Antiquity Rediscovered

Antiquity Rediscovered

Interest in the past is not a new phenomenon. Edward Gibbon wrote: “Yet I know the classics have much to teach…the temperate dignity of style, the graceful proportions of art, the forms of visible and intellectual beauty, the just delineation of character and passion…”[1]

Copy of the Portland VaseDuring the Renaissance, the ruling class in Florence encouraged authors who wanted to study the ancient Greeks and Romans. After the authors consulted manuscripts, their study led to researching surviving examples of the classical civilizations. The publications of later scholars and antiquarians (those who collected, dug up, or purchased antiquities, usually for personal use, in contrast to the scientific archeologist) contributed to spreading an interest in the past, as well as the classical style, throughout Europe, especially in England and France. Many of these publications are in the collection of the Rakow Library. The “Grand Tour” became almost a rite of passage for the young, educated upper class in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The young men and women often spent two to four years traveling around Europe, visiting Paris, Switzerland, Germany, and especially Italy. They visited Florence and Venice to study Renaissance art, Rome to view the classical ruins, and Naples, where they could appreciate the recently discovered archeological sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Expected to return with souvenirs of their travels, they purchased antiquities, art, books, and sculpture, which would decorate their libraries, drawing rooms, and gardens. Monarchs were part of the influential group of collectors, young artists and designers attracted to the ancient art and antiquities, the excavations and the catacombs.

Their interest in classical antiquities was part of a classical revival that began in the 1750s and dominated European taste through the 19th century. The academies in Rome flourished, antiquarian societies were founded; and both copies and forgeries of ancient art were sought after. A major source of inspiration for this revival came from the discovery of Herculaneum in 1738 and of Pompeii in 1748, and their subsequent excavations. Novels, poetry, opera, paintings, domestic interiors, garden designs, home furnishings and jewelry all reflected the influence of Herculaneum and Pompeian ruins.

The motifs of classical antiquity - mythological scenes, cherubs, urns, satyrs - were used in the arts and the decorative arts. Classical subjects, copied from engravings in books, or from the antiquities themselves, as well as modern subjects rendered in a classical style, appeared on everything from chamber pots to tableware. At Etruria, the famous English pottery factory, Josiah Wedgwood created black Basalt ware to imitate Etruscan (Greek) vases then developed his famous colored Jasper, with which he could imitate the appearance of cameo on plaques, vessels, and medallions. The Portland Vase is one of the best known icons of the Roman world , and is one of the finest examples of ancient cameo glass. Its discovery, history and interpretation are well documented in numerous books and articles. The vase was found in Italy in the late 16th century, and acquired by Cardinal del Monte in 1582. After the cardinal’s death, it was acquired in 1627 by Cardinal Francesco Barberini, and resided in the palace at Rome until 1780. In that year, it was sold to a Scotsman James Byres, who sold it in 1782 to Sir William Hamilton, ambassador to the Court of Naples. Hamilton sold it the next year to the Dowager Duchess of Portland. The contents of her Portland Museum were auctioned in 1786, a year after her death, but her son, the third Duke of Portland, purchased the Portland Vase. The family loaned it to the British Museum in 1810. In 1945, the British Museum purchased it for their permanent collection.

The Duke of Portland loaned the Portland Vase to renowned English potter Josiah Wedgwood. Wedgwood was familiar with the vase – he had been studying it in the folio documenting Hamilton’s collection; the sculptor John Flaxman had advised Wedgwood to see it. Wedgwood’s artists took 4 years to make a successful jasper copy of the Portland Vase.

Wedgwood Copy of the Portland VaseAfter the first copy was produced, around September 1789, Wedgwood made approximately 40 copies more. Wedgwood’s firm displayed it in their London showroom in 1790, and visitors needed an engraved admission card to view it. Josiah Wedgwood’s physician and relative by marriage, Erasmus Darwin, publicized it in both poem and illustration in Darwin’s The Botanic Garden. “Wedgwood… [became] one of Europe’s foremost designers and manufacturers of wares inspired by ancient prototype." During the 19th century, copies were made in glass (John Northwood on a blank from Philip Pargeter; Joseph Locke on a blank made by Hodgetts, Richardson), and in other media. Additional jasper copies were made by Wedgwood and polished by John Northwood. The image of the Portland Vase continued as the firm’s trademark for many years.

At the 1878 Paris exposition, the influences of ancient cameo glass and other ancient glass were evident in the exhibits of Salviati, Venice and Murano Glass Co., Thomas Webb & Sons; Hodgetts, Richardson & Co. According to David Whitehouse, “English cameo glass enjoyed a vogue that extended from Australia to the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century.”[2] Other late 19th century glass, such as gold glass, cage cups, mosaic glass, blown glass with trailed decoration, and micro mosaics, continued to reflect the influence of antiquity.

The classical world was also reflected in tastes in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century. According to Wendy Cooper, American architecture, politics, fine arts, education, interior decoration and dress reflected the designs of ancient Greece and Rome. American craftsmen had access to English and European publications which illustrated the classical designs, and the affluent American traveled to England and Europe, where the culture and fashion reflected the style. American pressed glass articles included classical forms and motifs (for example, eagles, paw feet, scrolls, cornucopias) in cup plates, salts, covered caskets, candlesticks, and blown-molded flasks.[3]

The fascination with the classical world continues today, as evident in continuing interest in making ancient glass, the Portland Vase, movies, novels, and television programs with classical themes, and reproductions of cage cups by Josef Welzel and George Scott. All attest to the continuing interest in the past.


[1] The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 6, Chapter LII, p. 490; London, 1821

[2] Journal of Glass Studies, 1990, p. 73.

[3] Classical Taste in America 1800-1840, p. 8, 11, 45, 202-206.

Published on March 18, 2013