Saturday, February 13, 2010
The Sad Story of Isabella and the Pot of Basil
Isabella and the pot of basil, 1868. By William Holman Hunt http://www.canvaz.com/h/Hunt-William-Holman/Isabella%20and%20the%20Pot%20of%20Basil-s.jpg
The name ¨basil¨ comes from ¨basileus¨, the Greek word for ¨king¨. That is because the herb was often used to treat the ailments of royals, and was often mixed in their baths to keep them healthy. Basil is an herb originally from India, where it has been cultivated for five thousand years. It is sacred to Vishnu and Krishna, it is a very precious plant (Tulasi) in Hindu homes and it is usual to put a basil leaf on the chest of a corpse before burial.
Tulasi is seen as the representation of the goddess Lakshmi. Basil is a symbol for love in Italy. If a man wishes to marry a woman, he calls upper her with basil in his hair. Ancient Roman marriage practices include exchanging basil leaves or sprigs. (Adapted from Thai Basil – The Siam Queen Takes Her Place in Vietnamese Pho).
Setting aside the terrible story of Isabella, it is an herb to enjoy, to enhance meals flavors and as drinkable tonic.
Isabella or the pot of basil, was a tale by Boccaccio (1313-1375), and years after, a poem by John Keats (1795 -1821). Isabella was a lady from Messina who falls in love with Lorenzo, the administrator of her brothers´ fortune. They learn about the meetings of the lovers, at first they were silent to avoid scandal, but one day, they invited Lorenzo to a festival outside the city and slained him. Isabella was told that Lorenzo had had to make a long journey abroad.
There was Lorenzo slain and buried in,
There in that forest did his great love cease;
Ah! When a soul doth thus its freedom win,
It aches in loneliness –is ill at peace
As the break-covert blood-hounds of such sin:
They dipp´dd their swords in the water, and did tease
Their horses homeward, with convulsed spur,
Each richer by his being a murderer.
But months pass, and he does not return; Isabella regrets and mourns the departure of her lover. One day, she falls asleep, exhausted, and Lorenzo´s bloody ghost appears before her. He tells her that he has been murdered by her brothers and indicates the place of his burial, which he describes by its trees and plants. The ghost, still in love, asks her in anguish to shed her tears on the earth to comfort him in his tomb.
Saying moreover, ¨Isabel, my sweet!
¨Red whortle-berries droop above my head,
¨And a large flint-stone weighs upon my feet;
¨Around me beeches and high chestnuts shed
¨Their Leaves and prickly nuts; a sheep-fold bleat
¨Comes from beyond the river to my bed:
¨Go, shed one tear upon my heather-bloom,
¨And it shall comfort me within the tomb.
So there Isabella goes, accompanied by an old nurse. They discover the body of Lorenzo, intact, because it was buried in clay soil, and decide to cut off the head, which remains as a relic to Isabella. Upon returning home, Isabella wrapped it in a silk scarf, perfumed with Arabian flowers, and places it in a garden pot, inside which soil is added and seeds of basil of Salerno are sown. She finds solace in seeing the plants grow from the flesh of his beloved. She cares obsessively for the basil and waters them with her tears. The basil grows beautiful, fragrant, much better than Florence´s. The brethren, see that every day she is in worst condition, and assuming her ill, in her confinement and devotion of the basil plants -that flowered as if by magic, and made her apart from the world- , take the basil pot away from her.
And, furthermore, her brethren wonder´d much
Why she sat drooping by the Basil green,
And why it flourish´d, as by magic touch;
Greatly they wonder´d what the thing might mean:
They could not surely give belief, that such
A very nothing would have power to wearn
Her from her own fair youth, and pleasures gay,
And even remembrance of her love´s delay.
Seeing Isabella´s despair to recover the vessel, they seek the roots below to find out the reason for such vigil. So they see inside Lorenzo´s head, and afraid to be discovered, they flee to Naples. Isabella dies shortly after in pain.
Thai basil plant. From http://www.lovingpho.com/
To read about the story
Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants by Charles M. Skinner, c. 1911. J.B. Lippincott Company
Complete Keat´s poem: