John White Alexander (1856-1915)
Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1897
Oil on canvas
From Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants by Charles M. Skinner, c. 1911 by J.B. Lippincott Company
"Isabella, whose story has been told by Boccaccio, Keats, and Hunt, in tale, poem, and picture, was a maid of Messina who, left to her own resources by her brothers--they being rich and absorbed in business--found solace in the company of Lorenzo, the comely manager of their enterprises. The brothers noted the meetings, but, wishing to avoid a scandal, they pretended to have seen nothing. Finally they bade Lorenzo to a festival outside of the city, and there slew him. They told their sister that Lorenzo had been sent on a long journey, but when days, weeks, even months, had passed, she could no longer restrain her uneasiness, and asked when he would return. "What do you mean?" demanded one of the brothers. "What have you in common with such as Lorenzo? Ask for him farther, and you shall be answered as you deserve."
Isabella kept her chamber for that day, a victim to fears and doubts; but in her solitude she called on her lover, making piteous moan that he would return. And he did so; for when she had fallen asleep, Lorenzo's ghost appeared, pale, blood-drabbled, with garments rent and mouldy, and addressed her: "Isabella, I can never return to you, for on the day we saw each other last your brothers slew me."
After telling where she might find his body, the speaker melted into air, and in fright she awoke. Unable to shake off the impression of the scene, she fled to the scene of the tragedy, and there, in a space of ground recently disturbed, she came upon Lorenzo, lying as in sleep, for there was a preserving virtue in the soil. She was first for moving the corpse to holy ground, but this would invite discovery, so with a knife she removed the head, and, borrowing "a great and goodly pot," laid it therein, folded in a fair linen cloth, and covered it with earth. Some basil of Salerno she then planted, and it was her comfort to guard the growing plant sprung from her lover's flesh, and water it with essences and orange water, but oftener with tears.
Tended so with love and care, the plant grew strong and filled the room with sweetness. Her home-staying and the pallor of weeping led the brothers to wonder, and, thinking to cure her of a mental malady, they took away the flower. She cried unceasingly for its return, and the men, still marveling, spilt it from its tub to find if she had hidden anything beneath its root; and in truth she had, for there they found the mouldering head which, by its fair and curling hair, they recognized as Lorenzo's. Realizing that the murder had been discovered, they buried the relic anew, and fled to Naples. Isabella died of heart-emptiness, still lamenting her pot of basil."