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Ewer and basin

  • Place of origin:

    Venice (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1580 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Silver-gilt, raised, chased, embossed and cast

  • Credit Line:

    Dr W.L. Hildburgh Bequest

  • Museum number:

    M.237&A-1956

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 62, case 12 []

Ewer and basin sets were originally used for hand washing during meals. The design of this ewer, however, is impractical. It would have been impossible to use as a vessel due to its weight, its small foot and its awkwardly-placed handle. Both the ewer and the basin are lavishly decorated with images of classical deities surrounded by strapwork patterns and embossed designs of fruit and foliage. Heavy, elaborately decorated objects like these were not functional but were made solely for display and would have been seen at grand dinners held by fashionable Venetians.

Physical description

Ewer, silver-gilt, with classical urn-shaped body on small round foot, a cast mask and headdress forming the neck and spout and a cast figure forming the handle. The body decorated with chased and embossed unidentified classical scenes surrounded by strapwork patterns and designs of fruit and foliage. Basin, silver-gilt, the inner section chased and embossed with three scenes containing amorini riding sea-horses, the outer section with six scenes, three similar to the ewer interspersed with three showing a horse, stag and bull. Bolted to the recessed centre is a round medallion with two clasical female figures supporting a plain oval shield.

Place of Origin

Venice (made)

Date

ca. 1580 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Silver-gilt, raised, chased, embossed and cast

Marks and inscriptions

on reverse: town mark for Venice

on reverse: maker's mark W and SB in monogram, unidentified

Dimensions

Height: 43.9 cm ewer, Width: 18.7 cm ewer, including handle, Diameter: 16.6 cm ewer, of body, Weight: 2.67 kg ewer, Diameter: 67.5 cm basin, Depth: 7.5 cm basin, Weight: 3.74 kg basin

Object history note

Entered the Museum's collections as part of the bequest of the American-born collector, Walter Leo Hildburgh, in 1956.

Historical significance: An almost identical copper-gilt ewer and basin (the subjects of the decoration are different) are in the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin, believed by Hayward to be by the same unknown goldsmith (see References).

Historical context note

Before the second half of the 16th century when the use of personal forks at the dining table became widely established across Italy, dining could be a very messy affair. Although knives and spoons were in frequent use, forks were largely confined to the final 'banqueting' course, for eating sticky sweetmeats and fruits. As a result the ceremony of handwashing took on great significance. At the beginning and end of a meal, a ewer and basin were brought to the dining table by servants so that diners could wash their greasy hands from a basin replenished with flower-scented water poured from the ewer. Since basins were brought to each guest and appreciated at close range, they were often elaborately decorated.

By the time this ewer and basin were made most wealthy Italian households would have used forks on a regular basis for grand dining occasions, limiting the need for handwashing. This pair was therefore probably made for public show, a demonstration of magnificence, rather than for use. This is also suggested by the top-heavy design of the ewer, rendering it impractical. The large size, gilding and fashionable hammered decoration of the pieces would have advertised to guests the wealth and taste of the owner. They would probably have been placed in a prominent position on a credenza (a form of dresser, often a temporary tiered structure erected for specific occasions) alongside other silver and silver-gilt vessels in the same room where the meal was taking place.

Descriptive line

Ewer and basin, silver-gilt, Italy (Venice), about 1580

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Pazzi, Piero. Introduzione al Collezionismo di Argenteria Civile e Metalli Veneti Antichi. Pietas Julia Pola (Pula), 1993, pp. 54-5
Hayward, J.F. Virtuoso Goldsmiths and the Triumph of Mannerism 1540-1620. London: Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications Ltd., 1976, pp. 163, 371, plates 354-5
Oman, Charles. Italian Secular Silver. London: HMSO for Victoria and Albert Museum, 1962, Introduction and plates 9-14. V&A Small Picture Book No. 57.
Oman, Charles. Argenti italiani al Victoria and Albert Museum. In: Antichità Viva VI.5 (1967), 43-53.
Patterson, Angus, Fashion and Armour in Renaissance Europe: Proud Lookes and Brave Attire, V&A Publishing, London, 2009, ISBN 9781851775811, p. 94, ill.

Labels and date

EWER AND BASIN
Silver-gilt
Marked with W and SB
ITALIAN (Venice); about 1580
Bequeathed by Dr. W.L. Hildburgh F.S.A.
M.237&a-1956

Ewer and basin sets were originally used for hand washing during meals. The design of this ewer, however, is impractical. It would have been impossible to use as a vessel due to its weight, its small foot and its awkwardly-placed handle. Both the ewer and the basin are lavishly decorated with images of classical deities surrounded by strapwork patterns and embossed designs of fruit and foliage. Heavy, elaborately decorated objects like these were not functional but were made solely for display and would have been seen at grand dinners held by fashionable Venetians. [22/07/2004]

Production Note

Hayward dates these to the early 17th century (see References) but subsequent opinion favours an earlier date.

Materials

Silver-gilt

Techniques

Raising; Casting; Chasing; Embossing

Categories

Ceremonial objects; Containers; Food vessels & Tableware; Metalwork

Collection

Metalwork Collection

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