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standing cup

  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Description

    Standing cup; nautilus shell mounted in silver, gilt and chased; shell engraved with dragons among clouds; engraved band around lip, supported at sides by marine terminal figures, in front by band of strapwork with grotesque mask; back of shell mounted to represent sea monster with open mouth; on its back is infant Hercules with serpent in one hand, other hand holds a spear (modern); baluster stem with festoons of fruit; base in form of bird's claw; inscribed.


  • Date

    • 1550 (circa)
  • Production place

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 26.1 centimetres
    • Length: 17 centimetres
    • Width: 10.3 centimetres
    • Height: 11.3 centimetres (foot and stem)
    • Length: 14.7 centimetres (foot; max)
    • Width: 9.5 centimetres (foot max)
    • Width: 8.6 centimetres (rim mount)
    • Weight: 845 grammes
  • Inscriptions

      • Inscription Type

      • Inscription Position

      • Inscription Comment

        Unintellible stamp.
  • Curator's comments

    Similar Chinese dragon engraving on sauceboat on fish foot, Chinese with French silver mount, by Francois Crevecueur, in Museo degli Argenti, Florence, see book on museum by Mosco and Casazza 2004, p. 176, fig. 11. Such engraved shells came from China out of Canton, as narrated in letter from Filippo Sassetti to Baccio Valori from Lisbon in 1578. The two Museo degli Argenti pieces were in Cosimo II's Guardaroba in 1618. Both are heightened with painting. DFTText from Tait 1991a:-

    Origin: Padua(?); previously attributed to a South German workshop, second half of 16th century, but perhaps North Italian, mid-16th century; the one punch-mark is over-struck and illegible.
    The nautilus shell: from the waters of the South China Sea, perhaps from the southern coast of Hainan Island, or the Philippines, the Malay archipelago, or even from Amboina and the waters of the Spice Islands (Moluccas); decorated with Chinese cameo-carving and engraving, mid-16th century.

    Marks: The stem rests on a foot in the form of an eagle's claw, one talon of which bears one single punch-mark; although the outline of the punch is clear, the mark itself is no longer legible.

    Provenance: None is recorded.

    Commentary: The naturalistic representation, said to be a direct cast, of an eagle's claw, for which there are several parallels in North Italian bronzes, is an extremely rare occurrence in Renaissance silver. Although formerly attributed to the Paduan workshop of the Italian bronze sculptor Riccio (more correctly known as Andrea Briosco, c.1470-1532), the various Renaissance bronzes incorporating the realistic eagle's claw are now more cautiously described as 'Paduan' (see Weihrauch 1956, pp. 70-1, where the example in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich, is illustrated). Three examples, acquired by the Berlin Kunstgewerbe Museum between 1887 and 1917, have a special interest because one supports a nereid holding two candle-sockets, one supports a seated male figure holding a candle-socket on his shoulders, and one is an eagle's claw and leg, entirely on its own (see K. Pechstein, ‘Bronzen und Plaketten von ausgehenden 15 Jahrhundert bis zur Mitte des 17 Jahrhunderts; Kataloge des Kunstgewerbemuseums Berlin, Band III’, Berlin, 1968, nos 78, 80 and 72 respectively; each is illustrated and accompanied by a list of similar versions in other public collections). Of these three, the nereid candlestick has been dated towards the end of the fifteenth century and attributed to Sperandio Savelli, a sculptor and medallist who worked in Venice as well as Padua and Mantua, whereas the other two are no more closely dated than the “first half of sixteenth century”.
    Another interesting Renaissance bronze, probably from Riccio's Paduan workshop early in the sixteenth century,
    is a tall inkwell or oil-lamp (H. 22.3 cm), which combines a large marine shell horizontally balanced on top of a knobbly tree-trunk that is a vertical continuation of the eagle's leg; the foot is, again, the realistic cast of an eagle's claw (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, inv. no. 5935; see L. Planiscig, ‘Die Bronze-plastiken, Statuetten, Reliefs, Geräte und Plaketten’, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 1924, no. 51; W. Hofmann, in ‘Zauber der Medusa: Europäische Mannierismen’, exh. cat., Vienna, 1987, p. 357, no. 36).
    The same combination of marine shell and eagle's claw - but without the tree-trunk - can be seen in another Paduan bronze inkstand and candle-holder (H. 21 cm), which is even more sculptural because it includes the figure of a boy riding on one end of the horizontally placed marine shell. This variant, an example of which is preserved in the Cleveland Museum of Art, USA (inv. ; no. 54.798), is dated c. 1510-20 and has been convincingly attributed to a follower of the sculptor Severo Galzetta da Ravenna (active in Padua and Ravenna between 1496 and 1525); this is because of the similarities that exist between the boy and the Infant Christ from a St Christopher group by Severo Calzetta da Ravenna and several dependent versions, such as the boy riding a horse in a group in the Museo Correr, Brescia (see B. Jestaz, Une statuette de bronze: le Saint Christophe de Severo da Ravenna, ‘La Revue du Louvre’, xx, no. 2, Paris, 1972, pp. 67-78; W. Wixon, ‘Renaissance Bronzes from Ohio Collections’, exh. cat., Cleveland Museum of Art, 1975, no. 97; also C. Avery and A. Radcliffe, Severo Calzetta da Ravenna: New Discoveries, in J. Rasussen (ed.), ‘Studien zum Europäischen Kunsthandwerk, Festschrift Yvonne Hackenbroch’, Munich, 1983, pp. 107ff.).
    There is, therefore, no doubt about the popularity during the early decades of the sixteenth century, in both Padua and Venice, of this highly distinctive combination - the direct cast of an eagle's claw and the marine shell. Since the upper surface of the marine shell in the Cleveland bronze inkstand also has a serpent, cast in very high relief, turning and hissing at the boy, it is strange that the group has not hitherto been identified with that popular scene from the legend of the Infant Hercules, when one night in the Palace of Amphitryon he was alone with his twin, Iphicles, and they were attacked by two serpents sent by Hera - but, before help could arrive, Hercules had already seized them and wrung their necks. Whereas the Cleveland bronze seems to represent the moment when the Infant Hercules is about to be attacked, the Waddesdon Bequest nautilus-shell standing-cup depicts a triumphant figure carrying one of the dead serpents in his left hand. Furthermore, this triumphant Infant Hercules is very Italianate, both in style and in the details of modelling.
    A gap of more than fifty years has normally been assumed to separate the date of origin of these two objects. Indeed, they are generally assumed to have originated from opposite sides of the Alps - in the same way that the caryatid triton riding on a turtle used as the stem of a nautilus-shell cup by the Nuremberg goldsmith Jörg Ruel (master 1598, died 1625), was copied from an Italian Renaissance bronze attributed to Girolamo Campagna
    (see WB.122). However, even allowing for the strong influence of North Italian Renaissance art in the main centres of Southern Germany and Austria - like Augsburg, Nuremberg, Innsbruck and Vienna - it is remarkable that all three basic elements of the Cleveland bronze should be repeated some forty to seventy years later in two anonymous silver-gilt nautilus-shell cups: the Waddesdon Bequest example and the unmarked one in the Grünes Gewöble, Dresden (see below), both of which have previously been attributed to a German workshop.
    The almost total loss of secular Renaissance silver of Venetian or North Italian origin makes it difficult to attribute unmarked - or illegibly marked - specimens to the Italian goldsmiths of the sixteenth century. Nevertheless, on the rare occasions when silver versions of Italian bronze plaquettes of the Renaissance have survived, they are unhesitatingly attributed to the appropriate Italian workshop. Furthermore, it is emphasised that “their artists were often goldsmiths and silversmiths, sometimes signing their works as "AURIFEX". Even if most makers of bronzes did not practise these more rarefied crafts, in a surprising number of the cases for which we have evidence they had in fact been trained by goldsmiths and silversmiths, masters of the most exacting and refined arts of metalwork” (D. Lewis, On the Nature of Renaissance Bronzes, in ‘Renaissance Master Bronzes from the Collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna’, exh. cat., Smithsonian Institution Travelling Exhibition Service, Washington DC, 1986, p. 19). Perhaps the most famous example is the bronze sculptor Moderno, who is now identified with the Veronese goldsmith Galeazzo Mondella (active from c. 1490 to c. 1540), on the strength of the inscription HOC. OPVS. MONDEL. ADER. AURIFEX. MCCCCXC, which Occurs on a bronze pax that also bears the signature HOC. OPVS. MODERNI. C.C. (preserved in the Kress Collection, National Gallery, Washington DC). In addition, there are the famous - and wholly exceptional - pair of silver (partly