The Decameron: The flowerpot’s grisly secret

John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Isabella (Lorenzo and Isabella) (1848-49), oil on canvas, 103 x 142.8 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Some stories in Boccaccio’s Decameron attained fame less in the original, but in much later retelling. A good example is the tragic tale of Lisabetta related by Filomena on the fourth day, when it was the fifth about those whose love ended unhappily.

In 1818, the British poet John Keats (1795-1821) wrote his version, titled Isabella, or the Pot of Basil, which was published two years later, shortly after the poet’s untimely death at the age of just twenty-five. It became one of his most popular works in the nineteenth century. Here I will tell Boccaccio’s original, using his version of the names, being mindful that Keats called his leading lady Isabella rather than Boccaccio’s Lisabetta. Her lover’s name, common to both authors, is Lorenzo.

Following the death of a rich merchant of Messina, his three sons inherited his riches. Their sister remained unmarried despite her beauty and grace. Lisabetta and Lorenzo, a Pisan who directed operations in one of the brothers’ trading establishments, fell in love with one another, and their relationship was consummated.

The couple had tried to keep their affair secret, but one night she was observed by one of her brothers making her way to Lorenzo’s bedroom; Lisabetta remained unaware of this discovery. Her brother was distressed by this, but decided to keep quiet, and discuss it with his brothers next morning.

The following day, the brothers decided that they would also keep quiet until the opportunity arose to end their sister’s relationship. One day they pretended that they were going to the country for pleasure, and took Lorenzo with them. When they reached an isolated location, the three murdered Lorenzo and buried his body. They then told their sister that they had sent him away on a trading mission.

Lisabetta was anxious for her lover’s return, and persistently asked her brothers for news of him. Eventually, one of them rebuked her for this nagging, so she stopped mentioning him altogether. But each night she kept repeating his name and pining for him. One night, having finally fallen asleep in her tears, she saw him in a dream, in which he said that her brothers had murdered him, and revealed where his body was buried.

In her grief, Lisabetta obtained the permission of her brothers to go to the country for pleasure. Once she had located where she thought Lorenzo was buried, she quickly found his corpse, which remarkably showed no signs of decay. As she couldn’t move his whole body for more appropriate burial, she cut off his head and concealed it in a towel.

When she returned home, Lisabetta cried greatly over Lorenzo’s head, washing it with her tears, then wrapped it in cloth and put it in a large pot. She covered it with soil and in that planted some sprigs of basil. These she watered daily with her tears, as she sat constantly beside the pot in between bouts of crying over it. As a result, the basil grew strong and lush, and richly fragrant.

William Holman Hunt (1827–1910), Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1867), oil on canvas, 187 x 116 cm, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Wikimedia Commons.

William Holman Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil from 1867 is intricately detailed, with several references to elements of the story, such as the relief of a skull on the side of the pot, a red rose on a tray by Lisabetta’s left foot, and a silver watering can at the bottom right. Behind her is the image of a bedroom, possibly showing Lorenzo coming to her in a flashback to their affair.

Joseph Severn (1793-1879), Isabella, or the Pot of Basil (1877), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Joseph Severn’s Isabella, or the Pot of Basil from 1877 appears remarkably high in chroma, and shows Lisabetta fondly embracing the pot and crying over the basil. Severn had been a personal friend of John Keats, and painted this just a couple of years before his own death.

Edward Reginald Frampton (1870-1923), Isabella, or the Pot of Basil (date not known), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Edward Reginald Frampton’s Isabella, or the Pot of Basil was probably painted towards the end of the nineteenth century, or possibly in the early twentieth. Lisabetta is kneeling before her pot of basil at an altar, with a crucifix behind.

Ricciardo Meacci (1856-1938), Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1890), watercolour, dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Ricciardo Meacci’s watercolour of Isabella and the Pot of Basil from 1890 shows Lisabetta embracing her pot of basil, as her three brothers watch with growing anger at her behaviour.

Her brothers began to suspect something, so had the pot removed from her room. This caused their sister deeper grief, and she kept asking after the pot.

John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1937), Isabella (c 1886), oil on board, 31.1 x 23.2 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

John Melhuish Strudwick’s Isabella from about 1886 shows Lisabetta staring in grief at the stand on which her pot of basil had stood. Through the window, two of her brothers are seen making off with the pot, and looking back at her.

The brothers examined its contents and discovered Lorenzo’s head. Scared that his murder might cause problems for them, they reburied the head, wound up their business, and left Messina for Naples.

Lisabetta’s grief only grew deeper, and destroyed her health completely. Still asking for her pot of basil, she finally cried herself to death.

Although the brothers had done everything to keep these events secret, eventually they became widely known, and were celebrated in folk verse.

John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Isabella (Lorenzo and Isabella) (1848-49), oil on canvas, 103 x 142.8 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The first and still greatest depiction of Keats’ retelling is John Everett Millais’ Isabella (Lorenzo and Isabella) from 1848-49, which he completed before he was twenty. It is also one of the earliest examples of Pre-Raphaelite art. This is a composite of different references to Keats’ poem and Boccaccio’s story, set at an imaginary family meal which the three brothers, Lisabetta and Lorenzo are taking together.

Lorenzo is sharing a blood orange with Lisabetta, white roses and passion flowers climbing from behind their heads. The dog, acting as a surrogate for Lorenzo, is being petted by Lisabetta, but one of her brothers aims a kick at it. Various other symbols are shown of the plot to kill Lorenzo: a brother staring at a glass of red wine, spilt salt on the table, and a hawk pecking at a white feather. The pot of basil is already on the balcony, awaiting Lorenzo’s head.

When exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1849, it was accompanied by verses 1 and 21 of Keats’ poem.