Pilgrim flask

WB.64.a     1585–1600 • Tin-glazed earthenware (maiolica) • pilgrim flask

Part of a very ambitious and elaborate set of ceramic dining wares. Each piece in the set has the device and motto of Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. The device shows a piece of asbestos in flames, with the motto ‘it burns forever’, as an emblem of undying love. The roundel shows a man warming his feet in front of the fire, evoking Winter.

Curator's Description

Pilgrim flask with two scrolling handles terminating in masks; inscribed; the foot has a slot cut in each side; inscribed; the cap has a screw fitting; inscribed; earthenware covered with a presumed tin-glaze; inscribed; painted with grotesques, on each side is a medallion, one containing an old man warming his feet at a brazier (Winter) and on the other a nude male (Bacchus) holding two bunches of grapes (Autumn); inscribed; above each of these an impresa with burning asbestos and "ARDET AETERNUM"; inscribed.

This object was previously owned by Gavet, and collected and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.

How big is it?

22.6 cm wide, 39.5 cm high, 13.9 cm deep, and it weighs 1.5 kg

Detailed Curatorial Notes

Provenance: Appeared in the sale of J.R. Goven, London, 1857 (see bibliography), lot 85, where it was purchased by Falke for £2 13s. Subsequently appeared in the sale of Emile Gavet, Paris, 1897 (see bibliography), lot 392, entered the collection of Baron Ferdinand Rothschild the same year.

Commentary: From Thornton & Wilson 2009 - 'The figures represent autumn and winter. A set of dishes from the same workshop in the Castello Sforzesco, Milan, have the four seasons, with a figure of autumn from the same model as the figure on this flask. Some of the grotesques seem to be derived from the "Petites Grotesques" of Jacques Androuet Ducerceau but less meticulously followed than in some earlier cases. This flask is from one of the most ambitious and elaborate maiolica services of the late 16th century. At least 43 pieces bearing the device and motto, decorated with white-ground grotesques and "istoriato" scenes, are recorded [for a list see Thornton & Wilson 2009, no. 240].

There is no evidence as to the original size of the service, but the exceptional variety of forms surviving suggests that it may have been very extensive. Some contemporary aristocratic maiolica services were enormous; one made in Faenza in 1590 for Count Camillo Gonzaga, for instance, consisted of 601 pieces, the varied shapes of which are described in the contract documents. One supplied by the Patanazzi workshop in the 1590s consisted of over 300 pieces of some 40 different named forms. In the ARDET AETERNUM service, there seem likely to have been at least two of each of the types of pilgrim flask; and Autumn and Winter on the BM flask may have been paired with representations of Spring and Summer on a companion one.

The "impresa" represents a piece of burning "asbestos". This was a material, according to Pliny the Elder in his "Natural History", which came from the mountains of Arcadia; medieval interpretations suggested that, once set fire to, it could not be extinguished, which is the point of ARDET AETERNUM. According to Camillo Camillo's "Imprese illustri di diversi" of 1586, the emblem and motto were adopted by a young Sienese nobleman, Curtio Borghesi, as an indication of "la perseveranza dell'animo suo". It was an evidently suitable emblem for undying love, and this is clearly its meaning when used as the reverse of a double-portrait medal (illustrated) of Alfonso II d'Este (1533-97), Duke of Ferrara, and the young Margherita Gonzaga, whom he married as his third wife in 1579.

As early as 1836, in one of the first ever monographic studies on individual pieces of maiolica, Giuseppe Boschini described two plates from the series, linked them to the medal, and suggested that theiy were made for use at the Ferrarese court at the time of the Duke's marriage to Margherita and Alfonso. The Ferrarese court was famous for its elaborate banquets and court ceremonial. The service is not listed in the inventory of Alfonso's possessions made after his death in 1597, but that is perhaps because his successor had acted quickly to transfer various possessions made after his death in 1597, but that is perhaps because his successor had acted quickly to transfer various possessions, including "la maiolica che è nei camerini", to his new home in Modena.

