The "Portland Vase," the celebrated masterpiece of Roman glass dating from the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus (27BC-14AD), arrived at the British Museum in 1810. Discovered in 1582, south-east of Rome inside a sarcophagus of a large burial chamber, this remarkable blue-black glass vase with bas-reliefs of white cameo figures was known to Roman tourists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the "Barbarini Vase" because of its ownership by that family.
The renowned antiquarian Sir William Hamilton acquired the vase in the 1780s, and it was, in turn, sold to the Duchess of Portland. Described by the diarist Horace Walpole as "Perfectly sober, and intoxicated only by empty vases," the Duchess installed the vase in her Portland Museum, Whitehall, in 1784. Following her death, the Duchess's son acquired the vase and loaned it to Josiah Wedgwood who produced ceramic copies. It gained further renown when published in Henry Moses's Collection of Antique Vases, etc. from Various Museums and Collections of 1814. Although entrusted to the British Museum for safekeeping, in 1845 the Portland Vase was smashed into some 200 pieces by a madman. The vase subsequently underwent a series of restorations and remains one of the best known exhibits at the British Museum.
Contemporary scholars and antiquarians were intrigued by the vase's bas-reliefs, which were then interpreted as an allegory of man's passage through life. Particular attention was focused on the figure with Phrygian cap featured on the base of the vase. This 'liberty' figure on the cameo disk was not original to the vase, having been inserted when the vase was repaired in antiquity. Thought to derive from Homer's Illiad, the figure has been identified as the Trojan prince Paris, who in the disguise of a shepherd at the wedding feast of King Peleus and the nereid Thetis was making his choice of Venus as 'most beautiful'. To the present day, the meaning of the two scenes on the vase remains open to interpretation. One theory proposes they represent the story of Peleus and Thetis; another proposes the scenes relate to the union of Apollo and Atia. The satyr-masks of Pan, the ruling deity of the poet's paradise Arcadia and the companion of the wine and fertility god Bacchus, are appropriate handle guards for this bottle-shaped wine cooler.
While many versions are known in ceramic, examples in silver are very rare. The earliest documented example, by Philip Rundell of 1820, sold at Sotheby's, New York, June 17, 1981. Another by Philip Rundell of 1824 is known, as well as a Victorian example.