Magazine article The Spectator

'Thou, Silent Form, Doth Tease Us out of Thought'

Magazine article The Spectator

'Thou, Silent Form, Doth Tease Us out of Thought'

Article excerpt

'Thou, silent form, doth tease us out of thought' THE MYSTERY OF THE PORTLAND VASE by Robin Brooks Duckworth, £14.99, pp. 234, ISBN 0715632116

One February day in 1845 a well-dressed young man walked into Gallery Nine of the British Museum and hurled a lump of sculpture at a glass case. He smashed the case and shattered its contents - the Portland Vase, a famous piece of Roman glass. The vase was broken into 200 pieces. The vandal turned out to be a mentally unstable Irish student, and for this mindless crime he was committed to two months' hard labour.

The Portland Vase was glued together again, and returned to its glass case. It still stands in the Museum today - a small, dumpy, blue-glass vase carved with white cameo figures. It isn't particularly beautiful, but for centuries it has been a Grade-A classical treasure, bought by the ultra-rich and coveted by scholars who have tried to explain it. Many of the vase's owners have been richly entertaining, and their stories form the subject of this book.

The vase was dug up by treasure-hunters in Rome in the 1580s, possibly in a tomb; it was said to contain the ashes of the Emperor Severus, but this is unlikely. It soon entered the collection of the hugely rich Cardinal del Monte in Rome, and from him it passed into the hands of Pope Urban VIII, aka Maffeo Barbereni. Urban VIII was greedy, corrupt and nepotistic, and his chief aim in life was to enrich the Barbareni family.

By the late 18th century, however, the Barberenis were in decline. Money was pouring into Italy from abroad as young British aristocrats squandered their rent on acquiring classical culture on the Grand Tour. The market in cultural tourism spawned a new breed of middlemen, who acted both as tour leaders and black-market art dealers. One of these, a Scot named Byres, bought the vase from a cash-strapped Barbareni princess as a speculation. …

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