Updated: Mar 22
“Beware the Ides of March!”
Portland Vase scene
My romantic pick of the month in the guise of Carrie Bradshaw from 'Sex and the City' is the Portland Vase at the British Museum. As usual, I’m a bit out of time because I had intended this for Valentine’s Day, but perhaps the “Ides of March” is more appropriate for the theme of this object.
The trouble with love is that it can start poetically and end in angst; or it can begin with disgust and every now and then turn into pure, unconditional love. It can also begin with disgust and end in despair, as in the case of poor Princess Caroline of Brunswick, who dashed over in 1795 to marry the Prince Regent (future George IV) only for him to declare her “ugly” and “unhygienic”. After giving birth to their only daughter, Princess Charlotte, they separated in 1796. Apparently, after their wedding, the prince quickly got blind drunk and spent the night unconscious in the fireplace.
Whereas, when the future Mary II married William of Orange (later William III) in 1677 at St James’s Palace, she cried throughout the wedding. She was just 15 and he was 27. He had red hair - which he didn’t even try to disguise with a wig - bandy legs and bad asthma. It was soon evident, however, that this was a love match, and when Mary II died of smallpox, childless aged 32, on 28 December 1694, William declared that “from being the happiest” he was “now going to be the miserablest creature on earth”.
The Portland Vase dates back to the first century BC/AD, and even its discovery is mysterious and romantic, because it was found just outside Rome in a marble sarcophagus in a large burial mound in the Monte del Grano in 1582. Owned by Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, the vase was subsequently sold to the Barberini family and later purchased by the ambassador to Naples, William Hamilton, who sold it to the Dowager Duchess of Portland in 1784. Hence it coming to be called the Portland Vase. From 1810, it was lent to the British Museum on long-term loan and was finally purchased by the museum in 1945.
The vase was made using the dip overlay method. First, a gob of cobalt blue glass was put on the end of a blowing iron and blown into a preliminary shape. This would be dipped into a cup-shaped bank of white glass and blown again to stretch the white glass. Once sufficiently cool, it would be carved to reveal our romantic scene. No one has perfected this technique since the Romans did two millennia ago. The vase was considered so important that when William Hamilton bought it, he leant it to Josiah Wedgwood in order that he could try to replicate it. His version of the Portland Vase can be found in the V&A Museum.
If you go to the British Museum and look at the vase from underneath, what at first appears to be black is a deep cobalt blue, which in itself gives a magic to the love scenes depicted on it.
There are various theories as to who the characters on the vase are meant to represent, and it is odd in that it is a Roman vase with Greek themes. I will base it on my favourite of these theories.
On one side we possibly see the marriage of Thetis (a nereid) and Peleus (a mere mortal). Thetis is accompanied by her sea snake known as a Ketos and looks back sensually, embracing the arm of her lover Peleus. The older bearded man could be Poseidon or Nereus. The delightful little Eros flies above this seduction, with his bow and arrow spurring them on.
However, this is a rosy spin on a darker story. Zeus learns that Thetis will have a son more powerful than him, and so he conspires to marry her off to this mortal man. Thetis is filled with horror and disgust, and changes shape to try to flee from Peleus’s advances. Eventually he catches up with her and she gives in. Not the best start to this love match.
At the wedding feast, all the gods are invited bar one: Eris, goddess of strife and discord. Annoyed, she turns up despite this and tosses a golden apple into the crowd inscribed “for the fairest”. A fight ensues between Hera, Aphrodite and Athena as to who should win this prize for being the greatest beauty. Zeus is reluctant to get into a fight with these feisty goddesses, and appoints the mortal Paris as the judge of the competition. Aphrodite offers him up the then most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta, wife of King Menelaus, so naturally she wins the competition - and thus the Trojan Wars begin.
Cameo disc from another vase possibly showing Paris
The other side of the vase may be showing the figures of Ares, Thetis and Aphrodite.
It is interesting to me that all the big love stories are connected to battles. Romeo and Juliet, one of the greatest love stories of all time, is played out against the fight between the Montagues and Capulets. Relating to Shakespeare’s great love tales, the vase has also been thought to show the affair between Antony and Cleopatra. If so, this would have been a very contemporary story, because the vase was made in the first century BC/AD. Arguably one of the greatest love matches of all time.
In this case, Antony sensually drags his cloak behind him, striding confidently towards the seductive Cleopatra, who clasps the asp that forewarns of her tragic end. Again, in this version of the vase, the bearded man is believed to represent Poseidon.
Initially, the meeting between Antony and Cleopatra was to be a political one on both sides. Cleopatra VII was the last pharaoh of the Ptolemaic Greek dynasty in Egypt, after the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 BC.
Antony sent a message from Tarsus in southern Turkey to Cleopatra in Egypt to request a meeting. Having already been burned by Caesar, this time the Egyptian queen was ready and prepared. She arrived in 41 BC floating down the Cydnus river in a boat with a golden prow with silver oars and a purple sail. Antony had previously caught a glimpse of her in Alexandra 14 years earlier, and had fallen for her then. Now, not only does she arrive in this show of power, glory and splendour, but she disarms Antony by putting on her own lavish welcoming banquet as a show of her control, generosity and great wealth. Wrong-footed, Antony soon succumbs to her charms. Cleopatra, at 28, has the experience of dealing with Caesar and has grown into a woman of great intelligence, humour and charismatic beauty. Antony - handsome, strong and brave, with a love of Hellenistic culture - is the perfect match for this exotic queen.
They met again in Alexandria in the winter of 41-40 BC enjoying the mix of Greek-Egyptian culture. They used to play dressing up and go about at night time dressed as slaves. They had laughter, banquets and love-making.
Antony became involved in a political conspiracy against Octavian, his rival, in which his wife, Fulvia (yes, he had a wife) was one of the ringleaders. So when Fulvia conveniently died, in order to placate Octavian, Antony married Octavian’s sister Octavia. She was also considered beautiful, probably more so than Cleopatra, but she lacked the vivacity and charisma of this Egyptian queen; so soon enough Antony rekindled his affair - to the rage of Octavian.
The other side of the vase therefore may show Octavian with his sister Octavia, her torch down as the flame of passion has died with Antony’s desertion. The other figure may be Ares: once again, war becomes the theme of love.
The Roman rivals met in Greece where Octavian cut Antony’s access to Egypt. Under Cleopatra’s advice, Antony went to battle at sea in 31 BC when about 900 ships fought at the Battle of Actium. When Cleopatra’s ships fled, Antony followed. Antony, thinking that Cleopatra had taken her life, plunged his dagger into his breast, only to die later in her arms. Cleopatra is then famously alleged to have clasped an asp to her chest which poisoned her. In 27 BC Octavian is acknowledged as the first real emperor of Rome, assuming the title Augustus, ruling until 14 AD.
Again, this takes us back to Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet, stollen from perhaps the most tragic lovers’ tale of all time.
This is not just a story of love and war; it is a story of divided cultures. On the one hand you had the hedonistic Dionysian fun-loving culture of the Hellenistic world against the more draconian, severe and restrained rule of the Roman empire.
Today we hail it as a true love story, where to Augustus and the Roman empire it was just an unwholesome affair. So therefore, is this Carrie Bradshaw’s Answer to a Classic love story, or is it just a message to “Beware the Ides of March”?
Scene from the other side of the Portland Vase