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The Portland Vase

  • Object type

  • Museum number

    1945,0927.1

  • Title (object)

    • The Portland Vase
  • Description

    Amphora in translucent dark cobalt blue and opaque white cameo glass. The cylindrical neck widens out to a sloping shoulder and ovoid body, whose squatness is emphasized by the lack of a foot. Everted mouth with rounded rim which is cut very unevenly on the upper side so that it is not horizontal; below this the neck curves out smoothly to the carination of the shoulder. Handles from the centre of the neck to the shoulder. The disc base (1945.9-27.2) is discussed separately. A separate Registration Number (1948.10-18.1) was assigned to approximately forty small fragments, most of which were incorporated during the most recent restoration.
    Broken and mended; the bottom is missing, and the underside of the vessel has been roughly trimmed and the edge left grozed, perhaps in antiquity. Slight iridescence in patches all over the inside of the vessel, slight pitting on exterior and red streaks and bubbles in the blue glass. Grinding all over the inside of the vessel, probably achieved by a filling of grit. The white design may have been reworked after its rediscovery in the sixteenth century.
    The inside of the rim is decorated with asymmetrical grooves either side of a ridge. The handles are vertically ridged on the outside and cut in v-shaped wedge sections. Figured design carved in the white glass, divided into two portions by a bearded and perhaps horned head below the lower attachment of each handle. One group of four persons shows a young man emerging from a rustic shrine behind which grows a shrub. His right arm held behind him clasps his cloak that is draped around the pillar of the shrine; his left arm stretched before him clasps the right arm of a half-draped woman seated on the ground turning back towards him and caressing a serpent-like creature that rises up towards her face. Eros flies to the right, above the woman, holding a bow in the left hand, a torch in his right. To the right stands a bearded man resting his chin on his right arm that itself rests on his right bent knee, the foot supported by a ledge below a tree that spreads out its branches; behind him is another tree. On the other side, at the extreme left, is a rectangular column beside which is a young man seated to the left on a rock shown in a series of steps with his head turned back towards a half-draped girl reclining to the right on the same rock with her right arm raised up to her head that is turned back to look towards the floor behind her; from her left hand hangs a burning torch. To her right, seated to the right on another rock and looking back towards the scene, sits another half-draped girl holding a sceptre in her left hand. The scene is closed by the shrub that grows from the back of the rustic shrine described above.

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  • Culture/period

  • Date

    • 1-25 (circa)
  • Production place

  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 24.5 centimetres
    • Diameter: 17.7 centimetres (maximum)
    • Diameter: 9.3 centimetres (mouth)
    • Height: 9.6 centimetres (handle)
    • Width: 1.8 centimetres (handle)
  • Curator's comments

    Incorporates 37 small fragments numbered 1948.1018.1. See also cameo disc 1945.0927.2.Jenkins & Sloan 1996

    Imagery possibly related to the story of Peleus and Thetis.