gilt) plaquettes by Moderno, both of which have been preserved in the Hapsburg collections, where they are first documented in 1802 at the Franzenburg in the park of the imperial palace at Laxenburg, near Vienna: 'The Flagellation of Christ', signed OP MODERNI (13.8 x 10.2 cm) and 'The Madonna and Child with Saints' (13.9 x 10.2 cm). Both are larger and in higher relief than any of Moderno's extant works and, indeed, the figures of St George and St Sebastian are separately cast in silver and attached by riveting to the background - a technique unique among Moderno's large oeuvre of plaquettes. Despite these unparalleled features and the extraordinary skill in rendering the subtle details and variations in texture on the surface of the silver, Moderno's authorship of these two plaquettes - probably in Rome between 1506 and 1532 - has never been disputed (see M. Leithe-Jasper, in ‘Renaissance Master Bronzes from the Collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna’, exh. cat., Smithsonian Institution Travelling Exhibition Service, Washington DC, 1986, pp. 125-31, nos 25-6, both illus. in colour; also M. Leithe-Jasper, in ‘Führer durch die Sammlungen, Kunsthistorisches Museum’, Vienna, 1988, p. 166, with col. illus.).
    Almost as widely accepted as Italian are, for example, the less well-documented silver-gilt versions (solid casts) of a bronze plaquette of 'The Beheading of St Paul', generally agreed to date from the early sixteenth century, though whether from a workshop in Milan or in Rome is still uncertain (see W. Wixon, ‘Renaissance Bronzes from Ohio Collections’, exh. cat., Cleveland Museum of Art, 1975, no. 70, with illus.).
    Even Giovanni Bologna's magnificent bronze relief (30.7 x 45.6 cm), 'An Allegory of Francesco de' Medici (1541-65)', which had been executed in Florence between 1561 and 1565, was copied in silver for that most passionate admirer, the Emperor Rudolf II (reigned 1576-1612), and there are cogent arguments in favour of its having an Italian origin before the end of the sixteenth century - perhaps having been made by a pupil of Giovanni Bologna, as was stated in the contemporary report by Manzuolo, the Duke of Modena's envoy to the Imperial Court in Prague. The report is likely to be reliable because it was Cesare d'Este, Duke of Modena, who in 1604 finally decided to present the original bronze version to Rudolf II - both it and the silver copy have subsequently remained together in the Hapsburg collections and were exhibited side by side in 1988 (see ‘Prag um 1600’, exh. cat., Vol. 1, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 1988, pp. 142-4, nos 51-2, where Professor Larsson of Kiel University proposed an attribution to a South German goldsmith; however, see also M. Leithe-Jasper, in ‘Renaissance Master Bronzes from the Collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna’, exh. cat., Smithsonian Institution Travelling Exhibition Service, Washington DC, 1986, pp. 210-13, no. 53, where the very convincing case for an Italian origin is fully presented, whilst at the same time drawing attention to the possibility that it was executed by one of the northern artists who were recorded working as goldsmiths at various Italian courts, especially by one working under the patronage of the Medici at Florence).
    Fortunately, there is no similar uncertainty about the identity of the two Italian goldsmiths who made the original silver versions of Giovanni Bologna's six ‘Labours of Hercules’ for the Tribuna in the Uffizi between 1576 and 1589 (now known only through bronze replicas): Giorgio Rancetti (born 1537 in Florence, died 1610 in Rome) and Michele Mazzafirri (1530-97). Both were medallists before becoming silversmiths (see G. W. Fock, The Original Silver Casts of Giambologna's Labours of Hercules, in Rasmussen 1983, pp. 141ff.). It is clear from the archives quoted by Dr Fock that several other statuettes modelled by Giovanni Bologna were also cast in silver by both Rancetti and Mazzafirri while working for the Medici Court.
    In the light of these silver (or silver-gilt) Italian Renaissance plaquettes and figures - whether they be the work of bronze sculptors or trained goldsmiths - it may now seem timely to question the general reluctance of scholars to attribute any of the unmarked silver-mounted cups, like the Waddesdon Bequest Infant Hercules nautilus-shell cup, to the workshops of the North Italian goldsmiths, despite the very obvious links with, or dependence on, Italian Renaissance bronzes. Furthermore, the baluster stem and naturalistic eagle's claw foot design can be compared with two very similar silver-gilt examples that have survived in the Medici family's treasury in Florence since they were first inventoried in 1618 (see Kirsten Aschengreen Piacenti, ‘Il Museo degli Argenti’, Milan, 1967, p. 171, nos 757-8; H. 14.5 and 20.5 cm). These two unmarked examples are, similarly, made to support two 'curiosities' - both bowls are made of horn and carved in the form of shells. In several significant respects, therefore, these two cups correspond with the London nautilus-shell standing-cup, and their presence in the Medici collections in Florence lends further weight to the proposition that some - if not all - silver-gilt versions of the Paduan bronzes in the form of an eagle's claw may be of North Italian origin.
    Significantly, the one well-documented example - a very similar, but also unmarked, nautilus-shell cup on an eagle's claw foot preserved in the Grünes Gewölbe in Dresden - has been consistently assumed to be German work of the end of the sixteenth century (inv. no. in. 197; H. 31 cm; see J.L. Sponsel, ‘Das Grüne Gewölbe zu Dresden’, vol. I, Leipzig, 1925, p. 160, pl. 43; also, Joachim Menzhausen, ‘Das Grünes Gewölbe’, Leipzig, 1968, p. 82, pl. 47). The shell of the Dresden cup is a replacement because the original was broken, but the silver-gilt mounts are substantially unchanged and in many respects they resemble those on the example in the Waddesdon Bequest. Although the sea-monster with its wide-open jaws is differently angled, the baluster-stem and eagle's claw foot are remarkably close, though not identical; even the ribbons and swags of fruit in relief on the baluster-stem knop are not the same in every detail. Dr Menzhausen in 1968 described this work as “probably South German, about 1580-90”, although he also stressed that the claw foot was “akin to work by Riccio and the knop to those by Vittoria . . .”. Alessandro Vittoria (1525-1608), who had entered Jacopo Sansovino's workshop in Venice in 1543, became not only Sansovino's successor when the latter died in 1570 but also the dominant artistic personality in Venice, for, in addition to working in bronze, marble and stucco, he was an architect, a painter and a medallist, with a large studio and many imitators.
