Portland Vase

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The Portland Vase is a Roman cameo glass vase, currently dated to between 5 and 25 CE,[1] which served as an inspiration to many glass and porcelain makers from about the beginning of the 18th century onwards. Since 1945 the vase has belonged to the British Museum in London (reference - GR 1945,0927.1) ; on display in Room 70, Rome: City & Empire).

The vase is about 25 centimeters high and 56 in circumference. It is made of violet-blue glass, and surrounded with a single continuous white glass cameo depicting seven figures (humans and gods).

On the bottom was a cameo glass disc, also in blue and white, showing a head, presumed to be of Paris or Priam on the basis of the Phrygian cap it wears. This roundel clearly does not belong to the vase, and has been displayed separately since 1845. It may have been added to mend a break in antiquity or after, or the result of a conversion from an original amphora form (paralleled by a similar blue-glass cameo vessel from Pompeii) - it was definitely attached to the bottom from at least 1826.



The meaning of the images on the vase is unclear and controversial. Interpretations of the portrayals have included that of a marine setting (due to the presence of a ketos or sea-snake), and of a marriage theme/context (i.e. as a wedding gift). Many scholars (even Charles Towneley) have concluded that the figures do not fit into a single iconographic set.

Some interpretations of the 2 main scenes are:

Dionysos greeting Ariadne with her sacred serpent, in the sacred grove for their marriage, symbolized by the winged cherub with a nuptial torch, in the presence of his foster-father, Silenus

Life story


Based on the scenes and the style of the work, the Portland Vase is generally believed to have been made in Rome some time between 30 BC and 20 BC[2]. Dr Jerome Eisenberg has argued in Minerva magazine that the vase was produced in the 16th century AD and not antiquity, because the iconography is incoherent[3], but this theory has not been widely accepted.

Cameo-glass vessels were probably all made within about two generations as experiments when the blowing technique (discovered in about 50 BC) was still in its infancy. Recent research has shown that the Portland vase, like the majority of cameo-glass vessels, was made by the dip-overlay method, whereby an elongated bubble of glass was partially dipped into a crucible (fire-resistant container) of white glass, before the two were blown together. After cooling the white layer was cut away to form the design.

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