Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Portland Vase

Meet the Portland Vase, quite possibly the most famous bit of glass in the western world. (WHAT? I don't have anything else to blog about.) It is currently housed in the British Museum, where it has been since 1810. It is a type of glass known as 'cameo', and is two thousand years old. Yep, that's right. It's ancient Roman.

Back sometime between 5 and 20 CE (experts think), the Vase was made. Around then, a lot of experimentation was done with glass, by the Romans. They'd invented (experts think) glass blowing around 50 BCE, and fooled around quite a lot with it, seeing how far they could push the envelope (or the glass bubble). Cameo glass like the Portland vase was made in two layers; first the dark blue was blown, then it was dunked into a gather of opaque white glass. It was blown into the approximate shape wanted, and then someone else (likely a jeweler or sculptor) came along with leeeetle bitty tools and carved off the white glass again, to get the effect you see above.

An even cooler effect was achieved when they cut away whole hunks of surrounding glass, producing what is known as a 'cage cup'.

All these pieces are about two thousand years old. The Romans did crazy-cool things with glass. But I digress.

Anyway. Portland Vase.

It appeared in the not-quite-modern record in the 1600s in the collection of an Italian cardinal. No one knows if it was held privately by the church before then, or dug up about when it appears in history, or something else. Rumor has it it was swiped from the tomb of a Roman emperor in the 1580s. But there it was, wherever it came from. Like all really cool art objects, it was sold on, and passed around Europe before ending up in the collection of the Duke of Portland in 1786. (AHA! The name! Total ripoff that no one knows who made it and it's called by the name of a guy whose mom bought it 1700 years after it was made. That's history for you.) It lived at the British Museum, on loan, after 1810, except for a brief trip to Christie's for an attempted sale. Eventually in 1945 the Museum bought it from the seventh Duke and there it sits. However, there are two interesting parts of its recent history.

In the 1780s, one of the Dukes loaned the Vase to Josiah Wedgwood. (Yes, THAT Wedgwood.) He spent years trying to come up with a process of making ceramic copies, and finally perfected it in 1790. It is considered his last major technical accomplishment. The Polite World was in the midst of NeoClassical frenzy at the time, so he adapted the patterns and techniques to produce Jasperware, probably his most famous and enduring product.

(Though I prefer the light blue and white. Tch. I'm a heathen.) One of the most famous types of ceramic in the world, inspired by one of the oldest and most famous pieces of art glass in the world. Truly, history is weird.

Not only is the Portland Vase famous as Roman glass and famous in art and famous for inspiring Wedgwood, it's also pretty famous as a piece of restoration. In 1845, some drunk fuckhead threw a statue through the case that contained the Portland Vase, smashing it into quite a few pieces. (And no doubt making the poor bastard in charge of restoration tear his hair out.) It was glued back together, but the guy who did the job couldn't replace all the tiny fragments, so he put them in a box. Fast forward a century plus, by 1986, the joints where the vase was glued were so old and deteriorated that the vase would RATTLE with nearby impact or a bump to the vase itself. The folks at the museum were deciding what exactly to do when what do they get in the mail, but a box containing thirty-seven pieces of blue and white glass. The person who mailed it wasn't sure what they were, but I think they suspected. Why else mail it to the British Museum, of all places? Well, they re-glued the vase with modern epoxy, and got most of the little fragments back into it as they went. Experts don't think the vase will need re-glued again any time soon.

Oh, the actual carving on the vase? No one's quite sure what it means. Everyone argues over what myth it represents. Or rather two myths, because most think there's a story per side. One 'expert' claims it is a forgery (fake?) made in the 1600s because the iconography/pictures don't make any sense. Personally I wonder if it's the original artist's extended family, and someone, somewhere, played an elaborate joke on the modern world. I hope so. Hats off to you and your vision and skill, whoever you were.


Sarah {The Student Knitter} said...

that's super cool! I've never been super interested in glass pieces until I wandered in to a glass blowing shop in Staunton, VA and I got to watch an artist work. SO COOL.

Roxie said...

The carving! Without power tools? How-in-hell did they DO that? The master sculptor roughs out the basic design, then the apprentice maybe with a foot-powered bow mill, spends a year or so grinding down to the blue layer in the open spaces. Then . . . then what?

bobbins said...

Absolutely amazing. Both the original creation and the restoration. We are so fortunate to see it.

Love the post!

Anonymous said...

I saw this traveling exhibit at the Getty Villa
(you want to see it, even if you've never heard of it) a year or so ago. Did your exhibit have the footage of art glass techniques? Soooo cool!

Louiz said...

Very interesting. Makes me want to go back there again.

Anonymous said...

They just had both of these on " what The Ancients Knew" on the Science channel. They think they used diamonds to grind the glass, making trade with India necessary. Just really awesome techniques we can't duplicate. So cool.

Susan said...

Breathtaking, really. Caged glass??boggles the mind doesn't it.
Love it when you do these posts. Thanks

Amy Lane said...

That's amazing-- and I think history is weird like that to give fiction writers shit to do!