    Venice, with its great mercantile prosperity and vast network of maritime trading posts, had probably become Europe's chief entrepot through which exotica from the East - like nautilus shells - reached the 'cabinets of curiosities' of the rich medieval collectors, even as early as the reign of Philip le Bel (King of France, 1285-1314) and his Constable, Raoul de Nesle (died 1302). Their brightly enamelled armorial bearings can still be seen decorating the famous émail de plique en or and silver-gilt cover of a nautilus-shell cup (preserved at All Souls College, Oxford). It is the earliest surviving tangible proof of the medieval practice of setting these rare shells in costly decorative mounts. By 1556, this cover is recorded at All Souls but without the rest of the nautilus-shell cup (see Joan Evans, An Enamelled Lid at All Souls College, Oxford, ‘Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries’, 2nd Series, Vol. xxx, 1917-18, pp. 92-7; N. Stratford, A lid "made like a man's harte", ‘British Museum Society Bulletin’, no. 55, 1987, pp. 16-17, with col. pl.; also J. Rasmussen, Mittelalterliche Nautilusgefässe, in Rasmussen 1983, pp. 45ff., where his chronological survey concludes with two beautiful inventory drawings of 1520-6, recording the imaginative late Gothic nautilus-shell reliquaries in the 'Hallesche Heiltumbuch' of Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg). Regrettably, the corresponding evidence from Venice and Northern Italy is sadly lacking, even during the Renaissance, although a recent study of several early Italian collectors of 'curiosities' offers ample proof of their serious interest in such rarities as these nautilus shells (see G. Olmi, Science - Honour - Metaphor: Italian Cabinets of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries; L. Laurencich-Minelli, Museography and Ethnographical Collections in Bologna during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries; A. Aimi, V. de Michele and A. Morandotti, Towards a History of Collecting in Milan in the Late Renaissance and Baroque Periods, in ‘The Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Europe’, ed. O. Impey and A. MacGregor, Oxford, 1985, pp. 5-28).
    The inventories of the historic collections of the Medici in Florence show that by 1618 silver-mounted nautili were being kept in the 'Guardaroba' (the storeroom of the Palazzo Vecchio), having been transferred from the Galleria del Casino and, no doubt, acquired long before the end of the sixteenth century. Sadly, they contain no reference to any of the goldsmiths who made the precious mounts for these shells - nor do all of the twenty or so extant examples in Florence retain their original mounts, let alone bear punch-marks or inscriptions which might connect them with the workshops of Italian goldsmiths (see Piacenti 1967, pp. 170-1, nos 734-50). One rare example that has survived intact is a fantastic ewer, the body of which is formed by joining two nautilus shells together and applying ornate silver-gilt mounts (see Piacenti 1967, no. 746, pl. 28, where the mounts are described as Flemish workmanship and the ewer is identified with an entry in the inventory of the 'Guardaroba' of 1587). This highly imaginative and light-hearted Mannerist essay in goldsmiths' work is very different from the Flemish Mannerist work of the Netherlands and may well have been executed at the Medici Court either by some northern craftsman working under the direct influence of Italian artists and goldsmiths or by a local goldsmith. The mounts are lightly constructed, with a particularly delicate handle of pierced strapwork through which a long, thin serpent glides, weaving its way in and out of the openings and finally resting its head on the collar encircling the middle of the silver-gilt neck with its finely engraved arabesque ornament in the mauresque manner. The hinged cover of silver-gilt lies low within the rim of the neck, but its handle, also in the form of a serpent, coils upwards as its head projects beyond the pouring lip. Immediately below, a finely modelled horse's head (with bridle and harness) is executed 'in the round' in silver-gilt and attached to the mount at the base of the neck; the horse's mouth is being attacked by a gem-set serpent, the tail of which is coiled around the long scaly neck of the enamelled winged monster that forms the spout of the ewer. Serpents pass through holes in the high-relief strapwork on the circular foot, and on either side (in the centre) the vertical strap-mount is enriched with a fine Renaissance 'classical head' in high relief within a scrolling cartouche and a Mannerist 'Indian' mask (immediately above). Even the surface of the two shells, neither of which has been decorated with any engraved ornament, has, most exceptionally, been studded with small clusters of gemstones (rubies and turquoises) set in gold. The thoroughly Italianate character of this exceptional creation provides valuable evidence, especially as the disappearance of documented work of this kind by Italian goldsmiths has been overwhelmingly complete.
    Ironically, the most important Kunstkammer nautilus shell to have survived in the Medici collections has silver-gilt mounts that bear a French (Paris) goldsmith's mark, a heart beneath a crowned fleur-de-lis (R36624); furthermore, this cup is known to have joined the others in Florence in the Galleria del Casino before being transferred to the 'Guardaroba' by 1618 (inv. no. v/20; H. 17 cm; see Piacenti 1967, no. 751; also Kirsten Aschengreen Piacenti, ‘Capolavori del Museo degli Argenti’, Florence, 1969, p. 60, col. pl. on p. 61). Its importance lies partly in its rarity as an example of French Renaissance goldsmith's work c. 1560-70 in the elegant Mannerist Court style, and partly in its being the earliest documented specimen of an engraved nautilus shell mounted in Europe. The very elaborate and wholly oriental character of the engraving, which covers the exterior surface of the shell, has led to it - and several similarly engraved shells - being inventoried in 1618 as “intagliate . . . all' Indiana” or “alla cinese”, leaving no doubt but that the Medici Court regarded them as oriental carvings. Indeed, there is a second example, which is also mounted in almost identical silver-gilt mounts - the same oval foot and three-dolphin stem, and the same vertical strap-mounts with the Greek-key pattern - but, in addition, has a silver-gilt serpentine handle looped high above the top of the shell and ending in a vigorously modelled grotesque male mask (at the upper end) and a horned ram's-head mask (at the lower end). As there are no punch-marks, it has been described not as French, but as Flemish (see Piacenti 1967, no. 750, pl. 30; see also R. Lightbown, Oriental Art and the Orient in Late Renaissance and Baroque Italy, ‘Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes’, vol. 32, 1969, p. 239, where both sets of mounts are described as “French, c. 1565”). Again, the engraving on this second shell includes not only Chinese-looking houses, figures and animals but also that distinctive trilobed scale background pattern that occurs on the Waddesdon Bequest example. Another, even taller, silver-gilt mounted piece in the Medici Collection is most unusual, for it consists of two nautilus shells held together by the mounts - rather like reuniting the two halves of a complete Seychelles nut; however, each shell is elaborately carved with a different oriental pattern of birds and foliage which have been gilded (see Piacenti 1967, no. 753, pl. 29, where it is identified with an entry in the 1618 inventory of the 'Guardaroba' stating that it was previously kept in the Galleria del Casino). Whilst the description of the engraving as 'Chinese' raises no problems, the silver-gilt mounts do not seem characteristic of Flemish workshop practice and, once again, they may be the work of a Northern craftsman working at the Medici Court under strong Italian influence or, indeed, the creation of a local goldsmith.
