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The Forgotten Histories of Today's Great and Ordinary Objects

Updated: Feb 28, 2023

Thanks to those who listened to my talk at Kellogg College, University of Oxford, as part of their Arts & Cultures Week 2022.

For those that missed it, my talk looked at some of the most beautiful objects we sell, including the Ginori Vase, Giardino dell'Iris, one of the finest product lines of the second oldest porcelain manufacturer in Europe, Richard Ginori 1735.

There are three shapes, the high shoulder vase and spherical vase in our shop window as I write, and a centrepiece plate. Each one is limited to an edition of 50. The body is decorated with hand painted flowers and butterflies and you can both see and feel the individual and delicate brushstrokes. The neck has acanthus leaves in relief and a frieze of small round flowers. On the front is the purple Iris where it gets its name, and a banner with the inscription Richard Ginori.

The iris we know is the flower of Florence, depicted in their coat of arms, as well as in many other noble houses in Europe, including the Fleur de Lis. Its believed the flower first made its way to Europe via Egypt in the second Millenium BC, and we see this sort of depiction in Minoan frescoes such as at the Palace of Knossos in Crete. Indeed, the Iris has obtained many positive meanings, including wisdom, hope trust and valour. For the Greeks today, they plant a purple iris on women’s graves so that the goddess Iris will help guide them to heaven. She does this because, in Greek mythology, she is the goddess of the rainbow, linking the earth to the Gods in the sky.

See the blue iris is at the base. Image: courtesy of Heraklion Museum: Illustrated Guide

There is also a hyacinth, whose name is associated with a struggle between the Gods Apollo and Zephr. For Apollo is said to be teaching Hyakinthos to throw a discuss, but Zephr sent a strong wind which repels it to Hyakinthos, who is struck and killed. A small flower sprang from his blood and that is how the flower got its name.

Then there are tulips of different varieties, tulips being an important and valuable flower in the 17th and 18th Centuries. And there are caterpillars and 4 butterflies. One reason to add small insects would be to mask imperfections in the manufacture, although this is not an issue Ginori would likely face.

The style of the flowers and insects is a very famous and popular one, it is after the important European artists Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 – 1717), Pieter Cos (1637) and Jacob Hoefnagel (1573-1632). Merian was a naturalist and scientific illustrator. In drawing and documenting these insects she also played an important role in describing the life cycle of caterpillar and butterfly as they metamorphized one to the other. Her work was in Europe and in Suriname in South America.

Most of Merian’s illustrations were based on direct observation, unlike many artists who had more artistic license. It is an important part of the technical virtuosity of the Ginori artistry that the illustrations appear exceptionally realistic, in the 17th Century style.

Lobmeyr tumbler

There are other objects in our collections that bear the same designs. They become obvious when looking closely, and are by the hand of the luxury glassmaker, J. & L. Lobmeyr. Lobmeyr is known as the finest glassmaker of chandeliers and crystal in Austria and can be found in most royal households across Europe, and farther afield such as the Metropolitan Opera and the Kremlin. Many of their crystal drinking vessels are hand-painted. Two of which have a particularly close association with the Ginori vase.

Firstly, the butterflies, each individually hand-painted today from Merrian’s tomes. Here they can be painted on pitchers, water and gin tumblers. Secondly, the tulips, which are taken from the book of Peter Cos (1634). These motifs are, like the ever-present tiger, all in fashion at the moment, seen on t-shirts, bags and earings. From Gucci and Versace, they drop down into everyday fashion.

Tulipmania Tumblers available in 60 hand-painted designs. Image courtesy of Lobmeyr.

Another object I discussed were the dinner collections from another Italian artist, Coralla Maiuri. The five collections we sell are inspired from the Villa Borghese and Piazza del Popolo in Rome. The Daphne collection is described by Coralla Maiuri thus: “A narrow pink and blue dotted rim surrounding a broad, delicate golden decor of stylised flowers; the center is white with subtle light blue, pink brushes and golden dots with sprinkles of black.”

The Daphne Dinner Plate: Image courtesy of Coralla Maiuri

Apollo and Dafne by Bernini

Our dish, Daphne, is of course named after the Greek Goddess Daphne, a water nymph who, legend tells us, was pursued by the God Apollo. Daphne, in her bid to get away from Apollo’s advances sought Gaia’s help, who transformed her into a laurel tree which Apollo adopted. The laurel wreath of course being the crown for the victor of the Pythian Games, it was worn by Julius Caesar and nowadays is a key symbol of the Olympics. I should expect it is represented by the wreath of twigs around the perimeter of the Daphne plate. The choice of pale blues also evokes this watery goddess.

