Mending the Portland Vase (part one)
Just got back from Sydney University's Nicholson Museum where CM and I attended an archaeology lecture in honour of Professor Alexander Cambitoglou. Senior curator Michael Turner spoke on the topic "The Portland Vase: Adonis In The Underworld?". He proposed a new interpretation of the scenes depicted on this artefact (hence the question mark in the title). Before doing so, he outlined the history and mystery that account for the vase's centuries-old notoriety, and reviewed a number of theories as to the meaning of its images.
The Portland Vase isn't pottery; it's blue glass with a layer of cameo figures in white glass. Works of this type were only produced in a 50-year period during the reign of the Emperor Augustus. The technique was then forgotten and, though many tried, wasn't successfully reproduced until 1876, to win a sizeable sum of money! The P/V would likely have started as an amphora, but its original base has been lost (or deliberately removed) and replaced with a simpler version featuring another cameo - making the object all the more enigmatic.
Discovered in a Roman tomb in 1582, the vessel is reputed to have contained the ashes of the Emperor Alexander Severus. However, the other features of the burial chamber, as they were recorded, make this doubtful. Whatever the case, it changed hands several times down the years until it came into the possession of the Duchess Of Portland, from whom it obviously gets its name. It was loaned to the British Musem in 1910, put up for auction in 1929 by the then Duke only to be passed in, and was sold to the B/M for significantly less in 1945.
Like many great artworks, the P/V has inspired strange behaviour and fanatical devotion. Pottery pioneer Josiah Wedgewood was obsessed with recreating it, which he eventually did - after several years - in black jasperware. (Ironically, his copies would now fetch more than their inspiration!) His friend, the philosopher Erasmus Darwin, wrote a 300-page poem about the vase! In 1845, a drunken Irishman - from a noble family of faded fortune - entered the British Museum, grabbed a lump of marble, threw it at the container and smashed it to pieces!
The Portland was painstakingly repaired, but 37 fragments were left over. These disappeared for a century, before being returned to the museum in a beautiful display box in 1948. Since then, the object has undergone two more restorations. At one point, it was suggested the P/V might be a Renaissance fake; that the difficulty academics encountered in deciphering its scenes resulted from the fact they were a hodge-podge borrowed from authentic 1st-century BC Roman works. Thanks to scientific testing, this assertion has proven false.
[Before reading my follow-up post, I recommend you examine photographs of this controversial artefact. Wikipedia.org's "Portland Vase" entry shows both sides (the "second" is a replica). Pay little attention to their discussion of the iconography, however, as the interpretations listed were all effectively discounted by Mr Turner in the course of his hour-long oration.]