Genie out of the vase. It is an enigmatic urn. During the artistic rape of Europe in the eighteenth century, the ransack that is now known as the Grand Tour, England was flooded with spoils of her wandering noblemen. Paintings, porcelain and pottery, sculpture, jewelry, and tapestry poured into the country in an ill sorted, ill chosen mass. Much was fake, much was commonplace, but occasionally pieces of unparalleled beauty or fame were acquired. Of these, few can compare with the Barberini vase.
It now stands in the British Museum; a small , heavily cracked made of nothing more remarkable or valuable than glass. Many consider its shape undistinguished, others find its decoration uninspired, and no one can deny that it is no longer perfect. Yet it is, perhaps, the most famous vase in the world.
Its early history has never been satisfactorily explained. Sir William Hamilton was certain that it was a work of the fourth century B.C., carried in triumph out of Asia by Alexander the Great to bear his ashes when he died; others thought that it was the burial urn of the Roman emperor Alexander Severus and his mother, Mamaea, who were murdered by the Roman legions in Germany some six hundred years later; and during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries almost everybody believed it had been buried, complete with somebody’s ashes, and was not revealed again until 1582, when it was said to have been found in a sarcophagus dug from the Monte del Grano.
But intriguing as these beliefs are, they are almost certainly untrue. This is a great pity, because without them it is impossible to explain the whereabouts of the vase, from its creation in the hands of a pre-Christian glassmaker in Alexandria to its reappearance some seventeen hundred years later in the possession of the famous Barberini family in Rome. Wherever it had wandered over the centuries, they were determined that it should wander no more. In fact, so proud of the vase was the Barberini pope, Urban VIII, that he gave specific instructions that this gem of the family collection should never leave Rome.
Unhappily, he had reckoned without the eighteenth century’s addiction to gambling. In an age when betting played as large a part in social life as hunting and dancing, it is not surprising that even Princess Barberini should occasionally have difficulties in meeting her debts. She sold the pot to pay them; but not unnaturally, considering the papal ban, she sold it in secret, and there is little record of the transaction.
Princess Barberini sold it to James Byres, a Scottish antiquary who lived in Rome and supplemented his income by helping ”milords inglesi” find suitable trophies to take back to England at the end of their Grand Tour. It was not in his hands for long. He showed it to Sir William Hamilton, who, according to his own records, promptly bought it for 1,ooo pounds. Sir William, who is most remembered now as the husband of Emma Hamilton, Nelson’s mistress, was then well known as an enthusiastic connosieur and one of the first to popularize the discoveries at Herculaneum as part of the Grand Tour. It was he who brought the vase into England in 1784.
Its fame had preceded it, and Sir William was bombarded with notes,letters and secret messages from the art-crazed Lady Portland, a avid collector of the rare or the unique. She paid him 1800 guineas for it, but once in her hand, the Barberini disappeared from view. She conducted the whole transaction with great secrecy which could be easily explained. Lady Portland’s family had been alarmed at her eccentric buying, and she clearly did not wish to hear of her latest extravagance.
To Wedgewood, the disappearance of the vase was maddening. He was planning, as the final test of his technical skill, to produce a copy, and he had only drawings to work from. But Lady Portland, like the ecstatic squirrel with a unique nut, had secreted it away among her most precious possessions and would show it to none but her closest friends. Within a year, however, she was dead, and within three days of the auction of her collection, the vase was in Wedgewood’s hands. The Third Duke of Portland had bought it back into the family for 980 guineas and promptly lent it to England’s leading potter for reproduction.
Within the next century it was reproduced in plaster, glass, brass, iron, marble and even in wood. But, by far the most famous and perfect copies were those made in jasper by Josiah Wedgewood in the 1790′s. People clamored for copies, but such were the difficulties of production that they were never a commercial proposition. It was felt to be a triumph for Wedgewood and a triumph for English pottery. It has been reproduced by others ever since, but never with the same success. Even the later attempts of the Wedgewood firm could not compare with the efforts of the first Josiah. In fact, it is a landmark in Victorian morality than in the history of pottery, for the charming little cupid was made to cross his legs to hide his embryonic manhood, and the other figures, naked and unashamed in the original, were draped with a thoroughness that would have satisfied Victoria herself.
Conjecture about the vase did not decline, but the chief interest was now directed to interpreting the story it depicts. On one side a girl is caressing a serpent with one hand and reaching up with the other to welcome a young man who is wearing nothing but a hesitant air. A plump cupid hovers above, and an older bearded man looks thoughtfully on. On the other side, two young women lie in negligent undress beneath a tree as a handsome youth looks longingly towards them. To add a further complication, a robed figure holding a finger to his lips is carved on the base. Such material can be made to fit a host of mythological stories.