The History of the Portland Vase

This famous cobalt blue and white carved glass vase was probably created in the reign of Augustus Caesar and was exhibited in Italy for almost 200 years.

The earliest account of the Barberini Vase, as it was known for many years, dates from the 1580s, when a local man, Fabrizio Lazzaro, supposedly unearthed it from a mound south of Rome. This description of its discovery is only hearsay, though, and the vase was first mentioned in writing at the end of the 16th century, when it was acquired by Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte. The Cardinal also collected other works of art, including paintings by Michelangelo, Raphael, da Vinci, and Titian.

The Barberini Vase in Rome

After his death, the Cardinal’s heirs sold the vase in 1627 to the Barberinis, a wealthy and powerful Roman family that included Pope Urban VIII. Scientist and scholar Cassiano dal Pozzo included a drawing of the vase in his Museum Chartaceum (Paper Museum), a 23-volume collection of drawings of various important antiquities.

When Pope Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini) died, the vase remained in the possession of Anna Barberini, wife to the Pope’s nephew. It was displayed for many years in the Barberini Palace, where it was frequently shown to visitors. In the late 1600s, a French visitor published details of the vase in a guidebook for travelers, and it thus became a major stop for young men doing the Grand Tour, as well as many others interested in art and antiquities.

From the Barberinis to James Byres, and to Sir William Hamilton

Eventually, about 1780, a Scottish scholar and dealer of antiquities, James Byres, obtained the vase from the Princess of Palestrina, Donna Cornelia Barberini Colonna, who needed money to pay her gambling debts.

Byres commissioned copies of the vase to be made by James Tassie, who had a shop in London where he engraved gems and created beautiful reproductions of gems, cameos, and portrait medallions. Tassie also worked with Josiah Wedgwood to create molds and intaglios for jasperware versions of these items.

Tassie’s Barberini Vase copies did not have contrasting colors for the background and figures, but they did show that there was a crack in the vase and that modifications had been made to the base. (Later restorations have proved that the original vase was a slightly different shape, and was cut down to fit the current base.)

Sir William Hamilton

Although Byres could certainly appreciate the vase, he didn’t have the funds to keep it, and he sold it in 1782 to the diplomat and antiquarian Sir William Hamilton. (He was also noted for his second marriage, to young Emma Lyon, who later became the celebrated mistress of Lord Nelson.) As British Ambassador to the Two Sicilies, Hamilton had ample opportunity to observe and collect Roman art and antiquities.

Hamilton was living in Italy during the excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and he became fascinated with volcanic activity, eventually writing a book about Pompeii. He bought several hundred Greek and Roman vases; he published drawings of many of them in 1767 in his Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities from the Cabinet of the Honble. Wm. Hamilton, His Brittannick Majesty’s Envoy Extraordinary at the Court of Naples.

The Portland Vase in England

When this masterpiece of Roman glass art came to Great Britain, it soon became a fixture of the British Museum, where millions of people have admired it.

Sir William Hamilton Sells the Vase to the Dowager Duchess of Portland

When Sir William Hamilton returned to England from his tenure as British Ambassador to the Two Sicilies, he brought with him a huge collection of Roman antiquities and art. He sold some of his vases to the British Museum, where they helped to fuel the rising British passion for ancient art works.

After displaying the Barberini Vase to some of his illustrious associates, Hamilton sold it in 1784 to Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Portland, another collector of antiquities and natural history objects. The purchase was a private affair, and only family and favored friends of the Dowager Duchess were shown the vase. In 1786, after the Duchess’ death, it was put up for sale and was bought by her son, the second Duke of Portland.

The Portland Vase Was Passed Down by the Dukes of Portland

The vase was inherited by the third Duke of Portland, when he died in 1809, the fourth duke decided to make it available to the general public by loaning it in 1810 to the British Museum, which promptly put it on display.

During the fourth duke’s ownership, in 1845, a mentally disturbed visitor to the museum picked up a fragment of a nearby sculpture and threw it at the Portland Vase. The protective glass cover shattered, and the vase itself was broken into more than 200 pieces.

The First Major Repair

The vandal was arrested and pleaded guilty. Since the vase was an important work of art, the museum decided to have it reconstructed, and it was handed over to John Doubleday, a museum craftsman. Doubleday first arranged the major pieces, and had a watercolor done of the fragments. It took months, but the reconstruction was finished that same year.

In time, the vase was duly inherited by the fifth Duke of Portland, who left it on display at the museum. Eventually, in 1879, the vase passed to the sixth duke, who finally put it up for sale in 1929, but the bids did not meet the duke’s reserve price. Three years later the duke loaned it back to the museum, where it was again displayed to the public.

The Portland Vase is Purchased by the British Museum in 1945

In 1943 the sixth duke died, and the seventh duke decided to sell the vase. By this time so many people had visited the museum to see it, that it was looked upon almost as a national treasure, and thus the museum set out to purchase it. Negotiations took some time, but at the end of WWII the sale was completed, and the vase had a permanent home.

Two years later, in 1947, museum curators were surprised when a man appeared, bringing a box of glass slivers that he was unable to identify. The curators, however, had no trouble – they were fragments left over from the 1845 reconstruction – fragments that Doubleday had not been able to place.

The Second Major Repair

Since the repair was now more than 100 years old and the adhesive had discolored and weakened, it was decided to take the vase apart and repair it again, using better adhesives and new techniques. In November of 1948 the museum turned it over to J. H. W. Axtell, who completed the job by spring of 1949.

The Third Major Repair

The vase stayed on display, and the museum continued to expand. In 1985, as a new Roman gallery was being readied, curators realized that the 1948/49 restoration had not fared well. It, too, had discolored, and some of the filling material had shrunk. Once again, it was scheduled for a major restoration. This time a BBC camera crew documented the whole process, which occurred in 1988/89.

The Future of the Vase

The vase remains one of the major draws at the British Museum. It will likely be repaired again at some future time, as generation after generation continues visit the museum to marvel at the delicate beauty of this masterpiece of art and craftsmanship.