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Portland Vase

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Portland Vase

The Portland Vase
The Portland Vase (Scene 1)

The Portland Vase is a Roman cameo glass vase, which is dated to between AD 1 and AD 25, though low BC dates have some scholarly support.[1] It is the best known piece of Roman cameo glass and has served as an inspiration to many glass and porcelain makers from about the beginning of the 18th century onwards. It is first recorded in Rome in 1600-1601, and since 1810 has been in the British Museum in London. It was bought by the museum in 1945 (GR 1945,0927.1) and is normally on display in Room 70.

The vase is about 25 centimeters high and 56 in circumference. It is made of violet-blue glass, and surrounded with a single continuous white glass cameo making two distinct scenes, depicting seven human figures, plus a large snake, and two bearded and horned heads below the handles, marking the break between the scenes.

The bottom of the vase was a cameo glass disc, also in blue and white, showing a head, presumed to be of Paris or Priam on the basis of the Phrygian cap it wears. This roundel clearly does not belong to the vase, and has been displayed separately since 1845. It may have been added to mend a break in antiquity or after, or the result of a conversion from an original amphora form (paralleled by a similar blue-glass cameo vessel from Pompeii) - it was definitely attached to the bottom from at least 1826.


The meaning of the images on the vase is unclear and none of the many theories put forward have been found generally satisfactory. They fall into two main groups: mythological and historical, though a historical interpretation of a myth is also a possibility. Historical interpretations focus on Augustus, his family and his rivals, especially given the quality and expense of the object, and the somewhat remote neo-classicism of the style, which compares with some Imperial gemstone cameos featuring him and his family with divine attributes, such as the Gemma Augustea, the Great Cameo of France and the Blacas Cameo (the last also in the British Museum). Interpretations of the portrayals have included that of a marine setting (due to the presence of a ketos or sea-snake), and of a marriage theme/context, as the vase may have been a wedding gift. Many scholars (including Charles Towneley) have concluded that the figures do not fit into a single iconographic set.

Scene 1

Interpretations include:

  • The marriage of the sea-gods Peleus and Thetis, "the most enduring mythological interpretation".[2]
  • Dionysos greeting Ariadne with her sacred serpent, in the sacred grove for their marriage, symbolized by Cupid with a nuptial torch, in the presence of his foster-father, Silenus
  • The story of the Emperor Augustus' supposed siring by the god Apollo in the form of a snake
  • The younger man is Mark Antony being lured by the wiles of the reclining woman (who is Cleopatra, with the snake being an asp) into losing his manly romanitas and becoming decadent, with the bearded elder male figure being his mythical ancestor Anton looking on.
  • The dream of Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, who is emerging from the building to greet her, with his father Apollo as the serpent. This was the first theory, dating to 1633, and connected to Severus Alexander and his mother, "of whom a similar tale of reptilian paternity was told".[3]

Scene 2

Scene 2

Interpretations include:

Octavian theory

Detail, with the figure who might be Octavian

Another variant theory is that the vase dates back to circa 32BC, and was commissioned by Octavian (later Caesar Augustus), as an attempt to promote his case against his fellow-consuls, Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus in the period after the death of Julius Caesar. It is based on the skill of the famous Greek carver of engraved gems Dioskourides, who is recorded as active and at his peak circa 40-15BC and three of whose attributed cameos bear a close resemblance in line and quality to the Portland vase figures. This theory proposes that the first two figures are Gauis Octavius, father of the future emperor, and Attia Julia Balboa, his mother (hence Cupid with the arrow) who had a dream of being impregnated by Apollo in the form of a sea serpent (ketos), note the snake's prominent teeth. The onlooker with his staff, could be Aeneas, a hero of the Trojan Wars who saved his father by carrying over his back (hence his hunched position, and his Trojan beard) and who is believed to have founded Rome, and from whom the Julian gens, including Julius Caesar and Attia, claimed descent, witnessing the conception of Rome's future savior as an Empire, and the greatest of all the Emperors.

On the reverse is Octavian, Octavia his sister, widow of Mark Anthony (downcast flambeau, broken tablets) and Livia, Octavian's third wife who outlived him. These two are looking directly at each other. Octavian commanded she divorce her then husband and marry him with a few weeks of meeting, she was mother to the future Emperor Tiberius.

