Sunday, 18 October 2009

Doomed Damsel: Isabella, the tragic herbalist

 Painters love a doomed damsel as a subject. The pre-Raphaelites were particularly fond of combining long tresses with a touch of anguish.

As happened to Hamlet's Ophelia, doomed damsels usually bring their tragic fate upon themselves by falling in love with rotters.

In the case of Isabella, an Italian lass, the rotters were her two brothers, not her lover, but love was, as usual, the root cause of her doom. (No pun intended.) The whole thing was a disaster: nobody won except the painters.

It all began when Isabella fell in love with Lorenzo, a carpenter employed by her brothers. Hoping to marry their sister off to a rich guy instead, the brothers hit upon a cunning plan to cope with the Lorenzo situation: they lured the carpenter into the forest, where they killed and buried him. They told Isabella they had sent him on a business trip, but Lorenzo's ghost came to her in the night and told her everything, including the location of his grave.

Isabella found the grave, but rather than put a posy on it and say a little prayer, she chose to dig it up in order to take him home with her. The late Lorenzo was a strapping lad - finding his body too heavy to carry, she hacked off his head and tucked that under her arm to take home. Here she put it in a terracotta pot, covered it with potting soil and sowed basil seeds on top.

The basil did rather well, as you would expect: all that organic fertiliser. She watered it with her tears and spent hours hugging the pot and talking to the plant. (She may have been an ancestress of Prince Charles.) One wonders if she used bits of the basil in the pasta sauce she cooked for the brothers.

People started calling her weird for spending all her time mooning over a pot of basil and the brothers couldn't interest any rich guys in marriage with a madwoman, however beautiful.

So they hit upon another cunning plan: they would steal the pot of basil. With the object of her obsession removed, they hoped Isabella would return to normal. Unfortunately the two broke the pot and saw their victim's head. Realising the game was up, they fled the jurisdiction. Isabella, bereft of Lorenzo, basil and all, pined away and died.

Keats wrote a poem about her; Holman Hunt, John Millais, John William Waterhouse and John White Alexander painted her, but it seems the Italian police ignored the whole thing! Had it happened here, Melbourne's Finest would have sent Forensics to check out the crime scene, arrested the whole lot of them and arranged counselling for Isabella.

Get the Kleenex ready for next month's sad but mystifying tale – the story of Elaine.

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