Rome Travel Guide

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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Scallop Shell Motif




Once you become aware of something, you see it everywhere.  Just that happened to RST recently, when a scholar/friend, specializing in Renaissance painting, mentioned that he had become interested in the recurring motif of the scallop SHELL.  For example, the scallop shell appears in Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation (1478)--it's featured on the small altar to the right of Mary.  In this work, the angel Gabriel is announcing to the Virgin Mary that she is to become the mother of God.  Here (above), the scallop shell functions as a fertility symbol.

Fertility is also the theme in what may be the best known pre-modern reference to the scallop shell: Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus (1452).  In that work, the scallop shell is associated with the Greek goddess Aphrodite and her Roman counterpart, Venus; Venus is symbolically born out of a shell (an egg).

The Birth of Venus has also spawned a delightful, playful take-off from the original.  It stars Piggy, of Sesame Street fame.

Piero della Francesca, Montefeltro Altarpiece (also known as The Brera Madonna).  1472-1474
Other historical figures who employed the shell motif include Piero della Francesca, in his Montefeltro altarpiece (above); Benvenuto Cellini, in his Jewel Chalice; Michelangelo, with his rendition of St. Paul; Gianlorenzo Bernini, whose Triton Fountain (1644) graces Piazza Barberini.

Michelangelo's St. Paul.  







Bernini's Triton Fountain

Also Bernini.  But where?
In the modern period, the shell continues to be associated with fertility--and female sensuousness.  A good example is the July 1, 1937 cover of Vogue magazine, by the artist Covarrubias.


Perhaps the most famous use of the scallop shell in modern times is the Shell Oil Company logo.  The logo dates to 1904, when the company's business largely consisted of bringing antiques, curios, and Asian shells to consumers in western nations.  The Shell logo has been modernized over the years.  Less obvious is that the design of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York City was based on a shell--the Japanese miracle shell.


Wright's Guggenheim
In architecture, the scallop shell is most frequently found over doorways and/or in arches.  The Cathedral of the Archangel Michael (Moscow, 1505) has a number of large, splendid scallop shell decorations.  The scallop shell often referenced the Christian pilgrimage and, more generally, signified spirituality.
Cathedral of the Archangel Michael
According to some sources, Da Vinci based the first spiral staircase on the swirling features of the shell.

In our walks around Rome (and London) we often encountered scallop shells--now that we were looking for them.  Some were over doorways, a usage that reflects the idea of the shell as a representation of contentment, of a comfortable home--and of the shell as a shield, a protection.

Modest building, modest shell above doorway.  Trastevere.  
More modest yet.  Could be a shell motif on the door, or
a sunrise, or something else.
We would have thought that the Mussolini regime, with its strong interest in linking Rome with the sea and, symbolically, with the naval competence that established Rome as a Mediterranean power, would have favored sea motifs, among them the shell.  Perhaps it did, in ways that have escaped us.  What does seem clear is that the regime's interest in various forms of modernism, especially high rationalism, precluded the use of the shell in most buildings constructed under Fascism. Instead, one finds the scallop shell on older structures--those built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and decorated in the prevailing "Liberty" style.

Splendid use of the shell motif, beneath balconies, on
a c. 1900 building in the Re di Roma area.  

A scallop shell behind the boy's head.  Main square, Rocca di Papa, Colli Albani.

Bill









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