The design for this magnificent vase of Egyptian porphyry, like that of most such vases, probably ultimately derives from 17th century Italian sources, such as Stefano della Bella's Raccolta di Vasi Diversi of circa 1664.
A related 17th century porphyry urn of almost identical proportions and with a similarly gadrooned base, though with snake handles and a different cover, from the château de Maisons-Laffitte, was part of the Louvre's fascinating exhibition on porphyry earlier this year (see P. Malgouyres, Porphyre, Paris, 2003, cat.28, p.114). While another related vase, only about half the size of this superb example and with a spirally twisted gadrooning, survives in the private apartments of the Palazzo Doria in Rome. It appears to have been recorded in an inventory as early as 1668 (see M. de Nuccio & L. Lazzarini, ed., I marmi colorati della Roma imperiale, Rome, 2003, cat 350, p.581).
Porphyry has been prized since antiquity for its lustrous colour (the word derives from the Greek for purple) and remarkable hardness. To carve anything comparable to this monumental vase, which is likely to have been cut from an ancient Roman column, is a considerable technical achievement. The Romans imported porphyry in great quantities from ancient Egypt, using it both in architectural schemes and to carve portrait busts. Its rich purple colour, the Imperial symbol of power, was no doubt of special significance in ancient Rome and with the rediscovery of classical Rome in the Renaissance period, the potent symbolism of porphyry was prized once again, and it was avidly collected by powerful figures such as the Medicis, Louis XIV (who had a buying agent in Rome for his acquisitions), as well as the cardinals de Richelieu and Mazarin.