    The Portland Vase is the most famous of all objects to have passed through Sir William Hamilton's hands. It was already well known when he acquired it from the Scottish dealer James Byres between 1780 and 1783, and it was discussed by d'Hancarville in the second volume of AEGR (p. 74), which appeared in 1770. In the eighteenth century it was accepted that the Portland Vase had been discovered in a funerary monument known as the Monte del Grano, a few miles southeast of the old city wall of Rome. The Vase was said to have been found in a large marble sarcophagus, thought to have been that of the third-century Roman emperor Alexander Severus and his mother, Julia Mammaea. That the Vase came from the funerary monument has recently been upheld in a thorough review of the evidence as 'probable, but not certain'. What is doubtful is that it contained the ashes of the emperor himself; nor is it likely that the sarcophagus is that of Alexander Severus.
    The first recorded mention of the Portland Vase is by the French antiquary Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, who saw it in Rome during the winter of 1600-1, when it was in the collection of Cardinal del Monte. The seventeenth-century 'Republic of Letters', including Peiresc, the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens and the Italian antiquary Cassiano dal Pozzo, exchanged correspondence about the Vase and drawings and casts of it. They were fascinated by every aspect, from its beauty, the technique of its manufacture and the interpretation of its iconography down to its capacity.
    Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657), whose so-called 'Paper Museum' contained more than one drawing of the Vase, was secretary to Cardinal Francesco Barberini. In 1626, following the death of Cardinal Del Monte, the Vase passed into the hands of Francesco's brother, Antonio. These two were nephews of the Barberini Pope, who was elected as Urban VIII in 1623. Now the property of the most powerful family in Rome, and placed at the heart of the city's most important artistic circle, the Barberini Vase, as it was known before it entered the Portland collection, became even more famous.
    By the end of the seventeenth century it was one of the most important 'sights' of Rome, its fame increasing with the rise in the number of printed books on antiquarian subjects. In 1697 it was discussed and copiously illustrated in Gli antichi sepolchri, P. S. Bartoli's book on ancient tombs and mausolea in Rome, which repeated the claim that it had been found inside the sarcophagus in the Monte del Grano. It was published again by Bernard de Montfaucon in his substantial and influential encyclopaedia, L'Antiquite expliquée, the author repeating an erroneous claim, already made by M. A. de la Chausse in his Romanum Museum of 1690, that the Vase was made of agate. G. B. Piranesi engraved the tomb, sarcophagus and Vase for his Antichita Romane (1756, pls 31-5).
    The Vase was in the possession of the Barberini family for more than 150 years, but their fortune was declining and around 1780 Donna Cordelia Barberini-Colonna, having had a bad run at cards, was forced to sell off the family heirlooms. In a letter dated 24 July 1786, Hamilton described how he reacted when he first saw the Vase with James Byres: 'The person I bought it of at Rome will do me the justice to say, that the superior excellence of this exquisite masterpiece struck me so much at first sight, that I eagerly asked - Is it yours? Will you sell it? He answered, Yes, but never under £1000.' Hamilton offered Byres that sum, but only in the form of a bond on which there was 5 per cent interest. Hamilton could not resist the purchase, even though he could hardly afford it. The precise date at which he actually came into possession of the Vase has not previously been known, but an unpublished letter of James Byres to Charles Townley, dated 13 October 1782, informs us that Byres visited Hamilton in Naples in the summer of that year. It seems likely that he took the Vase with him, unable to entrust the transport of so valuable a cargo to another pair of hands.
    Hamilton probably never intended to keep the Vase for long and, when he returned to England on leave in August 1783, it was included with a number of things he took with him to sell. Among these were other antiquities and the painting Hamilton himself attributed to Correggio (See Jenkins & Sloan 1996, 176). With the assistance as go-between of his niece Mary Hamilton, he attempted to interest the Duchess of Portland in a block purchase of the painting and the antiquities. Horace Walpole described the duchess as 'a simple woman, but perfectly sober, and intoxicated only by empty vases'. She was, therefore, the ideal person to be offered such a prize. (Wal. Con., xxxiii, p. 489, letter addressed to Lady Ossory, 19 August 1785). The duchess, who already had a substantial collection of antiquities and specimens of natural history, was not tempted by the painting, but she and Hamilton were able to settle, in secrecy at her request, on the Vase, together with a select group of antiquities.
    The purchase negotiations were completed by the end of January 1784, but some months elapsed before the Vase entered the duchess's museum at her house in the Privy-Gardens, Whitehall. In March, without disclosing its true ownership, Hamilton showed the Vase to the Society of Antiquaries, of which he was a Fellow. He had already arranged for G. B. Cipriani to 'borrow' the Vase in order to make drawings from it. It was not returned until 13 July, when Cipriani handed it over to Mary Hamilton. The duchess had only a year in which to enjoy her purchase, for she died in July 1785, and the Portland Museum, as it became known, was sold. The sale ran for six weeks from 24 April 1786, excepting Sundays and the king's birthday, the Vase listed as the penultimate item of the last day.
