- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 25, 2004


By Robin Brooks

Harper Collins, $38.95, 250 pages, illus.


One summer when I was in college, I had a job as a gofer at Sotheby’s auction house in London. Assigned to the porcelain department I managed, in short order, to smash something. (In my haste one day, I violated the cardinal rule of the antique porcelain business: Never pick up an object by its handles; they are invariably its weakest part.)

Miraculously, I wasn’t fired, and was soon dispatched to Somerset House (now a museum but then still the repository of pre-20th-century wills) to do provenance research. Great excitement had gripped the department. One of the field’s great treasures, a Wedgwood copy of the Portland Vase, had been consigned for sale. My task was to help track the ownership history of this extraordinary object, something that would have a direct bearing on its value.

At the time I had never heard of the vase, but I was quickly enlightened: Named after the duke of Portland, whose family once owned it, the vase was an ancient Roman creation now in the British Museum. Unlike most ancient vases, which are made of pottery, this one is blue glass and is decorated with a white relief frieze of male and female figures disporting themselves outdoors.

The vase had so caught the imagination of Josiah Wedgwood in the 18th century that he had made several copies, works which themselves are considered the high-water mark of the British porcelain industry. Hence the object now resting on a shelf in our department. (Armed with this knowledge, I avoided handling the vase lest another catastrophe ensue, although I did make a point of visiting the British Museum before summer’s end to view the original.)

This, it turns out, is the most summary of summary histories. There is in fact quite a tale to tell, one that Robin Brooks unspools in “The Portland Vase: The Extraordinary Odyssey of a Mysterious Roman Treasure.” He has given us the biography of a work of art, composed of two interwoven strands: The first is a chronicle of what he refers to as the vase’s journey “down the river of history.” The second, equally eventful, tracks the multiple and ever-changing interpretations of the decorative frieze.

Mr. Brooks — an actor, not an art historian — has managed to produce an intriguing, lively book that has as many unexpected plot twists as a mystery and as many unusual characters as a Dickens novel. (These include, fittingly, one textbook English eccentric, the fourth duke of Portland, a recluse who spent his adulthood digging tunnels under his stately home. He also piled all the family fittings and furnishings into a single room of the house and painted all the others, now empty, pink.) It’s a fascinating tale of the power great works of art can exert over people, and of how, despite innumerable jolts and even capsizings, they manage to survive their journey down the river.

The fuller history of this little (just under 10 inches tall) masterpiece as recounted by Mr. Brooks is as follows: It is believed to have been unearthed outside Rome by a grave robber in 1582 and soon after was acquired by Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, a Medici intimate who retained it until his death in 1627. It was then sold by his heirs to Maffeo Barberini, better known as Pope Urban VIII. For the next 250 years or so, it would be known as the Barberini Vase. “The vase’s career as a top-flight status symbol was only just beginning,” writes Mr. Brooks.

Urban died in 1644 but the vase remained in the family for another 150 years, when a ne’er-do-well female descendant, Donna Cornelia Barberini, sold it on the black market to pay her gambling debts. In 1782 it was bought by Sir William Hamilton, “the most famous cuckold in history” (owing to his wife Emma’s very public affair with Lord Nelson) and an avid vase collector. Ten years later he sold it to the dowager duchess of Portland, soon after which “Portland” replaced “Barberini” in its name.

The vase remained in the family, descending through various heirs until one, the fourth duke of Portland (he of the taste for pink) lent it to the British Museum in 1910 and another, the seventh duke of Portland, sold it to the museum in 1945. Along the way, it had more than one brush with destruction.

The vase’s fascination derived from its beauty, its rarity (only about a half dozen similar such objects exist) and the extraordinary technical achievement embodied in its creation. For, as Mr. Brooks explains in extensive and illuminating detail, it isn’t one vase but two.

The blue glass was covered by a layer of white glass, which was then carved away, leaving behind the decorative frieze. Whoever made the vase was craftsman enough to keep this brittle material from shattering during its formation (because of structural stresses brought about by the cooling of the two layers of glass at different speeds) or during the carving process.

And he was artist enough to render human figures convincingly and even light and shade — the latter effected by carving the white-glass layer to a thinness that allowed some of the underlying blue to show through, darkening it slightly.

No wonder the vase exerted a powerful pull on those who saw it. By the time it had entered the Barberini collection it had become a de rigueur stop on any Roman visitor’s itinerary, a destination piece the way the “Mona Lisa” is today. Its fame only increased with time, so that by the 19th century it was, in Mr. Brooks’ words, “an A-list celebrity of classical art.”

Theories about the meaning of the frieze — who was represented in it, and what did the narrative signify? — multiplied with its fame. “After 1900, almost as many interpretations would be devised and proclaimed than had appeared during the previous two and a half centuries, eventually reaching a total that now stands at nearly fifty,” writes Mr. Brooks.

Two men besides Wedgwood attempted to make copies, one of them using glass. (He failed.) And the vase has even received those odd, backhanded tributes society has devised to recognize surpassing artistic achievement: It has been vandalized — smashed by a psychotic (1845) — and declared a fake (2003).

Beyond the details of who-owned-the-vase-and-when, Mr. Brooks’ book offers a fascinating case history in the way that works of art function as Rorschach blots to mirror changing cultural attitudes as they pass from hand to hand. In the study of art history, the period illuminates the object. Saying something is “Renaissance” is shorthand for a set of stylistic characteristics, unique to a period, that help us identify an object and understand its meaning.

But it’s equally true that the object illuminates the period, that at every stage on its “journey down the river of history” the actions upon and responses to the Portland Vase said something about the wider cultural moment. Thus through its lens we witness the rise of tourism, art collecting, the art market and museum culture; as well as — until the 20th century — a varied yet continuing fascination with the antique.

What we learn about works of art is usually limited to who created them, when and where, as well as what they mean. Mr. Brooks shows us that beyond those basic details, art objects, too, have “lives” and that sometimes they are, like this one, as eventful as ours.

Eric Gibson is Leisure & Arts Features editor of the Wall Street Journal.

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