Paris, Musée du Louvre, département des Objets d’Art. Inv. Nos. OA 9232-9233 (N 15930-15966). See : Philippe de Malgouyres, Porphyre : La pierre pourpre des Ptolémées aux Bonaparte, exh. cat., Musée du Louvre, 2003-4, pp.140-41, no. 47. [For the stone, see Monica T. Price, Decorative Stone: The Complete Sourcebook, London, 2007, pp. 202-3].
The best indications for the dating and authorship of the present vases are provided by the history of those in the Louvre and a similar vase but without handles at Versailles. A similar pair but with different handles in the Louvre are not known to have been in the Royal collection but several others of a slightly different form were prized items of King Louis XIV. Louis may have obtained them at second hand from the collection of the disgraced Cardinal Mazarin: indeed, that they were not new in 1722 is proven by the fact that the ‘bouton’ on top of one of their lids was already broken, which would hardly have been the case for anything freshly made at that time. The Cardinal was advised by the Abbé Benedetti, his agent in Rome, who was familiar of the Barberini [patrons of - among others - Bernini] and the Francophile party in the Vatican. He was in direct contact with the craftsmen who worked for the Cardinal and may also have acted as a dealer for some of them. After Mazarin’s death in 1661 Benedetti became the King’s own agent in Rome. He used to make detailed and captioned drawings of proposed purchases, in order to help the King make his decisions.
One of these shows five vases of ornate shapes - typical of the Baroque in the middle of the seventeenth century - and of descending sizes and two further ones, including one of the present type, on its reverse (Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Cabinet des Estampes: Desseins de sept vazes de différentes formes de l’Abbé Benedetti - Malgouyres, p.138,fig. 65; p. 140, fig.66). The only way of dating this sheet is thanks to the close similarity of three of the designs to those of some vases in the collection of the Doria-
Pamphilij Princes, which in turn are connected with payments in 1646 and 1647 to one Silvio Calice, a well-known specialist in working porphyry. This is fascinating, for – by extension - it indicates the name of the probable maker of the present vase too. His surname, which means ‘chalice’ or ‘cup’ in Italian, may even have been derived from some of his products – or those of his father or ancestors.
In the Eternal City there was a supply of porphyry at second hand from ancient Rome in the form of abandoned columns, etc., from collapsed edifices. All of this originated from the quarries of Gebel Dokhan in the Eastern Desert of Egypt, which were opened in the 1st century AD and worked until the 5th. They were particularly exploited during the reigns of the Emperors Nero, Trajan and Hadrian, and the immensely durable, mottled purple stone was reserved for imperial use. It was quarried and worked by convicts and slave labour, including many Early Christians, condemned for their belief. In the Renaissance, and especially during the ensuing Baroque period, the material was reworked by the stone-cutters (scarpellini) of Rome to suit the taste of their patrons, who wished to assimilate themselves with the prestigious culture of the ancient world.