Basil. The royal herb. The aromatic genius of the kitchen. The leaf of choice, the taste most lovely.
The painting portrays Isabella, unable to sleep, dressed in a semi-transparent nightgown, having just left her bed, which is visible with the cover turned over in the background. She drapes herself over an altar she has created to Lorenzo from an elaborately inlaid prie-dieu over which a richly embroidered cloth has been placed. On the cloth is the majolica pot, decorated with skulls, in which Lorenzo’s head is interred. Her abundant hair flows over the pot and around the flourishing plant, reflecting Keats’s words that Isabella “hung over her sweet Basil evermore,/And moistened it with tears unto the core.”
Lovely leg stretching out there. At first I thought it was a hopeful caress. But no, they tell me, no. This is the banquet that preludes the deed!
The painting illustrates an episode from John Keats‘s poem, Isabella, or the Pot of Basil, which describes the relationship between Isabella, the sister of wealthy medieval merchants, and Lorenzo, an employee of Isabella’s brothers. It depicts the moment at which Isabella’s brothers realise that there is a romance between the two young people, and plot to murder Lorenzo so they can marry Isabella to a wealthy nobleman. Isabella, wearing grey at the right, is being handed a blood orange on a plate by the doomed Lorenzo. A cut blood orange is symbolic of the neck of someone who has just been decapitated, which is a sign of how Lorenzo will be killed by Isabella’s brothers. One of her brothers violently kicks a frightened dog while cracking a nut.