Tall Drug Jar with the Death of Cleopatra

c. 1520–1540

tin-glazed earthenware
H: 17 5/16 (H ) x D: 7 7/8 (D) inches (H: 44.1 x D: 20 cm)

William A. Clark Collection


A significant portion of all maiolica produced in Renaissance Italy was apothecary jars. Italian apothecaries were not unlike modern drug stores. Patrons purchased medicinal compounds, but also herbs, spices, and sweet syrups, for cooking. Potteries produced specially shaped jars for both dry and liquid ingredients. The exterior decorations were almost limitless, ranging from geometric to figural. Some but not all bore the name of the contents.

This jar is part of large group called the Orsini-Colonna pharmacy series. It was named for one particular jar displaying a bear hugging a column in apparent amity. The bear and column represented the Orsini and Colonna families, and one scholar postulated that the jar represented an accord between them. Over 300 pieces of the series remain today, with the Corcoran owning thirteen. All of the pieces share common decorative elements as well as a rich palette of deep cobalt blue and copper green. Recent archeological evidence shows that the jars probably came from one pottery in Castelli. However, it remains a mystery whether or not this large group of similar pieces was commissioned for one pharmacy or was merely a stylistic hallmark of the pottery.