Magical Properties: Uncovering the Long-Forgotten: The Potent Origins of a Simple Red Jug

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Soon after I joined the Museum two years ago, a simple red jug in the ROM's collections began to intrigue me. For drama, it didn't come close to a dinosaur skeleton or an Egyptian Book of the Dead. It had no immediately apparent artistic or historical merit. And yet I felt certain that it must be exceptional in some way because it appeared to have once been counted among the contents of an early modern wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities.

Tiny personal museums holding the wonders of nature and handicraft, wunderkammers were popular during the 16th and 17th centuries. The largest and best of them were the pride of emperors, dukes, and scholar-collectors. At a time when discovery and cataloguing of the world was just beginning, possessing marvellous natural specimens and ingenious art works was felt to reflect glory on the collector as a knowledgeable master of the universe. While it was easy for me to see why an ostrich egg made into a precious silver table decoration or a remarkable narwhal tooth would have been considered wonders, why was this plain red pottery jug accorded the same honour? Then, I discovered the answer in an unexpected quarter--magic.

The jug arrived in the Museum's early days along with some unrelated unglazed pottery and it ended up among the Greek and Roman collections--early curators had been equally confused by the jug's provenance and significance. Curator John Hayes eventually realized it didn't belong in Greek and Roman and sent it to Lisa Golombek, curator of Islamic art. Hayes included this note: "Have heard things like this called Egyptian, 'Assiut ware', 19th cent." Red Assiut pottery certainly shares a red glossy surface with our jug, but this proved another wrong track. The jug was put into storage and forgotten.

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It wasn't until my curiosity about the piece led me to begin digging through published 16thand 17th-century wunderkammer inventories and scholarly articles about several European collections that the piece's history became clear. I discovered objects similar to our red jug, and realized that it was a type of pottery known in the 17th century as terra sigillata. Such pieces had indeed once been valued objects. Wunderkammers of the Hapsburg Empire had once contained many of these objects: Emperor Rudolph II's inventory of 1607-1611 listed a selection of them; Archduke Albert, once governor at Lisbon on behalf of Philipp II, held several among his collection; and the 1598-1607 inventory of King Philipp II himself listed several. Such jugs had served as royal tablewares: Diego Velazquez' Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour, 1656) shows a small red jug similar to the ROM's being presented on a silver tray to a princess.

Philipp II's inventory gave me my first clue as to why the jug was so prized. It is recorded as being "made from the red clay of Estremoz." I discovered that this clay--dug from the northern Alentejo region of Portugal, southwest of Lisbon--was thought to have magical properties, and anything made from it was therefore considered highly desirable.

Though it sounds far-fetched today, in the 16th and 17th centuries an approach to nature called magia naturalis was established as a scientific discipline. Criticized by the time of the enlightenment and ridiculed by the 19th century, the ideas and methodologies of natural magic are viewed differently today--as an important stage on the way to a modern scientific worldview. But four or five centuries ago was a time of scientific revolution--evolution--en, step by step, scholars and practitioners learned to understand and control the natural world. Advocates of natural magic were convinced that nature contained intrinsic connections and provided a solution for every problem, particularly medical ones. Special earths and clays were foremost among the materials used by practitioners.

Clay from the Greek island of Lemnos, called terra lemnia, was the most valued type of earth, but throughout the 16th and 17th centuries many other sources were "discovered. …