The Roman site of the porphyry quarries in Egypt, the Mons Porphyrites (today Gebel Abu Dukhan), was forgotten for centuries after it was abandoned between about 350 and 450. As a symbol of light, wisdom, virtue, and power, however, porphyry again came to be appreciated by medieval and Renaissance patrons (particularly the Medici in Florence), whose designers used miscellaneous fragments and ruined and excavated column shafts for panels and revetment slabs, sawing up the material to serve as architectural veneers and inlays and incorporated into bishops’ thrones.
The oldest object in Hewat-Jaboor’s collection is a predynastic andesite porphyry vase of about 3000 bc, an object that had no function in life but was made for a tomb. It is fourth from the left on top of the bookshelf in Figure 12; to its left is an Egyptian alabaster canopic jar of about 600 bc with a lid carved to represent the head of the deity Imsety, one of the four sons of Horus and guardian of the liver, which would have been placed in this jar after the body had been embalmed. Both of these objects have the exceptionally beautiful coloring and polished shine of materials that will last as long as the world: to contemplate them is intensely moving.
Among the objects made of Egyptian porphyry are a Roman amphora of about 1700 (atop the column in the foreground of Fig. 11); a late eighteenth-century Italian green diorite covered urn (atop the column in Fig. 8); and a rare Byzantine tapering colonnette in green porphyry from Greece, known as serpentine, of the fourth or fifth century (on top of the bookshelf to the right of the door in Fig. 2). One of the most eloquent objects of imperial Egyptian porphyry is a large irregular fragment taken from a quarry in the second century but never turned into an object, so that it brings alive the whole story of the use of porphyry from the stand on which Hewat-Jaboor displays it (see Fig. 2, far right on shelf).
There are also Roman funerary objects of the first or second century here (see Fig. 4), including a marble columbarium tablet inscribed “Publicia Chrestina, freedwoman, set this up for herself and her husband … a money collector”; a funeral altar, or stele, inscribed “To the departed spirits of Secunda Pious, mother of Saturnus, made by freedman of Augustus”; and a white marble cinerarium with a lid of two triangular pediments carved with birds eating fruit from a tree, a familiar theme on monuments connected with the afterlife (see Fig. 13). Also ancient Roman is a column of brèche violette marble and a pair of columns of grayish pink fior di pesco marble, probably reworked in the seventeenth century (visible in Figs. 2, right, and 8, left, respectively). Early Christian objects include a fifth-century green serpentine capital carved with palm fronds (Fig. 9), and, visible above the door in Figure 2, an Istrian eighth-century carved basanite lintel for a church with a frieze of birds and animals among scrolled foliage.
Hewat-Jaboor’s collection includes two fascinating survivals from the seventeenth century. The first is a pair of sumptuously bound books containing samples of rich marbles, jaspers, alabasters, and hardstones assembled by Leone Strozzi (1652–1722), a passionate collector of stones, that was included in the recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art of the Royal Court: Treasures in Pietre Dure from the Palaces of Europe.1 The other is a Roman ebony and pietre dure house altar of about 1640, an architectural frame originally designed to hold a devotional picture in a private oratory but now containing an amethyst panel (Fig. 7). Incorporating lapis lazuli, agate, jasper, and colored marbles, it also contains inlaid silver stringing, engraved gilt brass, rock crystal, tortoiseshell, and golden yellow jasper from Sicily. The similarly polychromatic effects of the now lost marble interiors of imperial Roman buildings can be appreciated from a re-creation in the crypt of Santi Luca e Martina near the Arch of Septimius Severus, designed by Pietro da Cortona (1596–1669) at the same time as Hewat-Jaboor’s house altar. Its walls are lined with numerous different marbles in a rich variety of colors and patterns, an effect the more powerful for being in deliberate contrast to Cortona’s white stucco interior of the church above.