A few snails thrown in

A visitor inspecting the a Roman sarcophagus at Cliveden. The carved reliefs depict scenes from the story of Theseus and Ariadne. ©NTPL/Arnhel de Serra

In response to a previous post about the Roman sarcophagus at West Wycombe, a reader has asked about the sarcophagi at Cliveden, in Buckinghamshire. As he surmised, they were indeed brought to Cliveden by William Waldorf Astor, first Viscount Astor (1848-1919).

William Waldorf Astor by Sir Hubert von Herkomer. ©NTPL/John Bethell

Astor had inherited a huge fortune based on New York real estate. In the 1880s he was appointed United States Minister to Italy, and while there he conceived a passion for art and architecture. In true plutocratic style, Astor was somewhat reclusive and prone to paranoia.

The south front of Cliveden. The Borghese balustrade acquired by William Waldorf Astor can be seen below the terrace. ©NTPL/Nick Meers

In 1891 Astor moved himself and his family to England, reputedly saying that ‘America is not a fit place for a gentleman to live.’ He purchased Cliveden from the first Duke of Westminster in 1893 and embellished it with numerous works of art and antique furnishings. 

Eighteenth-century Italian sculpture of Beatrice, a Commedia dell'Arte figure, in the Long Garden at Cliveden. ©NTPL/Ian Shaw

An amazing discovery has recently been made at Cliveden. As a group of volunteers went around cleaning the statues in the garden, they spotted tiny unfamiliar-looking snails that seemed to live in the crevices of the stone. 

The tiny Papillifera papillaris, the 'Cliveden snail'. ©National Trust/Mark Telfer

Snail guru Janet Ridout Sharpe was called in, and she identified the creatures as Papillifera papillaris. They have little spindle-shaped shells that are generally only 11 mm long. This snail has no English name, as it normally lives around the Mediteranean.

A section of the Borghese balustrade, home of the Papilliferas. ©National Trust

Most of the snails seemed to live on or near the Borghese balustrade, which sits between the terrace and the parterre. This balustrade was purchased by Astor from the Villa Borghese in Rome in 1896 and shipped to Cliveden. It seems that with his purchase Astor got some free snails thrown in – a natural import along with an architectural one. They have thrived at Cliveden in apparent harmony with the other wildlife there, and this species has now been dubbed the Cliveden snail.

4 Responses to “A few snails thrown in”

  1. Barbara Says:

    Collecting old Roman snails, unexpected consequences indeed.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Quite. the Italian authorities stopped the sculptures that originally sat on top of the balustrade from being exported, as they were classed as ‘art’, but the snails slipped through the net.

  3. Barbara Says:

    Nature always wins.

  4. le style et la matière Says:

    Pretty little stowaways.

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