WB.80     1600–1650 • Rock crystal, enamelled gold • vase

Carved with projecting rams’ heads from one piece of rock crystal, full of flaws. The bowl is delicately engraved with a river scene with animals and birds. The handle is probably a later addition.

Curator's Description

Bucket-shaped vase; rock crystal; overarching handle formed of seven fluted beads of crystal and six of enamelled gold; bucket with two ears in form of rams' heads; marsh scene around side with waterfowl and deer; above and below, band of short flutes; unicorn drinking on bottom; gold beads on handle enamelled black, light blue and red.

This object was collected and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.

How big is it?

15.2 cm wide, 16.6 cm high, 12.2 cm deep, and it weighs 612g

Detailed Curatorial Notes

Text from Tait 1991:-

Origin: Uncertain; formerly described as 'German, late 16th century', but more probably made in Milan or Prague, first half of 17th century.

Description: A bucket-shaped bowl made from one piece of rock-crystal and it includes the two rams' heads that project outwards on either side of the neck of the bowl. These two heads, which are carved in such high relief that they are almost in the round, also project slightly above the rim of the bowl and, between the pair of curling horns on each ram's head, an irregularly-shaped 'lug' of rock-crystal rises to form an attachment point for the bail-handle.

Below the rim of the bowl a band of the rock-crystal is left undecorated, whilst the neck of the bowl consists of a slightly wider band of dense, vertical, concave fluting between horizontal double mouldings, the lower of which passes immediately beneath the base of each ram's head. The sides of the bowl bulge into a squat, rounded form, with a very low foot-ring. The underside of the bowl within the circular foot-rim is engraved with a unicorn standing beside a river, from which it is drinking; immediately outside the foot-rim there is a zone of vertical gadrooning in low relief, above which is engraved the watery foreground of a river scene that runs without interruption around the sides of the bowl like a continuous frieze. Between the trees depicted on the river bank are three areas: (i) A reclining deer facing to right, with bulrushes and a tree to the left. (ii) Three large birds with long necks, two flying down to join the third by the bulrushes on the river. (iii) Two birds (perhaps swans) swimming on the river in front of the bulrushes, the bird on the right catching a fish in the water. In the background and on either side of these three vignettes the leafy trees spread their branches.

The bowl has an over-arching bail-handle, which is probably modern in it present form. It is composed of seven fluted and pierced beads of graduated sizes (two being small, spherical beads, whilst the remaining five are oval); these rock-crystal beads alternate with six spacer beads of enamelled gold (light blue, red, white and black), the design on each being the same (a polychrome rosette alternating with a pseudo-strapwork motif in thick black lines). Similar, but more elongated, polychrome rosettes decorate the two gold terminals, through which pass (at right-angles) the two very short tubes (one replaced by a modern threaded rod) that fit into the small horizontal hole on either side of the rim of the bowl immediately above the ram's head.

Provenance: None is recorded.

Commentary: The form of this vessel with its bail-handle is rarely found among hardstone carvings, though one of the finest, made of chalcedony and enamelled gold mounts, has survived in the Kunstkammer of the Dukes of Württemberg (now in the Württembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart; see M. Landenberger, ‘Kleinodien aus dem Württembergischen Landesmuseum, Stuttgart’, Pfullingen, 1973, p. 20 with col. pl., where its height is given as 17.5 cm). Carved with a fluted neck, a gadrooned body and acanthus leaves beneath the rim, it has survived complete with its original chalcedony bail-handle (in the form of two dolphins) and its high-domed cover, carved with scrolls and acanthus leaves. The over-arching bail-handle is attached just below the rim on either side, and this exceptional tour de force is attributed to a Milanese workshop in the second quarter of the sixteenth century.

One elaborate Florentine drawing of the late sixteenth century, which is a detailed finished design for a bucket-shaped bowl with bail-handle, is preserved in the Uffizi, Florence (Cabinet of Prints and Drawings, inv. no. 707 Orn.; see C. W. Fock, Vases en lapis-lazuli des Collections Medicéennes du Seizième Siècle, ‘Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst’, XXVII, N.F., 1976, p. 131, fig. 10, where it is argued that, by its simplicity of style and its concern over technical details, this drawing must be a study by a craftsman, expert in the relevant skill - either a goldsmith or a lapidary of Florence - and that it is comparable, in its conception but not in its detail, with the Florentine lapis-lazuli bowl with its ornate bail-handle of enamelled gold attributed to Giovanni Battista Cervi, 1574 (fig. 8), which is preserved in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). Significantly, the anonymous design shows the bail-handle attached (on either side) above the rim on a raised scroll motif that surmounts the large projecting masks or grotesque heads - not unlike the more modest arrangement on the Waddesdon Bequest rock-crystal version. One Italian rock-crystal version with an enamelled gold bail-handle (similar to that on the lapis-lazuli bowl of 1574) is preserved in Vienna, but the open lobed bowl is not bucket-shaped (Kunsthistorisches Museum, inv. no. 2235; H. of bowl 14.1 cm; see E. V. Strohmer, ‘Prunkgefäase aus Bergkristall’, Vienna, 1947, p. 27, fig. 10).