Following the argument of Boschini, generations of scholars assigned the date 1579 to the service, and Alfonso Lazzari in his 1913 book, "Le ultime tre duchesse di Ferrara" wrote a vivid but entirely invented description of the use of the service at the wedding. However, no contemporary documentation has been found of this, and recent scholarship suggests a dating of the medal to the 1590s, some years after the marriage. The discovery that the large plate from the series in Milan is based on an engraving after Marten De Vos which is likely to be from the mid-1580s proves that at least part of the service must have been made some years after 1579. The "impresa" could have been used by the couple up to Alfonso's death in 1597, and by Margherita even afterwards: the sentiment of the "impresa" would not have been inappropriate to a widow.

Reasonably enough, some scholars since Boschini have supposed that the service was made at Ferrara. However, there is no documentary evidence for production of artistic maiolica in the circle of the Este court at Ferrara in the closing years of the 16th century. Furthermore, the style and technique are so close to works marked as made in the workshop of the Patanazzi family and that is almost certainly the correct attribution. The close similarities to the service made for the Count of Lemos, which....may have been made in the Patanazzi workshop in 1599, suggest that this service was made some years after 1579, perhaps from the last decade of the century.'

A salt from the same service is also in the British Museum, (reg. no. 1884,0618.3), there is also a medal in the BM collection which has the inscription ARDET AETERNUM (reg. no. G3,FerrM.81).


  • 'Catalogue of the Choice Collection of Works of Medieval Art formed by J.R. Gowen, Esq.', Christies, London, 23 February 1857, lot 85
  • Emile Molinier, 'Collection Emile Gavet : catalogue raisonné précédé d'une et́ude historique et archéologique sur les oeuvres d'art qui composent cette collection', Paris, 1889, no.552
  • 'Catalogue des objets d'art et de haute curiosité de la Renaissance...La Collection de M[onsieur] Emile Gavet, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, May 31–June 9, 1897, lot no. 392
  • Charles Hercules Read, 'The Waddesdon Bequest: Catalogue of the Works of Art bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898', London, 1902, no.64
  • A. Van de Put, 'The Lemos and Este Bottles in the Waddesdon Bequest', The Burlington Magazine, vol VII, London, 1905, pp.467-469
  • O.M. Dalton, 'The Waddesdon Bequest', 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no.64
  • A.V.B. Norman, 'Wallace Collection, Catalogue of Ceramics I: Pottery, Maiolica, Faience, Stoneware', London, 1976, p.226
  • H. Tait, 'The Waddesdon Bequest', BM London 1981, pp. 40-41, fig. 21
  • Carmen Ravanelli Guidotti, 'Osservazioni sul servizio di Alfonso II d'Este con il motto Ardet Aeternum', in 'VII Convengo della Ceramica. 3a Rassegna Internazionale, Pennabilli', 1986, p.36
  • Timothy Wilson, 'Ceramic Art of the Italian Renaissance', British Museum, London, 1987, no. 242
  • Timothy Wilson, 'Urbino maiolica in Ausenda', cat. entries, 2000, p.228
  • Carmen Ravanelli Guidotti, 'Le "credenze" nuziali di Alfonso II d'Este', in 'Sassulo', 2000, p.50, tav.VIIIb
  • Christopher Poke, 'Jacques Androuet I Ducerceau's "Petites Grotesques" as a source for Urbino maiolica decoration', Burlington Magazine, London, June 2001, p.341, fig.28
  • Dora Thornton and Timothy Wilson with contributions by Michael Hughes and Jeremy Warren, 'Italian Renaissance ceramics : a catalogue of the British Museum collection', British Museum, London, 2009, no.240, fig.240
  • Dora Thornton, 'A Rothschild Renaissance: Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest', British Museum, London, 2015, pp.156-161.
  • References

    1. Read 1902: Read, Charles Hercules, The Waddesdon Bequest. Catalogue of the Works of Art Bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898, London, BMP, 1902
    2. Dalton 1927: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, The Waddesdon Bequest : jewels, plate, and other works of art bequeathed by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild., London, BMP, 1927
    3. Wilson 1987: Wilson, Timothy, Ceramic Art of the Italian Renaissance, London, BMP, 1987
    4. Thornton & Wilson 2009: Thornton, Dora; Wilson, Timothy, Italian Renaissance Ceramics: a catalogue of the British Museum collection, London, BMP, 2009

Go to the Collection Online page for this object?