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Glass & Glass-Making
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Gravure 1 Back

EVERYONE has heard of the Portland, or Barberini, Vase, and many have seen it in the Gem Room of the British Museum in London. It is a cinerary urn, found in the seventeenth century in a tomb about three miles from Rome on the Frascati Road. The tomb was inscribed; likewise the sarcophagus in which this
vase containing ashes was found. The urn was taken to the library of the Barberini family, where it remained for over a century, until this library was purchased in 1782 by Sir William Hamilton.
    When Sir William brought his treasure to London two years later, the Duchess of Portland begged him to sell it to her. This he did; but so secretly that no one knew that she owned it until six months after her death. At the sale of Her Grace's valuable collection in 1787, her son, the Duke of Portland, bought the precious vase for a thousand guineas (about $5,200).
    The catalogue described it as "the identical urn which contained the ashes of the Roman Emperor, Alexander Severus, and his mother, Mammaea, deposed in the earth about the year 235 after Christ, and dug up by order of Pope Barberini, named Urban VIII, between the years 1623 and 1644."
    Old travelers who saw the vase in Rome thought it was made of natural stone,-- sardonix, agate, etc. Count Caylus called it glass,-- and glass it is, of a deep, pellucid blue adorned with exquisite cameo figures in semi-opaque glass laid on the blue surface.
    The story goes that Josiah Wedgwood, the celebrated potter, was a bidder, and withdrew at the request of the Duke of Portland, who promised to lend him the priceless vase to copy. At any rate, Wedgwood had it for a year to study; and he produced about fifty "Portland Vases," which sold for forty guineas apiece. They are worth a great deal more now and are prized by collectors. These copies were finished with great care. The body was of blue-black "Jasper Ware," which Wedgwood had discovered, and the figures and bas-reliefs were of the same soft, delicate white as the originals, and were polished on the lapidary's wheel. Another reproduction was made by John Northwood of Stourbridge, England, the modern discoverer of the art of cameo-cutting on glass. Northwood worked on this model from 1874 to 1877, assisted by Philip Pargeter, a noted glass-manufacturer. In 1810, the Duke of Portland placed the original vase in the British Museum, where it remained on exhibition without acquiring any history until 1845, when a young madman threw a stone into the case and smashed the vase into fragments. However, it was so skilfully repaired that no trace of the damage is now perceptible.
    The Portland Vase is not large, measuring only a little over nine
inches high and twenty-one inches in circumference.
    Historians and critics have held many theories regarding the subject of the decorations. Some people say they depict the birth and death of Alexander Severus; other suppose they represent Pluto and Proserpine; and others, the nuptials of Thetis and Peleus.
    Perhaps the most plausible theory (and the one that Wedgwood believed, after years of study,) is the following, worked out by an antiquary whose name is not known. He said: "The figures on the celebrated vase are of the most exquisite workmanship in bas-relief of white opaque glass raised on a ground of deep blue glass, which appears black except when held against the light. Mr. Wedgwood is of opinion that the figures have been made by cutting away the external crust of white opaque glass in the manner by which the finest cameos have been produced; and that it must, therefore, have been the labor of a great many years. Some antiquarians have placed the time of its production many centuries before the Christian Era, as sculpture was declining in the time of Alexander.
    "Many opinions and conjectures have been published concerning the figures on the celebrated vase. Mr. Wedgwood has well observed that it does not seem probably that the Portland (Barberini) Vase was purposely made for the ashes of any particular person deceased, because many years must have been necessary for the production; hence, it may be concluded that the subject of its embellishment is not private history, but of a general nature. This subject appears to me to be well chosen and the story finely told, and represents what in ancient times engaged the attention of philosophers, poets and heros. I mean a part of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
    "These Mysteries were invented in Egypt and afterwards transferred to Greece, and flourished more particularly at Athens, which, at the same time, was the seat of the Fine Arts. They consist of scenical exhibitions representing and inculcating the expectation of a future life, and on this account were encouraged by the Government. What subject could have been imagined so sublime for the ornaments of a funeral urn as the mortality of all things and their resuscitation? Where could the designed be supplied with emblems for the purpose before the Christian Era but from the Eleusinian Mysteries?"