This vase suggests Octavian was descended partly from Apollo (thus partly divine, shades of Achilles), whom he worshiped as a God, gave private parties in his honor together with Minerva, Roman Goddess of War, from the founder of Rome, and his connection to his uncle Julius Caesar, for whom as a young man he gave a remarkable funeral oratory, and who adopted him on his father's death, when he was only four. All the pieces and people fit in this theory and it explains most mysteries (apart from who actually made it). It would have been a fabulously expensive piece to commission, so that few men of the period could have afforded it. Several attempts at creating the vase must have been made, as modern reproduction trials show today (see below). Historians and archeologists dismiss this modern theory as Gods and goddesses with mythical allegories were usually portrayed, but could this remarkable vase have broken convention, and shown realism in portraiture, known solely on coins of the period, before it, in turn, was broken?


Cameo-glass vessels were probably all made within about two generations,[5] as experiments when the blowing technique (discovered in about 50 BC) was still in its infancy. Recent research suggests that the Portland vase, like the majority of cameo-glass vessels, was made by the dip-overlay method, whereby an elongated bubble of glass was partially dipped into a crucible (fire-resistant container) of white glass, before the two were blown together. After cooling the white layer was cut away to form the design.[6]

The work in making a 19th-century copy proved to be incredibly painstaking, and based on this it is believed that the Portland Vase must have taken its original artisan no less than two years to produce. The cutting was probably performed by a skilled gem-cutter.[7] It is believed that the cutter may have been Dioskourides, as engraved gems thought to be cut by him of a similar period and signed by him (Vollenweider 1966, see Gem in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire "Diomedes stealing the Palladium") are extant. This is confirmed by the Corning Museum in their 190-page study of the vase—see above.

According to a controversial theory by Rosemarie Lierke, the vase, along with the rest of Roman cameo glass, was moulded rather than cold-cut, probably using white glass powder for the white layer.[8]

Dr Jerome Eisenberg has argued in Minerva that the vase was produced in the 16th century AD and not antiquity, because the iconography is incoherent,[9] but this theory has not been widely accepted.

Rediscovery and provenance

Wedgwood copy in the British Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, with the original roundel base still in place.

A later story suggests that it was discovered by Fabrizio Lazzaro in what was thought (wrongly it seems) to be the sarcophagus of the Emperor Alexander Severus (died 290) and his mother, at Monte del Grano near Rome, and excavated some time around 1582.[10]

The first historical reference to the vase is in a 1601 letter from the French scholar Nicolas Claude Fabri de Peiresc to the painter Peter Paul Rubens, where it is recorded as in the collection of Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte in Italy. In 1626 it passed into the Barberini family collection (which also included sculptures such as the Barberini Faun and Barberini Apollo) where it remained for some two hundred years, being one of the treasures of Maffeo Barberini, later Pope Urban VIII (1623–1644). It was at this point that the Severan connection is first recorded. The vase was known as the "Barberini Vase" in this period.[11]

1778 to present

Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador in Naples, purchased it in 1778-1780 from James Byres, a Scottish art dealer, who had acquired it after it was sold by Cornelia Barberini-Colonna, Princess of Palestrina. She had inherited the vase from the Barberini family. Hamilton brought it to England on his next leave, after the death of his first wife, Catherine. In 1784, with the assistance of his niece, Mary, he arranged a private sale to Margaret Cavendish-Harley, widow of William Bentinck, 2nd Duke of Portland and so dowager Duchess of Portland.[12] It was sold at auction in 1786 and passed into the possession of the duchess's son, William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland.

The 3rd Duke loaned the original vase to Josiah Wedgwood (see below) and then to the British Museum for safe-keeping, by which point it was known as the "Portland Vase". It was deposited there permanently by the fourth Duke in 1810, after a friend of his broke its base. The original Roman vase has remained in the British Museum ever since 1810, apart from three years in 1929–32 when the 6th Duke put it up for sale at Christie's where it failed to reach its reserve. It was finally purchased by the museum from the 7th Duke in 1945 with the aid of a bequest from James Rose Vallentin.


