The Portland Vase: The Extraordinary Odyssey of a Mysterious Roman Treasure-Robin Brooks

  • Title: The Portland Vase: The Extraordinary Odyssey of a Mysterious Roman Treasure
  • Author: Robin Brooks
  • Released: 2004-08-10
  • Language:
  • Pages: 250
  • ISBN: 0060510994
  • ISBN13: 978-0060510992
  • ASIN: 0060510994


From Publishers Weekly The 9¾-inch glass vase, now housed in the British Museum, is a deep opaque blue, overlaid with white glass in which scenes of mythological figures are cut. It is renowned for its delicate beauty, but the meaning of its decorative scenes has not been ascertained and its origins remain mysterious. Brooks, a former actor who writes radio plays for the BBC, explores the theories and controversies surrounding the vase (shown in an eight-page b&w photo insert) in a breezy anecdotal style, focusing on those who have owned the vase and the antiquarians who have studied it. Considered to be the work of a glassblower from ancient Rome (date uncertain), the intact vase was possibly discovered, although there is no real proof, in an ancient tomb outside Rome in 1582. The vase’s first recorded owner was Cardinal del Monte of Italy; it then passed into the hands of the Barberini family for 150 years. Later owned by the Portland family, the vase was purchased by the British Museum (after many mishaps) in 1945. Although there is a wealth of interpretation concerning the sculpted scenes on the vase, no one judgment has been accepted. Brooks competently details the three restorations the vase has undergone (it was shattered by a vandal in 1845) and provides an overview of ongoing research.
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From Disinterred from a Roman tomb in 1582, the exquisite glass urn known as the Portland Vase was believed to be the repository of the ashes of Severus Alexander, an emperor murdered in 235. Now housed at the British Museum, it was smashed to smithereens by a vandal in 1845 and nearly re-smashed a century later by German bombs. Stories, of course, abound amid this chronology, and Brooks assembles them according to the types of people the vase has attracted: its owners and students of either its carved images or its physical craftsmanship. The vase's enigmatic cameo figures, of white glass annealed to an underlying layer of blue glass, have produced about 50 mythical or biographical interpretations. Brooks describes a few but is dismayed that most explanations are too contorted to convince him. He resorts to describing the urn's possessors, who gave it settings as varied as a papal palace and a straw-stuffed crate. Readers will find Brooks' fine biography as alluring as aesthetes find the actual object. Gilbert Taylor
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