Renaissance Nautilus Shell
Dutch, c. 1650
Chambered Nautilus (Nautilus pompilius) shell; low relief etched into the nacreous layer
Height 16 cm, width 21 cm, depth 11 cm
Published in: Laue, G.:Exotica, Munich 2012, cat. no. 63
This magnificent Renaissance Chambered Nautilus shell is decorated in low relief that covers its surface like a net with tendrils, blooms and birds. On each side of the vortex, sea monsters are depicted with maws open to reveal pointed teeth. These motifs allude to the exotic material and its origins in Indo-Pacific waters, which were regarded by most Europeans as distant worlds full of arcana and monsters to be discovered. The artist has made adroit use of the three layers of the Nautilus shell: from the uppermost calcareous, porcelaneous layer, he removed the negative form of the designs down to the nacreous second layer of the shell with the patterns represented still revealing in part the reddish brown stripes of the outer, calcareous layer to stand out as if in relief against the nacreous ground layer. The low relief decoration was created by etching rather than excising and rasping or scraping. This is shown by the soft contours of the patterns as well as the edges of the hole drilled through the whorls of the shell near the vortex. An acid-resistant metal rod could be pushed through the hole to keep the Nautilus shell from touching the work surface during the etching process. An unmounted Chambered Nautilus shell is in the Duke Anton Ulrich Museum in Brunswick and another in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, both of them decorated in low relief almost identical to that on the shell discussed here. The mid-17th-century date given for the present work is based on comparison with a mounted Chambered Nautilus shell in Detmold Castle of the Princes zur Lippe, which boasts stylistically similar etched decoration.