Isabella and the pot of basil. Has JK Rowling gone a little botanical? Sorry but it does sound a little..Harry Potter and the..... No, Isabella and the pot of basil has now come to my full attention thanks to browsing 'Look' the Art Gallery of NSW magasine which in one of the articles has an image of yet another painting entitled "Isabella and the pot of basil".
The first painting I came across with that title was by William Holman Hunt (1868). 15 years ago I had thought the subject a little quirky but gave no further investigation for after all the Pre-raphelite's and their ilk could be considered eccentric enough to find pots of basil symbolic. Since then I am now aware of J.W. Waterhouse's, John Melhuish Strudwick's, Mellais' and lastly in today’s article John White Alexander's paintings of the same name. I thought I knew most of the Greek and Roman myths as I assumed that they were the origin of the painter's inspiration. Obviously I had missed the one about the basil. Would it be a tale of basilian significance in which a sprig of the pungent herb saves the day? My curiosity sufficiently piqued I googled the lady and her plant. John Keats wrote a very long poem about Isabella and her pot plant. Keats got his inspiration from an Italian called Boccaccio and his collection of tales the 'Decameron'. One of course features a young woman called Lisabetta and you guessed correctly some basil. Lisabetta’s brothers murder the man she loves and in grief she keeps his head in the pot of the basil which is almost weired enough to be an ancient myth. Gossip has it that Boccaccio like most popular story tellers borrowed most of his ideas from earlier sources. So maybe my fancy of a forgotten myth of a maiden who falls in love with a sprite that gets turned into a basil plant by a jealous god isn’t so far fetched after all? Or not.