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Portland Vase Iconography

All About Glass

The Portland Vase is the best-known ancient Roman cameo glass vessel. It is in the collection of the British Museum in London.

For some pieces of art, the meaning of a figural scheme is clear; in others, the interpretation takes years to decipher; and in the %%case%% of the Portland Vase, scholars are still uncertain how to interpret the scene after centuries of research.

The Portland Vase was the first ancient Roman glass vessel to attract serious attention in modern times. It was found in the late 16th century. The French scholar Peiresc saw it in Rome during the winter of 1600-1601 and described it in a letter to his friend, the painter Rubens. After 400 years, there is still no agreement about the meaning of the scenes that adorn it. In fact, in 1990, 44 interpretations of its decorative scheme were tabulated. And since that time, several more noteworthy interpretations have been proposed.

portland vase imagery - side 2

In the first scene, a young man moves toward the right, his arm extended to grasp the arm of a woman (Fig. 1). The woman sits on a rock, supporting a bearded snake. Cupid, carrying a torch, flies above them. To the right, a bearded man with long flowing hair stands with his chin in his hand and his right foot resting on a rock. In the second scene, a young man sits on a pile of %%stones%% (Fig. 2). In the center, a woman with a torch reclines as though asleep or waking from a dream. A seated woman holding a scepter looks on.

portland vase imagery

Explanations of the scenes fall into two groups: those that identify the figures as historical men and women and those that explain them as characters from mythology. For example: could the scenes refer to the Roman emperor Augustus and the foundation and glory of Rome (the front runner among the historical interpretations), or do they show the myth of Peleus and Thetis (the front runner among the mythological interpretations)? What is accepted is that the scenes have a meaning (listen: Portland Vase Imagery). The figures are not merely decoration but players in a drama that made sense to the original owner of the vase.

If we explore the leading historical interpretation, the key to "reading" the first scene is the woman with the snake. Augustus' mother Atia took part in a midnight vigil at the Temple of Apollo. During the night, Apollo visited her in the form of a snake. She became pregnant and gave birth to the future emperor. The young man moving from the left is Augustus, who grasps the arm of his mother. The sea god Neptune, with his long hair, looks on from the right. Augustus attributed his naval victory over Cleopatra and Mark Antony at Actium in 31 B.C. to Neptune, among others. This sea battle confirmed Augustus as the ruler of the Roman world.

portland vase replica

In the second scene, the focal point is the woman with the torch. Hecuba, wife of King Priam of Troy, dreamed that she gave birth to a flaming torch that set fire to a city and destroyed it. The man on the left is her son Paris who sits in front of a ruined building that reminds some of the destruction of Troy. Watching on the right, the woman with the scepter, as many scholars have realized, is the goddess Venus, who promised Paris the most beautiful woman in the world—Helen—if he would choose her as the most beautiful goddess in the mythical beauty contest between Venus, Minerva, and Juno, known as the Judgment of Paris. Venus' action, therefore, led to the sack of Troy.

On both sides of the vase, a featured deity influences the lives of historical figures. Just as Venus "caused" the destruction of Troy, so, according to propaganda, Neptune "caused” the revival of Rome by siding with Augustus at Actium and helping him to defeat Mark Antony's navy.

To sum up, the first scene appears to refer to the birth of Augustus, the Civil War, and the revival of Rome. The second scene appears to refer to the birth of Paris, the Trojan War, and the destruction of Troy. Each scene would have been identified immediately by Romans who knew both the official propaganda (which included the story of Atia and the snake) and the myths of Greece (which included the Judgment of Paris).

The same Romans would also have seen the connection between the scenes. If they lived in Rome and were members of the literary circle created by Augustus' friend and adviser Maecenas, they would have heard the connection spelled out by Vergil, the greatest poet of the day. Vergil's epic, the Aeneid (which he recited to Augustus and his friends), tells how Aeneas fled from the ruins of Troy, eventually settled in Italy, and had a descendant, Romulus, who founded Rome. The message is clear: without the fall of Troy, Rome would never have existed and the reign of Augustus would not have happened.

One theory about the Portland Vase, therefore, is that it is not simply an object of rare beauty and fine workmanship; it is also a statement about the destiny of Augustus and Rome—and in 20 B.C., Romans would have found it as easy to understand as Americans find images of George Washington crossing the Delaware.

Paul Roberts, William Gudenrath, Veronica Tatton-Brown, and David Whitehouse, Roman %%Cameo%% Glass in the British Museum, London: The British Museum Press, 2010, pp. 36-37.

Published on December 1, 2011