The small bucket-shaped bowl with bail-handle is not an uncommon form in Venetian glass throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (see Hugh Tait, ‘The Golden Age of Venetian Glass’, British Museum, 1979, p. 103, no. 160, with illus., and p. 132, no. 227, with illus.). It is assumed that many were made for liturgical purposes, to hold holy water, and would have been accompanied by a sprinkler, as is the case with a metal example depicted in Vittore Carpaccio's painting of 1495, ‘The Dream of St Ursula’ (in the Accademia, Venice); but others were clearly in secular use, as depicted in Veronese's painting of 1573, ‘The Feast in the House of Levi’ (also in the Accademia, Venice). The Italian glass secchiello was imported into the noble households of Spain and became very fashionable, as the records testify (see J. M. Gudiol Ricart, ‘Els Vidres Catalans’, Barcelona, 1936, pp. 142-54, transcribed in extenso; A. W. Frothingham, Barcelona Glass in Venetian Style, New York, 1956, pp. 3iff.; also A. W. Frothingham, ‘Spanish Glass’, London, 1963, p. 31, where extracts from the list of Barcelona glass belonging to Queen Isabella of Spain in 1505 (prepared by her lady-in-waiting, Violante de Albión) included one of “. . . clear glass, with a twisted handle of blue glass, resembling a bucket”). Unfortunately, north of the Alps there is far less evidence to show that the form ever became popular (either in expensive glass or in any other luxury material) during the Renaissance, and therefore the suggested Milanese origin of this rock-crystal bucket seems all the more likely.

However, three generations of the most distinguished family of rock-crystal carvers - the Miseroni of Milan -worked for the Hapsburg Court in Prague: Alessandro was there from 1605 to 1612, and Giovanni Ambrogio, who was appointed Imperial gem-cutter in 1593, was certainly recorded in Prague in 1600; but, more importantly, the latter's brother Ottavio stayed there for thirty-six years (1588-1624) and was so successful that in 1608 he had been ennobled by the Emperor. On his death in Prague in 1624, Ottavio's place was taken by his son, Dionysio, who had trained under his father in the reign of the Emperor Rudolph II (died 1612). He succeeded his father as custodian of the Imperial treasures under Ferdinand II in 1624. Dionysio died in 1661 after a long and very productive life, the major part of his work being still preserved in the collections in Vienna. His pupil was his son, Ferdinand Eusebio, whose death in 1684 brought an end to the ninety-six-year-old Miseroni workshop in Prague (for the most recent and comprehensive survey of the biographical details and artistic productions of the various members of the family, see R. Distelberger, Beobachtungen zu den Steinschneidewerkstätten der Miseroni in Mailand und Prag, ‘Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien’, Vol. 74, 1978, pp. 79-152; R. Distelberger, Dionysio und Ferdinand Eusebio Miseroni, ‘Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien’, Vol. 75, 1979, pp. 109-88, where (fig. 146) the deep-sided open bowl with a bail-handle carved by Dionysio Miseroni in 1659 is no longer the traditional 'bucket' shape but has become elliptical and devoid of engraved scenes: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, inv. no. 1471; L. 13.3 cm). Consequently, the influence of the Miseroni Prague workshop on German craftsmen in this field was understandably very strong and often led to distinctions becoming blurred (see W. Holzhausen, Dresden-Prager Glas- und Steinschnitt um 1600, ‘Neues Archiv für Sächsische Geschichte und Altertumskunde’, Dresden, 1934, pp. 86-118; S. Urban, Edelsteinschneider am Rudolfinischen Hofe in Prag und Deren Einfluss auf die Entwicklung des Böhmischen Barockglases, ‘Annales du 6e Congrès de l’Association Internationale pour l'Histoire du Verre’, Liège, 1974, pp. 177-86). The problem is particularly acute with rock-crystals engraved with landscape scenes but no human figures, such as the Waddesdon Bequest bucket, and in this connection attention may be drawn to a rock-crystal covered vase or goblet - a tall, narrow, cylindrical form resting on a short stem and a small circular foot - engraved with a similar landscape scene of trees, swans on the ground and other birds in the sky, which is preserved in Vienna (Kunsthistorisches Museum; inv. no. 1492; H. 18 cm; see E. Kris, ‘Meister und Meisterwerke de Steinschneidekunst in der Italienischen Renaissance’, Vienna, 1929, p. 125, no. 567, pl. 128, where it is attributed to a workshop in Northern Italy in the seventeenth century). The scene, which forms a broad frieze around the central area of the tall vase or goblet, is not unrelated to the slightly later versions which were fashionable among German engravers of glass and, to a lesser extent, of rock-crystal.