    Whereas none of the medieval mounted nautili are known to have been enriched with oriental engraved decoration, the Medici Collection examples provide proof from the second half of the sixteenth century and can be matched by three well-documented mounted specimens which have survived in the princely Kunstkammern of Northern Europe.
    The most firmly dated of these three specimens is also one of the most beautifully and delicately engraved: it is the nautilus-shell silver standing-cup and cover by Bartel Jamnitzer, a leading goldsmith of Nuremberg, which was purchased in 1588 by the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel, Wilhelm IV, and is still preserved in Kassel (H. 41 cm; see E. Link, ‘Die Landgräfliche Kunstkammer Kassel’, 1976, pl. 18, col. pl.). Unlike the slightly earlier example in French silver-gilt mounts (c. 1560-70) preserved in the Medici collections and decorated with the powerful motif of Chinese dragons boldly, even fearsomely, engraved against a scaly background, the Kassel nautilus shell has its many oriental motifs (including birds and plants) carved and engraved on a smaller and more decorative scale. Bartel Jamnitzer's broad rim-mount is correspondingly finely engraved and, together with his female triton stem and his finial figure of Neptune riding on a snail, the goldsmith has successfully created a suitable setting for this delicate oriental engraved shell.
    The same goldsmith, Bartel Jamnitzer (c. 1548-96), achieved a similar result for another nautilus shell, which has a more cameo-like, densely carved oriental design, and has been preserved in the Schatz.kammer of the Dukes of Württemberg (see M. Landenberger, ‘Kleinodien aus dem Württembergischen Landesmuseum, Stuttgart’, Pfullingen, 1973, p. 33 with illus.; H. 22.1 cm). The intricately flowing pattern, incorporating many oriental motifs including cranes in flight, is carved in very low relief.
    Finally, the inventory of the Ambras Collection, dated 1596 and made shortly after the death of the Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol (1529-95), proves that one of the finest of these mounted carved and engraved nautilus shells to have survived had been in the Archduke's famous Kunstkammer at the Schloss Ambras in Innsbruck. It is now among the Hapsburg collections at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (see E. Kris, ‘Golschmeidearbeiten des Mittelalters, der Renaissance und des Barock. I Teil: Arbeiten in Gold und Silber’, Publikationen aus den Kunsthistorischen Summlungen in Wien, Band 5, Vienna, 1932, pp. 43-4, no. 68, pls 67 and 83). It had been mounted in silver-gilt as a standing-cup by the talented Viennese goldsmith Marx Kornblum (master 1570, died 1591), who had been appointed by the Emperor Maximilian II to be Kammergoldschmied at the Imperial Court. Exceptionally, the silver mounts are also enriched with colour: red, green, blue, white and flesh tones executed in 'cold enamel'. The slender strap-mounts hide very little of the sophisticated engraved decoration, with its Chinese dragons, birds and other oriental motifs. Significantly, the same distinctive form of stem - the crowned mermaid holding her double tail aloft - is repeated on one other cup: the famous Berlin nautilus cup. This historic silver-gilt object was a New Year's gift in 1701 from Field-Marshal Alex Hermann, Graf von Wartensleben, to Frederick, King of Prussia, and in 1752 entered the Brandenburg Kunstkammer on the instructions of Frederick the Great. The shell is, however, plain and the mounts unmarked; it has been attributed to an Antwerp workshop in the last quarter of the sixteenth century (Klaus Pechstein, ‘Goldschmiedewerke der Renaissance: Kataloge des Kunstgewerbemuseums Berlin, Band V’, Berlin, 1971, no. 79 with illus.; also F. A. Dreier, in ‘Die Brandenburgisch-Preussische Kunstkammer’, exh. cat., Berlin, 1981, no. 37) but always without any reference to Marx Kornblum's masterpiece preserved in Vienna.
    Both in its execution and in its general design and overall effect, this carved shell from the Ambras Collection is the closest of these documented examples to the design on the nautilus shell in the Waddesdon Bequest. In Kris 1932 (p. 44), there is no discussion of the shell-carving - briefly described as “aussereuropäische?” - or of where outside Europe the shell might have been engraved; however, the reader was referred to a passage in Camillo List, “Weiner Goldschmiede und ihre Beziehungen zum kaiserlichen Hofe”, ‘Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen’, XVI, Vienna, 1896, p. 293, in which he quoted from that invaluable early source, ‘D'Amboinsche Rariteitkamer’ by Georg Rumphius, a work first published in Dutch in 1705, three years after Rumphius' death, but followed swiftly by a Latin edition (1711) and by translations into English, French, German and Russian. The importance for conchology of this work by Georg Rumphius (1627-1702) can hardly be overstated, because he was the first to observe tropical shells in their natural habitat and give accurate locality data. Although a German by birth, he was employed by the Dutch East India Company on the island of Amboina from 1656 and his first book was on the plants of Amboina. He subsequently established contact with many collectors in Holland and Germany, sending shells and specimens to Europe, becoming a member of the Academia Curiosum Naturae in 1681 and being given the title of 'Plinius Indicus'. In the following year, 1682, he sold a scientifically constructed collection of shells to the Grand Duke Cosimo m de' Medici, who later transferred some of the duplicates to the famous Gualtieri Collection (now in the Museum at Pisa).
    However, it was only with the help of his son that Rumphius was able to complete his text and plates for the great book on shells; in 1699 they were sent from Amboina to Holland for publication. In addition to providing a systematic classification, Rumphius offers a great deal of practical information about the various uses of shells - as musical instruments (shell trumpets), weapons, household implements and ornaments, and on their use as food. On p. 61 of the 1705 edition, he states:

    “De schaal is in grooter gebruik om'er schoone drinkvaten van te maken, gelyk ze in Europa bekennt zyn, hier toe moet men de grootste en gladste verkiesen, en wel toe zien, dat ze aan de zyde geen gaatjes hebben, want veele hebben en of meer ronde gaatjes, daar men pas door zien kan, die gemaakt werden door zeekere holle wratten, [een slag van Balanis] welker slymerige worm een scherp tandje heeft, waar mede hy deze harde schaal doorboord, als hy daar op komt te groeijen, welke schaalen dan toe dit werk onbequaam zyn. De geheele moet men 10 á 12 dagen in eenige suurte leggen, als in gooren ryst, azyn, of water daar in wyngaart loop verrot is, zoo gaat de buitenste schelle af, die men met sterk schuuren afwrywen moet, beginnende aan die plaatze daar ze op't dikste ist, en zoo ze noch niet geheel af is, moet men ze al wederom hier in leggen, tot dat het Paerlemoer over al voor den dag komt, 'twelk men dan met een slap sterk water strykt, tot dat het zyn volkomen glans bekomt, en ten laatsten met zeepwater afspoeld. De schoon gemaakte worden by de kamertjes door gesneeden, dat de vier of vyf achterste doorluchtig worden; de drie ofte vier volgende kamertjes worden geheel uitgesneeden, en in de binnenste krul snyd men een geopend helmtje, en aan de zyden rondom het bootje kan men alderhande figuuren snyden, di men met gewreeve koolen en wasch of oly door malkander gemengt wryft, tot dat ze swart uitsteeken.”
    Rumphius is writing as a long-established resident of the island of Amboina, one of the Spice Islands (Moluccas). He had meticulously observed the working practices of the local community, and the process he describes in this passage may be summarised as follows: firstly, the shell is more often used for the making of beautiful drinking vessels, as they are known in Europe; secondly, for this purpose it is important to choose the largest and smoothest, taking care to avoid those with little holes caused by a variety of worm; thirdly, the undamaged shell is pickled for about ten to twelve days in an acid, for example rotting rice, vinegar, or water in which vine leaves have been steeped; fourthly, the loosened outer shell is then removed with vigorous rubbing, starting where the layer is thickest and returning the shell to the acid if it is not successful, until eventually the mother-of-pearl begins to appear; fifthly, this surface is then rubbed with a weak solution of alcohol until it reaches its full brilliance, and is rinsed with soapy water.
    Finally - and this last sentence of the passage confirms that the carving and engraving of these nautili was an art with which he was familiar – “once they are cleaned, they are cut through where the little compartments are so that the furtherest four or five become openwork, the three or four nearest being completely cut away, and in the innermost curl a small open helm is cut; on the sides of the bowl one can engrave all manner of figures, which can then be rubbed with a mixture of ground coal with wax or oil in order to make them stand out in black”.
    This last description of the cutting of a helm - the headpiece of a suit of armour - on the innermost curl of the nautilus shell is vividly represented in the Waddesdon Bequest (WB.116). Both this technique and the fashion for blackening the engraved decoration on the sides of the bowl seem to belong only to the seventeenth century and may have been an exclusively Dutch practice. However, the technique of carving on the exterior surfaces, using the thin layers immediately on top of the nacreous shell to create a cameo effect, appears to have been developed into an art by the Chinese at an earlier date. Certainly the posthumous work, ‘De Reliquis Animalibus’ (1606), of Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-98), who was professor of natural philosophy at the University of Bologna and director of its botanic garden, contains a reference to the “nautilus ab Indis varijs imaginibus extimo cortice insculptis exornatus” (“the nautilus from the Indies, ornamented with divers figures carved in the outer rind”); it seems, therefore, that various unidentified Chinese workshops were producing these carved nautilus shells by the third quarter of the sixteenth century, because the evidence of the several mounted pieces in the Medici collections is irrefutable. This time-consuming skill may have been lavished principally - or even exclusively - on those nautilus shells that were intended for the lucrative overseas markets, especially in Europe, for there is little published evidence to support the view that they were similarly cherished in China, where, surprisingly, their survival appears not to have been recorded.
    Some slender evidence in Chinese texts can be cited to show that several centuries earlier the Chinese were not only carving these shells but mounting them in silver:
    This is a kind of conch shell to be found south of Kuang-tung. The inhabitants carve it in the shape of a parrot, or set it in silver to make a wine-cup, hence the name 'parrot cup'. Likewise, there are 'cormorant cups', which are also made from conch shells. Both kinds are quite cheap.”
    (See ‘Chinese Connoisseurship: The KO KU TAO LUN, The Essential Criteria of Antiquities’, a translation made and edited by Sir Percival David, with a facsimile of the Chinese text of 1388, London, 1971, p. 132, Section xxxv). Similarly the earlier Chinese writer Chau Ju-Kua, in his work on the Chinese and Arab trade of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, makes reference to the ch'ö-k'ü, a very large bivalve shell with a scalloped surface coming from Kiau-chï (present-day Northern Vietnam), being made into cups, while the remnants were used for rings and small trinkets (see ‘Chau Ju-Kua: his work entitled Chu-fan-chï’, translated and annotated by Friedrich Hirth and W. W. Rockhill, St Petersburg, 1911, p. 321). Therefore, long before the sixteenth century there had been an established trade in large, nacreous shells from the Southern Ocean to the workshops of Chinese craftsmen along the coast, most probably in the region of Suzhou, a great craft centre, and Zhangzhou (in Fujian), as well as in Canton (see Craig Clunas, in ‘Chinese Ivories from Shang to the Quing’, exh. cat., British Museum, 1984, pp. 118-32, and map on p. 131). By the time of Zhang Xie (1574-1640), he could list 'shells' as common imports from Vietnam and describe them as 'like wine cups' (in his ‘Dong xi yang kao’ ('A study of the Eastern and Western Oceans'), ed. Zhonghus shuju, Beijing, 1981, p. 13), while Qu Dajun (1630-96), in ‘Guangdong xin yu’ ('New Tales of Guangdong Province'), published in the ‘Qingdai shiliao biji congkan’ edition (2 vols, Beijing, 1985, p. 456), states that the source of the shells is the port of Sanya, on the southern coast of the island of Hainan. Although his description of the shells is accurate and he notes that they are in use in Guangdong as wine cups, he makes no mention of carved or engraved surface decoration - or, indeed, of the way in which they were mounted. Therefore, it seems certain that while the production of nautilus-shell cups in the Canton region flourished in the second half of the seventeenth century, there remains no written confirmation that the decoration of the shells that reached Europe around 1600 was the creation of Cantonese workshops. Furthermore, although it is undoubtedly correct to conclude that “such shells do not rank high in the hierarchy of Chinese art” (Lightbown 1969, p. 240), it is probably over-simplifying the history of these engraved shells to dismiss them as “almost certainly products of back-street Canton” (Lightbown 1969, p. 240).
    To judge from the carved nautili reliably dated to the second half of the sixteenth century, neither the choice of decoration nor the level of artistic skill was uniform. However, as nothing has yet been established about the location of the workshops that produced these decorated nautili, the standard modern description of these early nautilus-shell carvings as being 'of Chinese origin' is little more than a convenient solution by which to acknowledge the distinctly Chinese character of the decorative motifs. Precisely where or by whom they were carved is still unknown. The Muslim traders no doubt continued to transport nautilus shells to Europe as in medieval times and so the Portuguese, the first European traders to establish themselves in the Malay archipelago (Malacca in 1511) and in the Spice Islands (Ternate in 1513), were not necessarily the only merchants who brought the engraved shells to Europe. Their supremacy among the European nations in handling the Far Eastern trade lasted throughout the sixteenth century, after which it was gradually challenged by the Dutch East India Company (incorporated in 1602); however, as early as 1557 the Portuguese had been uniquely allowed by the Chinese to build a settlement at Macao, and from there to trade - even with Nagasaki, the only Japanese port that was opened to them. Although the arrival of oriental carved nautili in Europe seems to date from the 1560s, this has been dismissed as a coincidence; however, one reliable piece of evidence that connects it with the establishment of the Portuguese in the Far East is contained in a letter dated 10 October 1578 from Filippo Sassetti (1540-88), a Florentine who became the agent of a Portuguese merchant. Sassetti's letter from Lisbon is addressed to his friend Baccio Valori back in Florence; it refers to the many shells being imported by the Portuguese but stresses that they are very expensive (Lightbown 1969, p. 240, but for the exact passage in the letter see F. Sassetti, ‘Lettere’, ed. E. Camerini, Milan, n.d., p. .28).