Replica of Portland Vase, about 1790, Josiah Wedgwood and Sons Ltd. V&A Museum no. 2418-1901

The 3rd Duke lent the vase to Josiah Wedgwood, who had already had it described to him as "the finest production of Art that has been brought to England and seems to be the very apex of perfection to which you are endeavoring" by the sculptor John Flaxman. Wedgwood devoted four years of painstaking trials at duplicating the vase - not in glass but in black and white jasperware. He had problems with his copies ranging from cracking and blistering (clearly visible on the example at the Victoria and Albert Museum) to the sprigged reliefs 'lifting' during the firing, and in 1786 he feared that he could never apply the Jasper relief thinly enough to match the glass original's subtlety and delicacy. He finally managed to perfect it in 1790, with the issue of the "first-edition" of copies (with some of this edition, including the V&A one, copying the cameo's delicacy by a combination of undercutting and shading the reliefs in grey), and it marks his last major achievement.

Wedgwood put the first edition on private show between April and May 1790, with that exhibition proving so popular that visitor numbers had to be restricted by only printing 1900 tickets, before going on show in his public London showrooms. (One ticket to the private exhibition, illustrated by Samuel Alkin and printed with 'Admission to see Mr Wedgwood's copy of The Portland Vase, Greek Street, Soho, between 12 o'clock and 5', was bound into the Wedgwood catalogue on view in the Victoria and Albert Museum's British Galleries.) As well as the V&A copy (said to have come from the collection of Wedgwood's grandson, the naturalist Charles Darwin) ,[13] others are held at the Fitzwilliam Museum (this is the copy sent by Wedgwood to Erasmus Darwin which his descendants lent to the Museum in 1963 and later sold to them); the Indianapolis Museum of Art[14] and the Department of Prehistory and Europe at the British Museum.

The Vase also inspired a 19th-century competition to duplicate its cameo-work in glass, with Benjamin Richardson offering a £1000 prize to anyone who could achieve that feat. Taking three years, glass maker Philip Pargeter made a copy and John Northwood engraved it, to win the prize. This copy is in the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York.

The Wedgwood Museum, in Barlaston, Near Stoke-on-Trent, UK, contains a display describing the trials of replicating the vase, and several examples of the early experiments are shown.

Vandalism and reconstruction

On February 7, 1845, the vase was shattered by William Lloyd, who, after drinking all the previous week, threw a nearby sculpture on top of the case smashing both it and the vase.

He was arrested and charged with the crime of Willful Damage. When his lawyer pointed out an error in the wording of the act which seemed to limit its application to cases of the destruction of objects worth no more than five pounds, he was convicted instead of the destruction of the glass case in which the vase had sat. He was ordered to pay a fine of three pounds or spend two months in prison. He remained in prison until an anonymous benefactor paid the fine by mail.[15]

Another detail, at the side

The name William Lloyd is thought to be a pseudonym. He had been living under this name in London. He claimed to be a student at Trinity College, Dublin. Investigators hired by the British Museum concluded that he was actually William Mulcahy, a student who had gone missing from Trinity College. Detectives reported that the Mulcahy family was impoverished. The owner of the vase declined to bring a civil action against William Mulcahy because he did not want his family to suffer for "an act of folly or madness which they could not control".[16]

The vase was pieced together with fair success, though the restorer was unable to replace all of the pieces and thirty-seven small fragments were left when he was done. It appears they had been put into a box and forgotten. In 1948, the keeper Bernard Ashmole received thirty-seven fragments in a box from Mr. Croker of Putney, who did not know what they were. In 1845 Mr. Doubleday, the first restorer, had not been able to figure out where these fragments went. A colleague took them to Mr. Gabb, a box maker, who was asked to make a box with thirty seven compartments, one for each fragment. The colleague died, the box was never collected, Mr. Gabb died and his executrix Miss Revees asked Croker to ask the museum if they could identify them.

By 1948, the restoration appeared aged and it was decided to restore the vase again, but the restorer was only successful in replacing three fragments. The adhesive from this weakened: by 1986 the joints rattled when the vase was gently tapped.

