Our bodies, our shells.
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Colleen Kelsey on the scallop shell motif as luxury object.
Occasionally I see something uncommonly pleasing and think, Instagram will ruin this. I’ve felt that way about restaurants (the red-walled dining room of Shun Lee West, one of the best places in New York), pieces of art (that Domenico Gnoli show at the Fondazione Prada), pink radicchio salads. More recently, I’ve fixated on one particular form: the uncanny organic symmetry of the scallop shell, which has shown up, unfurled and coquettish like a Madame de Pompadour-handled fan, in IG contexts one would consider, I’m sorry to say, chic: silver vessels cupping breast-like desserts and flanking butter koi fish at a dinner for the designer Simone Rocha; hot-girls-eat-tinned-fish-adjacent dishware and incense holders; coquille hair accessories, jewelry, and objects by Sophie Buhai, who makes sculptural silver, onyx, and lapis pieces rarified enough to also sell at the Cooper Hewitt and Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Renderings less sublime, like the kitsch Art Deco-derived vases and velvet pillows hawked by scores of aesthetically identical travertine-and-Lucite ‘80s vintage resellers assert that shells are status-y. Even a friend in Paris, when asked about a good drinks spot near the Louvre, said, “La Coquille is fun.”
Gatekeeping the innate shellegance of a motif that has created a cult of desire for literal millennia seems pointless. Similar to the nautilus, the scallop possesses the kind of freak-proportioned ancient-yet-modern geometry that feels as if it was conceived as an objet rather than organism, agnostic of era, with an ornamental fluting that obsessed the Greeks and Romans, colonialist collectors, and aesthetes of the Rococo (so-named for rocaille, rocks and broken shells). Highly decorative, when divorced from its natural habitat it instead can read more like the capital of a column, a coat of arms, an insignia. A reference to a reference.
Aphrodite emerged from the surf and alighted on Cyprus, brought to shore by a scallop shell. Thus its persistent brand association: fertility, beauty, and sensuality. The Greeks and Romans embedded the mollusks in the walls (along with mother-of-pearl) in their nymphaeums, temples devoted to water nymphs; it has been said that Caligula, after pillaging Gaul in 40 C.E., instructed his troops to collect a bounty of shells from its northern shoreline to signify their victory. A 2000 archeological dig in now-Mérida, Spain—which was once Augusta Emerita, capital of the Roman province of Lusitania—uncovered the bivalve as makeup compact, primly sealed with pink-ish pigment still intact.
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Proust’s invocation of the madeleine in Swann’s Way, “the little shell made of cake, so fatly sensual within its severe and pious pleating,” situates the scallop shell in its Catholic context, as a marker of salvation.
Since the 10th century, pilgrims have followed the Camino de Santiago, a network of routes radiating from the city of Santiago in Galicia, Spain, that lead to the shrine of martyred apostle St. James the Great—one of the madeleine’s rumored origins was that it was sold to those on the path. A scallop shell served as the journey’s badge of completion; pilgrims also affixed them to their hats or capes to announce their spiritual affiliation, or used them as vessels to receive food and water.
Along the Camino, likenesses of scallops present themselves as signposts, wayfinding icons, and adorn buildings like Salamanca’s Casa de las Conchas, where a staggering 300 shells in relief dress the Gothic facade. Italian Renaissance paintings, such as Piero della Francesca’s Brera Madonna and Da Vinci’s The Annunciation, depict the symbol in reference to the divine conception, refiguring it in the architecture of their tableaux—a vaulted apse, dangling a pearl-like ostrich egg—and in the embellishment of a lectern, where Mary receives the angel Gabriel, proffering a lily.
The 17th century catapulted the shell into covetable commodity. Wealthy Europeans, introduced to rare specimens sourced from colonial trade routes, treated them like jewels, amassing and displaying opulent collections. As such the motif started to proliferate in the interior arts, translated into the sinuous, nature-exalting forms of Rococo and later the English Georgian period, where chair legs, mantelpieces, and headboards swirled with the carvings of the scallop’s silhouette.
Months ago I saw a video of Chloë Sevigny on her bachelorette weekend at some resort, posing in front of a pool’s scallop waterfall, Downtown-meets-Darien Venus on the half-shell. Shells were also Chloë’s scene. Instagram—at its best and most basic—can allow one to encounter beautiful things. My instinct is that the resurgence of this form is an indicator of an ascendant appetite for pure decoration and adornment; tastes have been shifting from the neutered minimalism of the 2010s to something a bit more indulgent, hedonistic. “Lifestyle curation” and “tastemaking” are often cynical, flattened spaces, and potentially at their most reductive on social media. But I also think embarking on a spiritual pilgrimage to beauty is a very noble calling.
While not all on display, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a robust accounting of scallop pieces spanning the 17th to 19th century: silver dinner services, music boxes, and even a Hanukkah lamp. A favorite of mine isn’t an object, but rather, the gilt-tinged oakwood frame of Fragonard’s The Two Sisters, in which the each of the mitred corners is covered with an elaborately carved scallop, positioned behind two dolphins forming the exterior petals of a fleur-de-lys. But forget the museum. 1stDibs has actual, tangible goods, even just to window-scroll: 18th-century Swedish chairs, 1930s Venetian settees, Art Deco soup services, Wedgwood dinnerware. While the serpentine-shaped Italian Rococo bed frame may have sold, it’s okay. I already shared to Story. — Colleen Kelsey
The Dirt: Embrace life on the scalloped edge.
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