    Sassetti's remarks can usually be relied upon because he was not only purchasing Eastern rarities for Florentine collectors but was regularly writing to the Medici about the trade, even before he settled on the Malabar coast in 1583. Until a full-scale study of the range of oriental decoration found on these early nautili has been conducted and the results compared with other aspects of contemporary Chinese decorative art, the origins and relative merits of these carved nautili remain uncertain. No doubt such a study will be hampered by the almost universally poor quality of the available photographs. Too often the decoration is largely illegible because of the highly reflective sheen of the curving mother-of-pearl surfaces, the generally faint character of the carving and the frequent interruption of the design as it disappears beneath the European silver mounts. For this reason a line drawing has been included here to supplement the photographs of the exterior of the shell.
    Significantly, one prominent feature of the Waddesdon Bequest shell's decoration - the background trilobed scale pattern - is found not only on the Medici Collection nautilus shell mentioned above (see Piacenti 1967, no. 750, pl. 30) but also on an example preserved in precisely dated English mounts, which were hallmarked in London in 1585-6 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; see Hugh Tait, ‘Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum: Vol. II. The Silver Plate’, London, 1988, p. 93, figs 80-1.; also ‘Cambridge Plate’, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 1975, p. 18, no. MYD8, with illus.). This standing-cup (H. 24.4 cm) is the earliest-known engraved example with English silver-gilt mounts and, although the shell is elaborately engraved with Chinese-looking buildings, figures, birds and other motifs executed in a more stiff and less bold style than the Chinese dragon design on the Waddesdon Bequest example, the background trilobed scale pattern is repeated in an identical manner. The silver-gilt mounts may, because of their strong Antwerp Mannerist style, be the work of a refugee goldsmith who had fled from the 'Spanish Fury' of 1576 and settled in London, perhaps bringing with him some of his precious belongings, including an exotic engraved shell that was still to be mounted. Such shells were probably regarded as even greater rarities in England at that time, for although the 1574 inventory of the Tudor royal treasury lists a vast array of mounted cups of diverse materials, there are no entries describing mounted engraved shells and only a few that can be interpreted as providing a description of a nautilus-shell cup (see A.J. Collins, ‘Jewels and Plate of Queen Elizabeth I: The Inventory of 1574’, London, 1955, p. 343; no. 319, for a silver-mounted example; see also pp. 300 and 302, where two gold-mounted shells of mother-of-pearl (nos 124 and 130) are listed but again neither is said to bear any engraved decoration):
    “'319. Item, oone standing Cup being a Shelle of mother of pearle garnisshid with silver and guilt of the historie of Jonas, the Cover also of silver and guilt being lose.....xxxv oz.”
    “130. Item oone Laire [ewer] of mother of pearle being a Snaile Shell garnisshid with golde enamelid in Diuers places with the worde Dieu et mon droite and hony soit qui mal y pance; poiz .....xxxvnj oz. dim.”
    “124. Item oone very faire Laire of mother of pearle, being a Shell crased in sundrey places and simented againe, garnisshid with golde the foote therof Cut viij square in the lower parte wherof is oone Diamounde withowte a foile foure Rockey Rubies two faire Emeraudes and oone Sapher and vpon the vpper parte of the same square is oone verie faire Diamonde withowte a foile and oone faire Rockey Ruby and two verie faire Emeraudes. The shainke therof garnisshid with two very faire Rubyes two very faire Emeraudes and foure very faire pearles pendaunte. The bodie therof garnisshid with fyve faire Rubies two faire Emeraudes two faire Diamoundes and sixe pearles. The handle being an Antique man of golde garnisshid with six Rubies oone Emeraude oone Sapher and one perle/pendaunt. Laying his oone hand vpon a goodly Ballas and thother vpon a goodly Rubias and from the bodie to the same Shell garnisshid with two diamoundes foure Emeraudes and two very faire Rubies with two pearles pendaunt in two womens handes holding betwene thother two handes a goodly Ballace like a harte. The garnature of the same Shell aboue the bryme and Spowte downewarde to the bodie with fyve diamoundes two of them being greate Seuen Rubies foure Emeraudes oone Emeraude pendaunt oone blewe Sapher and thre pearles pendaunt with two smale pearles and a longe pearle sette in the toppe ouer the saide harte of Ballace. Poiz togethers ........CLX OZ.”
    According to A. J. Collins, this ewer (no. 124) was sent to Harwich on 26 October 1625 to be delivered to the Duke of Buckingham and taken to The Hague, where it remained in pawn to Samuell and David Godyn until October 1629, when it was redeemed and “sold to William Scarborow for 2390 l.”. The cracking and recementing of the shell, which is noted at the beginning of the entry in the 1574 inventory, evidently took place after 1559, because both in the royal inventory of 1550 and that of 1559 it was described as undamaged. These nautilus cups were particularly vulnerable to damage and in England have usually been substantially altered and reconstructed around a new shell (either made of silver or a replacement nautilus pompilius), as, for example, has happened to each of the three English specimens in the Victoria and Albert Museum: (i) the Trenchard family cup (sold at Christie's, 12 December 1983; inv. no. M. I 17-1984), which now has a silver shell, an applied silver figure of Jonah, and only the one set of London marks for 1557-8 struck under the foot; (ii) the Frewen family cup (inv. no. M. 51-1972), which now incorporates a Dutch engraved shell of the mid-seventeenth century, probably added when the goldsmith, John Plummer of York, carried out major alterations and had it marked at the York assay office; (iii) the unmarked game-cock(?) salt (‘Victoria and Albert Museum Year Book’, no. 2, 1970, pp. 145-6, fig. 1; inv. no. M. 13-1969) which is thought to have an Elizabethan origin and has alterations to the mounts around the shell, which (contrary to sixteenth-century practice) has not been stripped back to the layer of gleaming mother-of-pearl. Even the famous Glynn family cup, which bears the London hallmarks for 1579-80, has lost its original nautilus shell that formed the body of the Pelican in its Piety and now has an engraved silver replacement (see C. J. Jackson, ‘Illustrative History of English Plate’, 2 vols, London, 1911, Vol. 1, p. 190, fig. 207; also J. F. Hayward, ‘Virtuoso Goldsmiths and the Triumphs of Mannerism 1540-1620’, Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications, London, 1976, p. 401, pl. 654, where its height is stated to be 39 cm; and ‘Victoria and Albert Museum Year Book’, no. 2, 1970, pp. 145-6, fig. 2, where it is stated to be “lent to the Victoria and Albert Museum by Mr H.N.Gladstone”).
    Even if nautilus shells were gradually becoming more familiar by the end of the Elizabethan era, there is no evidence to indicate what percentage of those reaching England were embellished with Chinese decoration. Today there is one pathetic half-destroyed specimen in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, that is no longer mounted but which might have been carved in China soon after 1600 and become a treasured 'curiosity' in an early Stuart collection in England. It has survived among the rarities systematically collected by John Tradescant the Elder (died 1638) and his son, John (died 1662), and subsequently transferred to Elias Ashmole (1617-92), who donated the collection to the University of Oxford in 1685 (see Mary Tregear, in ‘Tradescant's Rarities’, ed. A. MacGregor, Oxford, 1983, p. 182, no. 78, pl. LV, where this broken, but elaborately carved, shell is related to an entry in the 1685 list: “B. no. 464: Calices quinque es conchis argentariis elaborati.”). The carving includes a rampant three-clawed dragon and flower spray (on the spine), a small part of two Chinese interior scenes with figures (on either side) and a background of fine scale pattern. Its high quality makes the destruction of these five mounted specimens in the Tradescant Collection seem all the more regrettable and serves to emphasise the great rarity of these sixteenth-century Chinese carved and engraved nautilus shells, especially in British public collections, for the Fitzwilliam Museum's 1585-6 cup and the Waddesdon Bequest Infant Hercules cup are probably the only two complete specimens representing this particular phenomenon from the 'age of discovery'.