    Not surprisingly, previous discussions of the Portland sale have focused on the Vase, with little mention of the small group of objects also bought by the duchess from Hamilton. These appear in the catalogue immediately before the Vase and comprise the following: a mosaic ring, described in the sale catalogue as 'A small chimera of fine antique mosaic, set in gold as a ring, and turns upon a swivel. The figure has the wings and feet of a bird, with a human face and seems to be an Hieroglyphic'; a cornelian intaglio of Hercules, who is described as sitting in a boat and using the lion skin as a sail, set in gold for a ring. This was followed by a sardonyx cameo of the head of Augustus (1996.1-16.1), said to come from Malta, and a head of Sarapis, described in the sale catalogue as green basalt, as coming from the Barberini cabinet, and about four inches high. The purchaser of the Vase and the cameo was the 3rd Duke of Portland, while Horace Walpole bought the Sarapis.
    Some of these objects are first mentioned in the correspondence of Byres to Townley. In that same letter giving an account of his visit to Naples, Byres writes:
    ‘Sir William Hamilton has got some fine Etruscan vases and two curious rings, the one a Hercules playing the lyre on a fine jacinth, the other an ancient paste about a third of an inch square, on which is a Syren or a figure masked as a Syren, with its wings extended. This is executed on a blue ground in lively colours, the most minute parts distinctly marked, its a kind of small mosaic run together, it's about an eighth of an inch thick and the same on both sides, and has a wonderful effect in the microscope.’
    The Sarapis makes its first appearance in another letter of Byres to Townley, dated 21 August 1782:
    ‘I have lately got the very finest head of Jupiter I ever saw, it is most excellent Greek work of green basalt, three inches and a half high from the end of the beard (which is on line with the joining of the clavicles) to the top of the hair on the forehead. The head, hair and beard are quite perfect, neither wore nor fragmented in the least, but this is all that remains of it. Whether it belonged to a bust or full figure is impossible to say. I got it out of an old collection. Its case which seems exactly adapted to it seems very old, so I suppose it has been found about the fifteenth century. I esteem it at £50. I forgot to mention that on the top of the head, behind the lock that rises on the forehead, is a [?] with a small hole drilled in the middle. I suppose to attach the modium of [?], for it's the Jupiter Sarapis.’
    Byres's statement that he had acquired it from an old collection ties up well with the description of the head in the Portland sale catalogue as coming from the Barberini collection. Byres, then, was the source of Hamilton's acquiring both the Vase and the Sarapis, both of which came originally from the Barberini collection. Walpole had the Sarapis restored by Mrs Darner in 1787, who modelled a bust for it and had it cast in bronze. Although it cannot now be traced, a watercolour drawing of it survives (See Jenkins & Sloan 1996, fig. 78). Hardly was the Portland sale over than Josiah Wedgwood was applying to borrow the Vase with a view to copying it in jasper-ware. On 10 June 1786, he signed a receipt for both the Vase and the cameo of Augustus. Wedgwood's copies of the Vase, first in black and later in the lighter blue version, spread its fame still further. In 1810 the 4th Duke of Portland deposited it in the British Museum for safe-keeping, where it went on public display. Alas, thirty-five years later, at 3.45 p.m. on 7 February 1845, a young man named William Lloyd, suffering from acute paranoia brought on a by a week-long bout of drinking, picked up a sculpted stone in the room where the Vase was displayed and smashed both it and the showcase into fragments. In spite of the damage, the event and the ensuing trial of the culprit served only to increase the celebrity of the Vase, which was restored soon afterwards by John Doubleday. A hundred years after its destruction, the Portland Vase was bought for the British Museum, since when it has twice been dismantled and restored, the second restoration being by the late Nigel Williams in 1989.
    LITERATURE: The bibliography of the Portland Vase is too great to give even a summary here. Fortunately much of it is gathered together in the valuable survey essays by Kenneth Painter and David Whitehouse (1990). Meanwhile, new studies of the problematic iconography continue to appear, see most recently Haynes. Specifically on Sir William's involvement with the Vase, see Thorpe, 2; Fothergill, pp. 192-6; Wills. For the other objects purchased by the Duchess of Portland from Hamilton, see Byres's letters to Charles Townley among the Townley Papers in the Central Archives, British Museum. For Horace Walpole's possession of the Sarapis and its later history, see Wal. Corr., xi, p. 29. At the sale of Strawberry Hill, the bust passed to William Beckford and from him to the 'Hamilton Palace Collection' (to Mary Berry, 9 July 1789, Wal. Corr., xi, p. 29, n. 33; cf. to Conway, 18 June 1786, xxxix, p. 442, where it is said, S.H. XIII, 82, to have been sold to Hume, Berners Street). Its present whereabouts are unknown. On Wedgwood and the Vase, see Mankowitz; Dawson, pp. 112-25, with bibliography. For the bust of Sarapis with the Barberini see Lavin, where possible mention of it in the inventories is p. 184: iv, 44.729.

