Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Home Beautiful: The Fontana Salt Cellar, 1575-1580

The Fontana Salt
The Victoria & Albert Museum

Salt cellars held an important place in the home of the wealthy well into the Nineteenth Century. Salt, as hard as it is to imagine today, was a precious commodity and, because of that, elaborate containers were made to hold it. The salt cellar was placed on the table nearest to the head of the household. Those seated closest to the salt were the most honored guests—hence the phrase, “above the salt.” These cellars took a variety of ornate forms and were made from a host of interesting materials.

Here, we see a salt cellar from Italy in the Sixteenth Century. It is boat-shaped and molded in relief, with a goat's head above a lion's mask at either end. Constructed of tin-glazed earthenware, it is polychrome painted with reclining figures of Neptune and Amphitrite, a Triton and a Nereid. In the well, above the initials AZ, a shield with a cut scroll-work border, is rendered with a helmet and mantling. Though the imagery seems strange, it is actually quite commonplace since, as salt was derived from the sea, sea-gods were thought to be appropriate decorative elements.

This sort of colorful tin-glazed earthenware was known in Italy as “maiolica.” Urbino was a famous center for the manufacture of maiolica and it is believed that this salt cellar came from a workshop in that area.

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