    Bibliography: 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. 114, pl. XXVIII O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 114; Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. II. The Curiosities', British Museum, London, 1991, no.26, figs. 259-266; Hanns-Ulrich Mette, 'Der Nautiluspokal : Wie Kunst und Natur Miteinander Spielen', Klinkhardt & Bierman, Munich, 1995, no. 45; Dora Thornton, 'A Rothschild Renaissance: Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest', British Museum, London, 2015, pp.264-271; Ulrike Weinhold"A Fascination for Curiosities" in P.Shirley and D.Thornton, eds., The Waddesdon Bequest, a new look, London 2017, pp. 75-78.


  • Bibliography

    • Read 1902 114 bibliographic details
    • Dalton 1927 114 bibliographic details
    • Mette 1995 45 bibliographic details
    • Tait 1991a 6 bibliographic details
    • Thornton 2015 pp.264-271 bibliographic details
  • Location

    On display: G2a/dc1

  • Condition

    Good, except for the loss of the object originally held in the right hand of the Infant Hercules figure (at the top) - perhaps a spear or, more probably, the second serpent; also, some cracks, chips and minor repairs to the shell itself.

  • Subjects

  • Associated names

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date


  • Acquisition notes

    This collection is known as the Waddesdon Bequest under the terms of Baron Ferdinand Rothschild’s will.

  • Department

    Britain, Europe and Prehistory

  • Registration number


The nautilus shell (Nautilus pompilius) forms the bowl of the standing-cup, being set in silver-gilt mounts that both protect and imaginatively integrate it within the goldsmith's representation of a fierce sea-monster with wide-open jaws ridden by an Inf

The nautilus shell (Nautilus pompilius) forms the bowl of the standing-cup, being set in silver-gilt mounts that both protect and imaginatively integrate it within the goldsmith's representation of a fierce sea-monster with wide-open jaws ridden by an Inf

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