Saturday, August 23, 2014

Pompeii No.25: Adding Coral For Good Health

This week I'm adding coral branches to the mural!

Coral, once believed to be a sea plant, is actually the cumulative skeletal remains of living animals called polyps. For thousands of years, many cultures have viewed coral as a decorative gem as well as protection against disease.

In Ancient Rome, coral was believed to protect against childhood disease and to avert evil, and it's still seen as good luck in Mediterranean countries and places like India, Tibet and Japan.

Piero della Francesca  |  Rizzoli
Piero della Francesca portrayed the Christ Child with this necklace of coral, and hanging from it, a coral branch. The painting dates to circa 1475.

Mantegna: I Maestro del Colore  |  Fratelli Fabbri
Mantegna (one of my favorite artists) hung a huge branch of coral above the Madonna and Child in this painting, which dates about 20 years later than della Francesca's. Below is a detail.

Mantegna: I Maestro del Colore  |  Fratelli Fabbri
I'll be using della Francesca's and Mantegna's coral as models, but . . .

. . .  I wanted to include later images of coral to illustrate how the gem was revered through the ages. The painting above, by Jan Claesz, dates to circa 1609, and shows a girl who has both a coral necklace and a rattle that incorporates pink or white coral at its tip.

Christie's auction
Such rattles often doubled as whistles. Above are English rattles dating to the early 20th century, a full 400 years after the rattle in Jan Claesz's painting. My blogging friend Rosemary, of Where Five Valleys Meet, says of these rattles, "The coral section of the English Victorian rattles was there to sooth the baby's gums when teething. Coral did not chip or splinter, and is cool to the touch. The coral also provided some comfort and reassurance to parents because of its mystical protection, as you have mentioned."

Incidentally, these four rattles recently sold at auction for approximately $2200, total, which I imagine would make a collector of such items very happy.

I'll be hanging the coral branches
over the mural's three smaller garlands.

click to enlarge
Above are the finished corals. As you can see, I scoured the seas for three branches that were similar in shape as well as size.


  1. Hello Mark, Your coral branches add the right touch of irregular, natural form to the more stylized patterns already present. They also add a bright spot of color, referencing the red band below. And your painted versions endanger no coral reefs, while conveying, I am sure, all of the luck and protection of the original article.
    P.S.: Congratulations of four years of blogging, and always having something interesting and new to intrigue your readers.

    1. Hello, Jim,

      In my town of St. Petersburg, Florida, there are several buildings that are face with coral reef material, which gives the impression of fossils, though that has been since outlawed. Anyway, today pretty good reproductions can be cast in cement, and I see evidence of that around town, too.

      I've really enjoyed my four years of blogging, and by far the biggest pleasure has been becoming acquainted with fellow bloggers like you!

  2. Dear Mark - Congratulations on four years of interesting and noteworthy blogs.
    The coral section of the English Victorian rattles was there to sooth the baby's gums when teething. Coral did not chip or splinter, and is cool to the touch. The coral also provided some comfort and reassurance to parents because of its mystical protection as you have mentioned.

    1. Dear Rosemary,

      Thanks for being such a good correspondent; as I've said above, it's been my great pleasure.

      And thanks for that interesting information on the English rattles! I've added your comment to the text of the posting.

    2. Dear Mark, Surprise, Surprise! Coral for your Pompeian Room!. Just the right touch of color for your trompe l'oeil room.

      Congratulations on your 4 years of posting. Every one of your blog posts has been a great pleasure to read. I have enjoyed following you because I know that each and every one of your posts has been beautifully written and beautifully presented. You have introduced us to many unusual and historic places and many well known and not so well known artists.
      Thank you for your friendship.

    3. Dear Gina,

      Thank you for your friendship, and for all the fun exchanges. My goodness, four years has zipped by quickly, at least for me!

      Seeing the coral in Mantegna's paintings delighted me because I see them as very exotic symbolism, and early on I knew that I would fit them somewhere into the mural.

  3. Hello Mark, Congratulations on your four years of exceptional blogging - you've brought so much to us through your varied interests and talents, especially this wonderful Pompeiian room from which I have learned so much! And I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for the "drawing pigs blindfolded" post from a year or so ago.

    1. Thank you Barbara,

      Those pigs drawn blindfolded came from a book on handwriting analysis, and apparently the author found many such pigs in old Victorian autograph books. My friends and I had a fun time trying our hand at it, at a dinner party. Incidentally, I discovered in my biographical readings that one of the preeminent autograph collectors of the 19th century was none other than Queen Victoria.

  4. I've always been attracted by red coral - much used by Chinese artists in beautifully carved pieces. Not unlike ivory, and now of course both banned for their ecological destruction. I had no idea of the origins of their use, described both by yourself and Rosemary, and I found that all quite fascinating. I have two faux pieces mounted in lucite; they work perfectly well for me - in creating an attractive decorative conceit.

    1. I have also been attracted to red coral, and to cinnabar as well. Many years ago I was gifted with a piece of coral jewelry from a Japanese friend, and I have only recently fully understood the gift. Too soon old and too late smart!