A Rare Botanical Table

October 5 2010, 5:59pm

The labrum, or basin, was used as a water vessel in ancient Roman bath complexes and gardens. With the construction of aqueducts, water could be carried for miles and its use was no longer restricted to basic necessities, but could now be enjoyed for recreation and decorative purposes. It is apparent from ancient marble specimens and wall frescoes that ornamental fountains were popular additions to the garden landscapes of antiquity.

The present botanical table takes the form of an ancient basin on stand. A fountain related to the present table, constructed from a basin and stand, is in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (figure 1). Dating from the 1st century AD, this white marble example also has a shaped square top with tapering concave sides above a circular basin raised on a fluted circular stem. Similar to the present table, there is a rosette at the center of the basin, however, it is pierced in the ancient example, allowing water into the bowl. A second ancient example can be found in the Vatican museum collections. Its circular bowl is gadrooned like the present table, and it, too, has a fluted circular splayed stem that sits on a square plinth. The designs of such labra were copied and disseminated in works such as Anne-Claude-Phillipe Caylus’ Recueil d’antiquités égyptiennes, étrusques, grecques, romaines et gauloises (1752-67) (figure 2). Figure 1

Figure 2 The present table is constructed much in the manner of the work of the celebrated designer and architect Karl Friederich Schinkel (1781-1841). The formal restraint of the table, free from extraneous decoration and marked by the smooth elegance of its form and the quality of its detailing, is characteristic of Schinkel’s neo-classical furniture designs. The table is closely related to an engraving of an antique marble urn from Tivoli published in Vorbilder für Fabrikanten und Handwerker, for which Schinkel provided the plates from 1821 (figure 3). Like the present table, that piece has a square top, molded to the inside edge and to the external sides, supported on a circular gadrooned support, itself raised on a spreading circular molded stem and stood on a square plinth. Although the Tivoli urn features the motif of decorative swans to each corner of the top, the forms of the table and the engraving are otherwise so closely related that it seems probable that the urn provided the inspiration for the present piece. Figure 3 Schinkel was profoundly engaged with relating his architecture to nature and the surrounding landscape, and the present table can be seen in the context of the garden rooms he incorporated into his buildings to achieve this conjunction. These rooms served to relate interiors to the gardens beyond and often ran directly into pergolas and garden terraces. The multifunctional table possesses capabilities of both growing and displaying plants by means of a removable tabletop and a series of removable trays, which fit ingeniously into the curving sides of the table’s basin. When all the trays are removed, a central button is revealed inside the basin, which, when pressed, releases a drawer concealed in the table’s base, where the trays can be stored when not in use. Schinkel realized this philosophy in a series of neo-classical villas built for the Prussian royal family in the middle of the 1820s. At Schloss Glienicke, built for Prince Karl, son of Friedrich Wilhem III from 1824, Schinkel transformed a modest country house into an Italianate villa and constructed a casino flanked with pergolas and vine-clad loggias, into which opened directly the central saloon with a large mirrored wall to reflect the garden. This combination of interior and landscape was repeated in the pavilion Schinkel constructed in the grounds of Schloss Charlottenburg in 1824. In that villa a continuous external balcony connected the rooms of the first floor and an axially placed garden room commanded a view along the whole of the long garden terrace towards the Schloss itself.