroline of Ansbach: The Queen, Collecting and Connoisseurship at the Early Georgian Court, London 2007 p. 197
  12. Donald R. Prothero, Robert M. Schoch, Horns, Tusks, and Flippers: The Evolution of Hoofed Mammals, JHU Press 2002, p. 278

Note: These pieces are subject to CITES regulations when exporting outside the EU.

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