The technique of carving masks or heads - almost completely in the round - to project from the one single block of rock-crystal that was being used to create the vessel can be seen, for example, on a covered bowl in the Treasure of the Dauphin in the Prado, Madrid (see D. A. Iñiguez, ‘Catálogo de las Alhajas de Delfín’, Museo del Prado, Madrid, 1989, p. 157, no. 95, col. pl. and fig., where it is dated to the last third of the sixteenth century). Often the more accomplished examples, especially human heads, were carved separately and then attached with mounts of gold or silver, as can be seen on some of the more ambitious products of the Miseroni workshop in Prague. No better-documented piece can be quoted than the two heads on the lowest stage of the famous rock-crystal Pyramid by Dionysio Miseroni (with silver-gilt mounts by Hanns Reinhardt Taravell) of 1651-3 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, inv. no. 2251-4; H. 115.4 cm when all five sections are assembled). This presentation piece to the Emperor Ferdinand III figures prominently in the family portrait of the Miseroni by Karel Skreta (preserved in the National Gallery, Prague, and previously discussed and illustrated in Heinrich Klapsia, Dionysio Miseroni, ‘Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien’, Vol. XIII, 1944, p. 302). A similarly carved head is mounted on the 'siren' rock-crystal tazza of 1677-8 by Ferdinand Eusebio Miseroni, which is part of the Schatzkammer at the Munich Residenz (see R. Distelberger, Dionysio und Ferdinand Eusebio Miseroni, ‘Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien’, Vol. 75, 1979, pp. 109-88, fig. 162, where the height is stated to be 30.5 cm).

However, the rare feat of carving a head 'in the round' and at the same time integral with the rock-crystal vessel itself was evidently performed by the Miseroni workshop in Prague during the first half of the seventeenth century - as can be seen from an unpublished baroque rock-crystal of the most sophisticated and unusual form, which has been preserved in the British Museum since 1772 (reg. no. 1772, 3-20, xiv, 190). It is described in a manuscript catalogue of Sir William Hamilton's Collection, written in French, which bears the title: ‘Catalogue des Antiquités recueillies, depuis l'an 1764 jusques vers le milieu de l’année 1776 par M. le Chevalier Guillaume Hamilton, acquises par Acte du Parlement en -, et maintenant déposées dans le Museum Britannique, London, MDCCLXXVIII’. The date of the Act was 1772 and the vase is described under no. 190 (on pp. 505-6 of the manuscript) in the following terms:

“. . . c'est un asses grand Vase de Christal de Roche, du genre de ceux qu'on appellait des Priapes, et desquel Juvenal reproche l'usage aux Romains de son tem[p]s Vitreo bibit Mi Priapo.

celui ci represente l'union tres intime d'un Triton et d'une Néreide; tous deux sont vus de dos sur l'exterieur du Vase, leur chevelure est tres longue et ils sont placés sur les flots de la mer. Le corps de Triton est recouvert d'écailles comme la partie inferieure de la Nereide qui se termine en queue de poisson.

La tete de cette Nereide sert d'anse ou de bouton, au labu[t] de ce vase, creusé avec une etona[ble] Industrie; car sa partie superieure est excavée quoique recouverte par le dessus et quoique encore ce vase n'ait aucun trou par en bas, ou l'on ait pu placer l'instrument necessaire à l'evaider -

les bras de la Nereide embrassent la tete d'un phoque, et l'ouverture de la Geule, forme celle du Vase, on ne puit rien de mieux arrangé que cette composition, ou tout le sent de l'intention quon [sic] a eu quoi que tout y soit déguisé, autant que le sujet sans doute commande a l'artiste a pu le lui permettre.

des Oves allongées avec leurs caneaux terminent le ventre de ce vase singulier, soutenu par une tortue également de Christal naturel; ce pied se raccorde avec le vase par un collet enrichi d'emeraudes, entourées de deux rangs de perles; cet ornement ajouté par un curieux moderne, convient très bien à la richesse de ce precieux vase.”

This description provides a rare opportunity to appreciate an eighteenth-century collector's approach to one of the more extraordinary cameo sculptures in rock-crystal that had been created by a member of the Miseroni, probably Dionysio, at the workshop in Prague.

In conclusion, the former attribution of the Waddesdon Bequest bucket and bail-handle to a German workshop seems less justified than a tentative attribution to the Miseroni workshop in either Milan or Prague. Although the bucket was undoubtedly intended to have a bail-handle - perhaps of rock-crystal - the present replacement handle is both an inferior and distracting addition that severely detracts from the bucket itself.


  • 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. 80
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 80
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. III. The Curiosities', British Museum, London, 1991, no.38, figs. 336-341.
  • 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. Tait 1991a: Tait, Hugh, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum; III The 'Curiosities', London, BMP, 1991

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