‘A Castelli Maiolica Pharmacy Syrup-Jar of 'Orsini Colonna' Type’, ca. 1540-1550, Christie's Old Masters


The present spouted syrup-jar is part of a group of pharmacy bottles, albarelli and other vessels which were originally thought to have come from one pharmacy in Rome, but which are now thought to have come from more than one pharmacy. Although the association of jars of this type appears to be with the Orsini family, they have come to be called 'Orsini-Colonna' type after Bernard Rackham used the term in relation to the two-handled pharmacy bottle in the British Museum which shows the emblem of the Orsini family, a bear, embracing the Colonna family device of a column, accompanied by the inscription ET SARRIMO BONI AMICI ('and we shall be good friends'). The Orsini family connection is uncertain as the Orsinis were the feudal Lords of Castelli until 1526, and there are persuasive reasons to believe that the jars are a little later, but as a number of pieces bear the Orsini arms and emblems it is 'entirely possible that at least part of the production may have been under the patronage of members of the Orsini family'.

It has only recently been discovered that these jars were made at Castelli; having previously been attributed to most of the great maiolica centres. Excavations at the site of the Pompei workshop in Castelli in the 1980s uncovered a large quantity of fragments of kiln waste which relate to the 'Orsini-Colonna' type jars, and the findings were exhibited at Pescara and published. Comparisons with ceiling tiles formerly in the local church of San Donato showed further similarities, and in combination it demonstrated that most, if not all, jars of this type were made at Castelli. Vincenzo de Pompeis proposed a stylistic chronology for the jars having made careful detailed comparisons with the church tiles. The simple flat yellow ground found on this syrup-jar, and the scrolling panel which encloses it, are both characteristics of what de Pompeis proposed are the first, and earliest, group.

Only Orazio Pompei's signature has been found on the surviving jars, but not all of the jars are attributable specifically to him. There were at least five members of the second generation of the Pompei family who could have been involved, among others. The features and handling of the woman's face on this syrup-jar are remarkably close to a tile depicting the Virgin Mary which was formerly in the church of San Donato, and it is also very similar to the large two-handled bottle painted with Lucretia against a similarly flat yellow ground.

Advances in pottery or maiolica making in 15th- and 16th-century Italy enabled potteries to supply pharmacies with increasingly sophisticated drug-jars, and this trade was also fuelled by advances in medicien. Physicians increasingly questioned the received wisdom of ancient medical texts, and there was a renewed interest to study and classify plant species and increase understanding of their medicinal properties.

Different forms of jar were devised to store the various types of medicinal mixtures. The most typical form was the albarello, an innovation from the Islamic world. Albarelli are cylindrical storage jars with a flange at the top, over which a parchment or leather cover would be tied. Albarelli were used in apothecaries and monasteries for storing medicinal mixtures, either solid or viscous, and from about the middle of the 15th century the idea of decorating the albarello with a label, indicating the contents, was introduced. At a later date some albarelli were still produced without labels as the painted drug name restricted the freedom of the apothecary to change the contents if needed. Other forms of jars were made including bottle-shaped jars and 'syrup-jars' with spouts, as is the case here. Potteries made sophisticated designs and more 'basic' designs, depending on the prospertiy of the pharmacy which required them. It has been suggested that brilliant and sophisticated designs on drug-jars would have been good for business, adding gravitas to the establishment and indicating the trustworthiness of their medicines.