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Portland Vase: c.25 BC

Late in the first century BC, probably in Rome, a glass vase is made by a process of astonishing difficulty and sophistication. A highly skilled glass-blower begins with a molten blob of opaque white glass. Into it he inserts another molten blob of glass, in this case blue. Then he expands this hot lump, by blowing air into it through a tube, at the same rotating it into the shape of a vase - white on the outside, blue inside.

When the vase is cold and solid, another craftsman carves away the white surface to make a cameo image in white on blue.


The vase undoubtedly has great importance in its own time, being made for a special occasion to which the figures somehow relate. Depicted in statuesque poses in a classical setting, they clearly derive from Greek mythology. Their identity has been the subject of much debate, but they probably have a link with Achilles. The vase may have been commissioned for a member of the family of the emperor Augustus.

In about 1582 the vase is discovered in Rome. It passes through various collections before coming into the possession of the third duke of Portland in England in 1786.


To protect such a precious object from damage, the fourth duke lends the vase in 1810 to the British Museum. His decision proves unfortunate. In the museum, thirty-five years later, the vase is smashed into more than 200 pieces by an Irish visitor, known only by the false name of William Lloyd. The fragments are gathered up and glued together.

In 1987, with the benefit of modern expertise, the vase is taken apart and reassembled again in a process of restoration lasting a year. In spite of its chequered history, this most famous piece of Roman glass remains a miraculous work of art.


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