The third and current reconstruction took place from 1 June 1988 and was completed on 1 October 1989 by Nigel Williams and Sandra Smith (and overseen by David Akehurst (CCO of Glass and Ceramics) who had assessed the vase's condition during its appearance as the focal piece of an international exhibition of Roman glass and, at the conclusion of the exhibition, it was decided to go ahead with reconstruction and stabilization. The treatment had scholarly attention and press coverage. The vase was photographed and drawn to record the position of fragments before dismantling; the BBC filmed the conservation process. All the adhesives used in previous restorations had deteriorated, so to find one that would last, conservation scientists at the museum tested many adhesives for long term stability. Finally, an epoxy resin with excellent aging properties was chosen. Reassembly of the vase was made more difficult as the edges of some fragments were found to have been filed down during the restorations. Nevertheless, all of the fragments were replaced except for a few small splinters. Areas that were still missing were gap-filled with a blue or white resin.

The newly conserved Portland Vase was returned to display. Little sign of the original damage is visible and, except for light cleaning, the vase should not require major conservation work for many years.


  1. ^ The British Museum date it between AD 1 and AD 25 - collection database ("5-25 AD" per the Highlights section, and Williams in 2009); a date some time between 30 BC and 20 BC was suggested in 1990, following research by William Gudenrath, Kenneth Painter and David Whitehouse, Director of the Corning Museum of Glass, Journal of Glass Studies, Vol 32 1990.
  2. ^ Williams, 292
  3. ^ Williams, 290
  4. ^ "The sword of Tiberius". British Museum. 2011-09-29. Retrieved 2011-12-16. 
  5. ^ Williams, 292-293
  6. ^ Williams, 293
  7. ^ "Cameo glass". Retrieved 2011-12-16. 
  8. ^ Cameo glass on Lierke website
  9. ^ "Entertainment | Age puzzle over 'Roman' treasure". BBC News. 2003-08-21. Retrieved 2011-12-16. 
  10. ^ Williams, 290
  11. ^ Williams, 290
  12. ^ "art gallery and crafts centre in Welbeck, Worksop, Nottinghamshire". The Harley Gallery. Retrieved 2011-12-16. 
  13. ^ Jackson, Anna (ed.) (2001). V&A: A Hundred Highlights. V&A Publications. 
  14. ^ "vase (copy of Portland vase) | Indianapolis Museum of Art". Retrieved 2011-12-16. 
  15. ^ Brooks, Robin (2004). The Portland Vase: the extraordinary odyssey of a mysterious Roman treasure. HarperCollins. pp. 16–18.  
  16. ^ Brooks, Robin (2004). The Portland Vase: the extraordinary odyssey of a mysterious Roman treasure. HarperCollins. pp. 18–19.  


  • Williams, Dyfri. Masterpieces of Classical Art, 2009, British Museum Press, ISBN 9780714122540

Further reading

  • L. Burn, The British Museum book of Greek and Roman art (London, The British Museum Press, 1991), pp. 204–5
  • H. Tait (ed.), Five thousand years of glass, 2nd paperback edition (London, The British Museum Press, 1999), pp. 4–5, fig.75
  • I. Jenkins and K. Sloan, Vases and Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton and his Collection (London, The British Museum Press, 1996), pp. 187–88, no. 63
  • V. Tatton-Brown and W. Gudenrath, Catalogue of Greek and Roman glass in the British Museum II (London, The British Museum Press, forthcoming)
  • D.B. Harden and others, The British Museum: masterpieces of glass, a selection (London, 1968)
  • K. Painter and D. Whitehouse, "The History of the Portland Vase", Journal of Glass Studies, 32 (1990), pp. 24–84
  • Susan Walker, The Portland Vase (London, British Museum Press, 2004)

External links

  • British Museum - "Highlights" entry for the vase
  • British Museum - conservation history of the vase
  • Bulstrode Park (where the Duchess of Portland kept the Vase) entry from The DiCamillo Companion to British & Irish Country Houses
  • The Corning Museum of Glass (which owns several replicas of the Portland Vase) - information on cameo and Roman glass

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