Things that I have found quite interesting

The Portland Vase

This is one of the many beautiful artefacts in the British Museum.
It has had a hard life!


The Portland Vase is a Roman cameo glass vase, currently dated to between AD 5 and AD 25,which served as an inspiration to many glass and porcelain makers from about the beginning of the 18th century onwards.
Since 1810 the vase has been kept almost continuously in the British Museum in London.
It was bought by the museum in 1945, and exhibited in Room 70, Rome: City & Empire.


The vase is about 25 centimetres high and 56 in circumference.
It is made of violet-blue glass, and surrounded with a single continuous hand-carved white glass cameo depicting 7 figures ( both humans and gods).
On the bottom 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 could be 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 controversial.
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 (therefore, possibly, the vase was a wedding gift).

Many scholars have concluded that the figures do not fit into a single iconographic set.
Here I must admit that I know almost nothing about Greek or Roman Gods, so the following names will mean nothing to me.

Some interpretations of the two main scenes are:
1 Dionysius greeting Ariadne with her sacred serpent, in the sacred grove, for their marriage, symbolized by the winged cherub with a nuptial torch, in the presence of his foster-father, Silenus - or:


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 manhood and becoming decadent, with the bearded elder male figure being his mythical ancestor Anton looking on.

2 Ariadne languishing on Naxos - or:


Octavia Minor, abandoned by Mark Antony, between her brother Augustus and Venus Genetrix.

The most recent theory is that the vase in fact dates back to circa 32BC, and was commissioned by Octavian (later Caesar Augustus), as an attempt to promote his case as future Emperor against the two other consuls, Mark Anthony and Marcus Lepidus.
It is believed to be the work of a certain Greek engraver Diouskourides, known to have been active and at his peak circa 40-15BC and three of whose cameos in profile bear a stunning resemblance in line and quality to the Portland vase figures.

This theory, conceived by a British Glass manufacturer, proposes that the first two figures are Gauis Octavius, father of the future emperor, and Attia Julia Balboa, his mother (hence the cherub with the arrow) who had a dream of being impregnated by Apollo in the form of a sea serpent.
The onlooker with his staff could be Aeneas, a hero of the Trojan Wars who saved his father by carrying him over his back, and from whom the Julian clan claimed descent.
On the reverse is Octavian, the future Augustus (Emperor to be).
Could this piece have been commissioned as political spin, a subtle myth or legend to promote his right to be nominated Emperor?
He was a most calculating, powerful and successful consul.
Was the vase made to stand in the Senator & Consul's villa, recently discovered in one of the painted alcoves now excavated and open for visits on the Palatine Hill in Rome?

Palatine Hill

The remarkable vase would have been seen by most of the people with power in Rome, who could give him support and who would know his family and its history but not his origins!

This vase suggests he was descended partly from Apollo, whom he worshipped as a God, and marks 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).
As I know nothing about the proposed stories, I simply add the theories for all the geniuses out there who know all about the ancient myths of Greece and Rome.

For me, the most important fact is that this was, and is, an extremely beautiful work of art, using a technique which modern glassmakers find very difficult to reproduce.
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 before the one we know was produced, as modern reproduction trials have shown today.


Cameo-glass vessels were probably all made within about two generations, when the blowing technique (discovered in about 50 BC) was still in its infancy.
Recent research has shown 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 of white glass, before the two were blown together.
After cooling the white layer was cut away to form the design.

Here is another beautiful roman example of cameo-glass.

This one was excavated at Pompeii.

The work involved 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.

How sad that it only took a second or two to be smashed into pieces!

The cutting must have been performed by an expert gem-cutter.
It is by many believed that the cutter may have been the extremely skilled Dioskourides,( previously mentioned ), as gems cut by him of a similar period and signed by him are extant.
Legend has it that it was discovered by Fabrizio Lazzaro in the sepulchre of the Emperor Alexander Severus, at Monte del Grano near Rome, and excavated some time around 1582, and contained ashes, but this is by no means certain.

The interior and exterior of the tomb of Alexander Severus

The first possible 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.
It then passed to the Barberini family collection, where it remained for some two hundred years, being one of the treasures of Maffeo Barberini, later Pope Urban VIII (1623–1644).
For some time it was called the Barberini vase.

Certainly it was later described in a sale catalogue thus: "It is the identical urn which contained the ashes of the Roman Emperor Alexander Severus and his mother, Mammea, which was deposited in the earth about the year 235, after Christ, and was dug up by order of Pope Barberini between the years 1623 and 1644."

It passed from family to family through the centuries.
Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador in Naples, purchased it in 1778 from James Byres.
Byres, a Scottish art dealer, had acquired it after it was sold by Donna 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.
He had a mould made of it, and 60 casts were made of it and sold for ten guineas each.

I wonder who owns the casts?

In 1784 he arranged a private sale to Margaret Cavendish-Harley, widow of William Bentinck, 2nd Duke of Portland and so dowager Duchess of Portland. Now it was to get its name.
She passed it to her son William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland, in 1786.

3rd Duke of Portland

The 3rd Duke loaned the original vase to Josiah Wedgwood, and copies, both blue and black, were made.
Then he gave it to the British Museum for safe-keeping, at which point it was dubbed the "Portland Vase".
It was deposited there permanently by the fourth Duke in 1810, after a friend of his broke its base.
The vase has remained in the British Museum ever since 1810, apart from three years (1929–32) when William Cavendish-Bentinck, 6th Duke of Portland put it up for sale at Christie's, where it failed to reach its reserve.
It was purchased by the Museum from William Cavendish-Bentinck, 7th Duke of Portland, in 1945 with the aid of a bequest from James Rose Vallentin.


Unfortunately, in 1845 an 'intemperate' vandal, a drunken absconding university student, smashed the vase while it was on display, inflicting significant damage.


These are the pieces!

He certainly did a thorough job......


On February 7, 1845, just as the Museum was closing, and the visitors were all being guided to the doors, the sound of shattering glass echoed through the building.
The beautiful vase had been destroyed by one William Lloyd, who, after drinking all the previous week, threw a nearby sculpture on top of the case, smashing both it and the vase into hundreds of pieces.
He was arrested and charged with the crime of Wilful 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.

So he didnt even pay the three pounds!

It would seem that he got off extraordinarily lightly!

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."

Mr. Doubleday, an expert at the Museum, tried to recreate the vase; it 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 were 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, and 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.
At the conclusion of the exhibition, it was decided to go ahead with reconstruction and stabilization.
The treatment received much 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.

Let us hope there will be no more drunken vandals!

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