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  • Bibliography

    • Tatton-Brown et al 2007 1 bibliographic details
    • Gem 4036 bibliographic details
    • Jenkins & Sloan 1996 63 bibliographic details
    • Whitehouse 2012 p33 & detail on back cover bibliographic details
    • Tait 1991 pl.75 bibliographic details
  • Location

    On display: G70/dc12

  • Subjects

  • Associated names

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date

    1945

  • Acquisition notes

    The vase was deposited on loan in the museum in 1810, but was only bought by the museum in 1945. Said to be from Rome.

  • Department

    Greek & Roman Antiquities

  • Registration number

    1945,0927.1

  • Additional IDs

    • 1810,0609.1 (registered in error)
    • DBH.2504.a
  • Joined objects

Amphora in translucent dark cobalt blue and opaque white cameo glass. The cylindrical neck widens out to a sloping shoulder and ovoid body, whose squatness is emphasized by the lack of a foot. Everted mouth with rounded rim which is cut very unevenly on the upper side so that it is not horizontal; below this the neck curves out smoothly to the carination of the shoulder. Handles from the centre of the neck to the shoulder. The disc base (1945.9-27.2) is discussed separately.  A separate Registration Number (1948.10-18.1) was assigned to approximately forty small fragments, most of which were incorporated during the most recent restoration.  Broken and mended; the bottom is missing, and the underside of the vessel has been roughly trimmed and the edge left grozed, perhaps in antiquity. Slight iridescence in patches all over the inside of the vessel, slight pitting on exterior and red streaks and bubbles in the blue glass. Grinding all over the inside of the vessel, probably achieved by a filling of grit. The white design may have been reworked after its rediscovery in the sixteenth century.  The inside of the rim is decorated with asymmetrical grooves either side of a ridge. The handles are vertically ridged on the outside and cut in v-shaped wedge sections. Figured design carved in the white glass, divided into two portions by a bearded and perhaps horned head below the lower attachment of each handle. One group of four persons shows a young man emerging from a rustic shrine behind which grows a shrub. His right arm held behind him clasps his cloak that is draped around the pillar of the shrine; his left arm stretched before him clasps the right arm of a half-draped lady seated on the ground turning back towards him and caressing a serpent-like creature that rises up towards her face. Eros flies to the right, above the lady, holding a bow in the left hand, a torch in his right. To the right stands a bearded man resting his chin on his right arm that itself rests on his right bent knee, the foot supported by a ledge below a tree that spreads out its branches; behind him is another tree. On the other side, at the extreme left, is a rectangular column beside which is a young man seated to the left on a rock shown in a series of steps with his head turned back towards a half-draped girl reclining to the right on the same rock with her right arm raised up to her head that is turned back to look towards the floor behind her; from her left hand hangs a burning torch. To her right, seated to the right on another rock and looking back towards the scene, sits another half-draped girl holding a sceptre in her left hand. The scene is closed by the shrub that grows from the back of the rustic shrine described above.

Amphora in translucent dark cobalt blue and opaque white cameo glass. The cylindrical neck widens out to a sloping shoulder and ovoid body, whose squatness is emphasized by the lack of a foot. Everted mouth with rounded rim which is cut very unevenly on the upper side so that it is not horizontal; below this the neck curves out smoothly to the carination of the shoulder. Handles from the centre of the neck to the shoulder. The disc base (1945.9-27.2) is discussed separately. A separate Registration Number (1948.10-18.1) was assigned to approximately forty small fragments, most of which were incorporated during the most recent restoration. Broken and mended; the bottom is missing, and the underside of the vessel has been roughly trimmed and the edge left grozed, perhaps in antiquity. Slight iridescence in patches all over the inside of the vessel, slight pitting on exterior and red streaks and bubbles in the blue glass. Grinding all over the inside of the vessel, probably achieved by a filling of grit. The white design may have been reworked after its rediscovery in the sixteenth century. The inside of the rim is decorated with asymmetrical grooves either side of a ridge. The handles are vertically ridged on the outside and cut in v-shaped wedge sections. Figured design carved in the white glass, divided into two portions by a bearded and perhaps horned head below the lower attachment of each handle. One group of four persons shows a young man emerging from a rustic shrine behind which grows a shrub. His right arm held behind him clasps his cloak that is draped around the pillar of the shrine; his left arm stretched before him clasps the right arm of a half-draped lady seated on the ground turning back towards him and caressing a serpent-like creature that rises up towards her face. Eros flies to the right, above the lady, holding a bow in the left hand, a torch in his right. To the right stands a bearded man resting his chin on his right arm that itself rests on his right bent knee, the foot supported by a ledge below a tree that spreads out its branches; behind him is another tree. On the other side, at the extreme left, is a rectangular column beside which is a young man seated to the left on a rock shown in a series of steps with his head turned back towards a half-draped girl reclining to the right on the same rock with her right arm raised up to her head that is turned back to look towards the floor behind her; from her left hand hangs a burning torch. To her right, seated to the right on another rock and looking back towards the scene, sits another half-draped girl holding a sceptre in her left hand. The scene is closed by the shrub that grows from the back of the rustic shrine described above.

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