Properzia’s hazelnuts


“[Queen Mab] comes in shape no bigger than an agate-stone… Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut, her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs” (W. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio’s monologue, I, IV)

These eleven hazelnuts nestled in the filigree frame of the coat of arms of the Grassi family from Bologna were carved with extraordinary skill by the Bologna-born sculptor Properzia de Rossi (1490-1530). Properzia, who worked alongside her male colleagues in sculpting the marble decorations for the Basilica of San Petronio, gave up her scalpel and experimented with micro-technique, carving walnut shells and peach and cherry pits “…which she worked with such patience that it was a unique marvel to see”. These were the words Vasari wrote about this woman, who was able to go from marble sculpture to the painstaking carving of tiny objects, which were quite in vogue at the time. With her deft touch, she shaped them as if they were cameos.