Many modern collections have their heritage in Greek and Roman art. The design of the Labirinto collection in 1926 for Ginori by Gio Ponti, has recently been relaunched as one of Ginori’s most popular designs by artistic director Alessandro Micheli. The labyrinth gets its name from the maze like structure of the Palace of Knossos on Crete, where the minotaur, offspring of Poseidon and wife of King Minos, is hidden by the legendary inventor Daedalus. The palace uncovered by Arthur Evans in the early 20th Century lives up to this mythology. Although Evans found frescoes of lilies and bull jumpers, rather than minotaurs of later myth. Here again we have the lilies and Irises encountered in the Ginori Vase. The labyrinthine iconography is not limited to the Myceneaens of Knossos, but adorns many geometric vases from the Archaic and Classical periods, as well as from other cultures around the world.

The Labirinto Coffee cup and saucer by Ginori 1735

I then went on to compare these objects with some very ancient ones, including the Eleusis Amphora, a 7th Century BC vase which is covered in decoration. There are spirals and snakes, rosettes and flowers, and two scenes of heroic tale. The most prominent is on the neck, and shows Odysseus (in white) with two companions driving a spear into the one-eyed giant, cyclops, whom they have tricked into a drunken stupor. This allows the survivors to escape the cave and continue their adventure. On the shoulder of the vase is a lion attacking a horned boar, a reflection of struggle in nature, and on the body are a series of gorgons; they have heads in the shape of orientalising bronze cauldrons, a type of metalwork inspired by Eastern craftsmen, and they are fleeing another hero, Perseus.

Not all vases of the period had what we might call narrative decoration. Instead, many were only geometric. They also served a very different purpose to our own. In the Greek case, as vessels for burials and part of the grave goods. Greek cemeteries were often situated along the route to a city, and visitors could walk between the graves on their journeys. The Heroic figures would have had the opportunity to be seen. Even if the amphora was not used as a marker, and made for the funeral of the child, the imagery would be seen before the vase were committed into the earth and buried. But what do these images have to do with child they are marking? Other child graves give us a clue. In Lerna there is an infant buried inside a pithos, fit with a fibula, two bronze rings and two iron pins as well as the usual assortment of pottery. These items were clearly not to be used by the child, for they are too big, rather they are to mark what this person should have become, and what they would be destined to wear in adolescence in an idealised sense. The fibula in the Lerna tomb is decorated with a small flower, but let us remember that this decoration would be too small to be seen, except by the most intimate observer. The fibula itself was repaired in antiquity, and was probably an heirloom from another family member. It could have had stories of epic engraved into its surface, like the one where Herakles battles the Siamese twins. Indeed, Odysseus himself is said to have a double brooch in this style.

Where objects gain a particular potency is where they have a biography, a history of entangled relations. Such as the pot used for the burial, associated with its maker, patron and the deceased, or the fibula which was handed down by another. In Homer there are instances of cups being given to be used in memory of the giver, and a golden amphora, a gift from the God Dionysus, to mix the bones of the hero Patroklaus following the battle of Troy.

A more elaborate example is the prize Achilles gives at the funeral games of Patroklaus. It was a silver mixing bowl for wine, a krater, made by the Sidonians, given by the Phoenicians to Thoas, and Euenos, Son of Priam gave it to Patroklaus as a ransom for Lykaon. Odysseus is the hero who wins it.

Entangled objects show where the object carries with it some agency of its creator or past biography, or indeed the person who bought it. Nowadays the Ginori Vase is esteemed because of the brand of Ginori, but also because of Maria Merien of the 17th Century. To possess it is not only to have the vase but part of the brand, and this can be put to good use, whether wittingly or not.

Objects in this way can act as extensions of a person’s individuality, by representing a larger sum of their personhood, like the polythetic limbs that expand our agency today, such as the iphone or ipad. However, they do not only do this by association, symbolism or representation, but by the process of abduction.

Abduction is the subconscious and automatic inferences that objects abduct when they are observed. It is an inference explained by a general rule that is made possible by constraining the endlessly large number of explanations congruous with any given event. When smoke is seen one thinks fire; when someone smiles, we attribute friendliness. But you don’t have to think it, it just tends to happen. To find out more about this, it is worth looking out for Alfred Gell's book Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. (It is not a book for light reading. Gell's proposition is that art objects don't gain their potency by symbolism, but by being technically virtuous, a technology of enchantment).

Another important question I am often asked in the practice of interior design, is where and how to display such objects in the home? The answer is not obvious, and comes down to a question of balance and harmony in a room. It is important in any interior design scheme not to overemphasise any one object or design element, lest they glare at a visitor. Instead, a successful room is crafted so that it is impossible to say why it is so beautiful. Not many rooms have this success, but when they do the whole interior can act as a beguiling object, one in which enriches the lives of those who live in it, and provide a feeling that the world is working for them. And hopefully, provide the same experience to guests.

Many designers display such objects on a table or a wall, and in doing so control the way they are seen. Often, they are kept out of reach for a close observation, or only one side may be visible. This all goes to increase the objects power by, confusingly, reducing our ability to understand it or question it.

In this way, beautiful objects can inspire us without their histories, to be partially known but not fully. Like a room, to be aware that it is beautiful without quite knowing why, to see that the decoration is timeless and appropriate to behold.

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