Household inventories from Renaissance Italy often uncover some weird and wonderful possessions. One of these is the sea snail shell (chiocciola marina) – an object that crops up now and again in Florentine inventories of objects belonging to girls and young women.
For example, there’s a sea snail shell listed in the estate inventory of Piero di Lorenzo Benintendi in 1551. The shell is marked, along with clothing and a little coral necklace, as being ‘for the baby girl’s use’.
In 1511, the extremely well-to-do bride, Gostanza Minerbetti, had not one, but two sea snail shells in her bridal trousseau.
And in other inventories, these curious objects are squirreled away in little caskets with other small precious items such as rosaries, jewellery, belts and silver spoons or held in storage at local convents for safe-keeping.
So what on earth were these sea snail shells doing in the sticky paws of toddlers and the bridal trousseau of the rich and powerful?
If these objects appear in bridal trousseau, that’s usually a signifier that they mean something fundamental to the story of marriage and fertility. There’s a clear link between shells and fertility, which comes from their association with Venus.
According to one story, this lovely goddess was born out of the waves that the god Cronos had thrown his father, Uranus’s penis into, in revenge for the bad treatment of his mother. Beautiful Venus was born from this rather gory event and then blown ashore on a sea shell as Botticelli so gorgeously depicts in his Birth of Venus.
So it is possible, that girls and women were given these shells as symbols of their fertility or as amulets to bring them the fertility they would need to produce the many sons that Renaissance society required of them.
Other paintings relate sea shells to marriage. Lorenzo Lotto’s painting of Venus and Cupid shows a conch shell suspended above the naked Venus.
This painting is full of references to marriage (the ivy symbolises fidelity) and fertility – Cupid peeing into his mother’s lap being the main one (yes, really). So this link between sea shells and fertility could well explain why Gostanza Minerbetti had two of them with her on her wedding day.
But it doesn’t quite explain why baby girls were given sea snail shells so early on in their lives.
And the fertility explanation doesn’t work when we learn that some novices were given sea snail shells as part of their own ‘trousseau’ – objects they took along when they left their families and went into the convent.
For example, Gostanza Minerbetti’s little sister, Francesca, took a ‘chiocchiola’ with her to the convent of San Niccolò in 1506 when, at the tender age of just nine years old, she was placed there as a novice.
It’s fairly likely that sea snail shells held some kind of amuletic power for Renaissance Florentines, and this may be why girls and young women were given them.
Shells, such as cowrie shells have been used for thousands of years all over the world as amulets to protect the wearer against evil and harm. Interestingly, this use again comes back to a link between sea shells and sex – in many nations the cowrie shell is considered amuletic because it looks like a vulva.
A less sexual reading of sea shells as amulets might look at the scallop shell – longstanding symbol of Saint James and of pilgrimage – which was used in hat badges by pilgrims and would have held amuletic powers for the wearer from its association with the holy pilgrimage site.
The amuletic theory would explain why little girls were given these shells and why young novices, sent away from the security of their families into the unfamiliar world of the convent, might have appreciated them.
The 1511 inventory of Carlo Seragli’s household lists a sea snail shell amongst a lot of other ‘children’s items’ including two magical charms and a dog’s tooth – another infant’s amulet.
These groups of children’s amulets were common in Florentine family inventories. A typical group of coral, cross pendant, Agnus Dei and dog’s tooth is depicted in Bernardino Detti’s Madonna della Pergola.
It is also likely that they were treasured because they were interesting to look at and to touch. From the sixteenth century, large seashells like the nautilus were prized items, and were often mounted in silver and gold.
They also formed part of the Curiosity Cabinets that were starting to be assembled in the Renaissance and learned men seem to have been drawn to their beauty and symbolism.
This Renaissance fascination with sea shells is hardly surprising.
We’ve all enjoyed collecting sea shells in our time, especially as children. So perhaps sea snail shells were also toys for girls – pretty, natural objects that they could admire, handle and play with.
Their other functions as fertility symbols and amulets would make them ‘super toys’ – protecting girls at play and (for those girls who weren’t sent to the convent) bringing some kind of fertility luck to them as well.