Chequered past of a seductive vessel

The Mystery of the Portland Vase
May 27, 2005

The Portland Vase By Susan Walker British Museum Press 64pp, £5.00 ISBN 0 7141 5022 3

The Roman blue glass vessel known since the 18th century as the Portland Vase, just under 25cm high in its present state, is one of the best-known artefacts in the British Museum. The lower portion is missing, so we see a rather tubby shape instead of the graceful replica of a Roman wine amphora with pointed base that was originally achieved by a master craftsman.

Fortunately, the decoration on the body survives in its entirety, and it has been widely admired since the vase came out of the ground about four centuries ago.

Such is the skill that went into the figured reliefs, cut in a layer of white glass superimposed on the blue, that many are content to enjoy the vase for its elegant beauty alone. This is why it exerted an extraordinary influence on taste throughout the chequered history that brought it to Bloomsbury.

Robin Brooks, in The Mystery of the Portland Vase , gives a well-researched and well-written account of the vase's history, and of its successive owners: Cardinal del Monte, the patron of Caravaggio; Pope Urban VIII, of the Barberini family; Donna Cornelia Barberini-Colonna, who paid her gambling debts by selling the vase in 1780 to James Byres, a Jacobite exile in Rome and a shrewd dealer in antiquities. Byres soon disposed of it (at a handsome profit) to Sir William Hamilton, who brought it to London and sold it to the Duchess of Portland; her son lent it to Josiah Wedgwood, whose ingenious jasperware copies gave brilliant expression to Hamilton's deeply held conviction that works of art should not be "merely the objects of fruitless admiration".

The fact remains that no ancient artefact can be properly understood on its own terms without knowledge of its archaeological context. Between them, Brooks and Susan Walker, author of The Portland Vase , tell us what can be known about the Portland Vase under this heading. Through no fault of theirs, it does not amount to much more than a series of hoary inventions and speculations.

On the credit side, Walker deals authoritatively with the identity of the figures on the body of the vase and how the vessel itself was made. Both topics are of considerable interest in the wake of Jerome M. Eisenberg's claim in 2003 that this amazing and influential object is not Roman, but rather a masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance. Apart from the lack of information regarding ancient provenance, one of his most telling arguments was based on the notorious disagreement regarding the interpretation of the figured scenes. This led Eisenberg to propose that a talented cameo engraver of the 16th century simply copied figures from various ancient sources, with insufficient attention to their individual identities and still less to their meaning as a group.

Walker disposes of Eisenberg's theory with a double whammy: a graph showing the presence of magnesium and potassium oxides in glass that aligns the Portland Vase firmly with Roman, not later, specimens; and a new reading of the figured scenes that seems to require less special pleading than its many mythological, historical and allegorical predecessors. For Walker, one side of the vase shows a man succumbing to a woman's advances - she is physically pulling him, under the disapproving gaze of a bearded figure; the central figure on the other side is an abandoned wife, watched with non-erotic concern by a man in the presence of a goddess. Walker identifies the figures in the first scene as Antony and Cleopatra, observed by the legendary founder of Antony's family, Anton. In the other scene, she finds Octavia, Antony's wife; her brother Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus (BC-AD14); and the legendary founder of their family, Venus Genetrix, who seems to be reassuring Octavian rather than Octavia.

The seduction of Antony is unknown elsewhere in Roman or Renaissance art.

The new reading of the Portland Vase scenes is, however, entirely consistent with ancient literary accounts of the events that culminated in the crucial Battle of Actium (31BC), where Antony and Cleopatra were routed by Octavian. Walker plausibly suggests that the vase was commissioned for a specific individual, who was most probably a member of Augustus's imperial court. I doubt if she has said the last word on the fascinating subject that she has now made her own; but her interpretation strikes me as the most sensible and coherent that we have been offered for many years.

I thoroughly enjoyed these books. Brooks writes engagingly, but although his essay has a good index and bibliography, his many splendid anecdotes need footnotes and more illustrations. Walker's book is smaller and better illustrated; important as well as accessible, it is an ideal choice for the British Museum's new Objects in Focus series.

David Ridgway is associate fellow, Institute of Classical Studies, University of London.

The Mystery of the Portland Vase

Author - Robin Brooks
Publisher - Duckworth
Pages - 241
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 0 7156 3211 6

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