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The Portland Vase
The Extraordinary Odyssey of a Mysterious Roman Treasure
February 7, 1845, could not be described as a quiet day at the British Museum. The museum was halfway through a painful process of total transformation from its original home in the outmoded and outgrown Montague House to the large new building designed by Robert Smirke, which was going up piecemeal in its place. The museum was a building site; Montague House was being slowly demolished, and beside it the new wing, known as the Lycian Gallery, intended to hold treasures from excavations in Anatolia, was rising apace. The site was covered with laborers, great wooden beams of scaffolding, draft animals, and even soldiers to guard the works. Iron wall ties were being forged in situ, a rather rickety-looking contraption called a "traveler" conveyed massive blocks of Portland stone (no relation) about the site, and top-hatted supervisors stalked through the confusion. The Keeper of Manuscripts, Frederic Madden, was still living with his family (including a very pregnant wife) in what was left of the old buildings. He complained of the "insufferable dirt and noise." His water supply had been cut off. Rats and bugs, fleeing the demolition, infested his apartments. The western wall of the building was leaning at an angle that left him "in continual dread of its falling down" and burying him and his family in its ruins.
The new structures were no safer than the old. A contemporary artist recorded an accident during the building of the Lycian Gallery during which a five-ton girder that was being hoisted up to the roof -- a process that took four hours -- broke loose and crashed to the ground, breaking into fragments but mercifully missing the workmen.
In all this chaos, the business of the museum went on as best it could. The vase sat under its glass cover in Gallery 9, and at the end of a freezing winter afternoon a handful of visitors strolled about, enjoying the last look ever taken of the vase in its pristine state. A young man had entered the room, with "something strange in his looks and manner." He waited until the guard had walked out into the larger, adjoining gallery -- Gallery 10 -- then he picked up a large fragment of sculpture from the ancient city of Persepolis that was lying at hand and heaved it at the vase. Had he hit it fair and square, he would have reduced the vase to an irreparable cloud of splinters and dust, but his hand was shaky, his aim was off, and the greater part of the missile hit the floor, leaving a hefty dent in the flagstone. Nevertheless, the solid glass cover was broken through, and the vase itself smashed into more than two hundred pieces. Something that was born under the Caesars and had survived countless generations perished in an instant.
The noise brought the public and the guards running. It brought "officers of the department" from an adjoining room, and they acted with commendable speed, immediately ordering the attendants to close the doors to Galleries 9 and 10. The five members of the public still in Gallery 9 were asked to walk next door, where they were questioned by the Keeper of Antiquites, Edward Hawkins. Four of them, understandably worried that they might be falsely accused of complicity in the outrage, answered promptly. The fifth hung back until directly confronted. "A stout young man, in a kind of pilot coat, with both hands in his pockets before him, replied, when questioned, in a dogged and determined tone, 'I did it.' " He was handed over to a police officer. The attendants began gingerly to clear up the mess. Frederic Madden, summoned by a messenger, appeared to look over what was left of the vase:
On proceeding up to the room where it was exhibited, I found it strewed on the ground in a thousand pieces, and was informed that a short time before a young man who had watched his opportunity when the room was clear, had taken up one of the large sculptured Babylonian stones, and dashed the Vase, together with the glass cover over it, to atoms! The man, apparently, is quite sane, and sober.
For Madden, no democrat, the moral was clear, and he confided it to his journal:
This is the result of exhibiting such valuable and unique specimens of art to the mob! Had the facsimile been shewn to them, and the original kept in Mr Hawkins's room, this irreparable mischief could not have taken place. Indeed as to the mob of visitors, I am so confident that they never regarded it, that if the stone which broke it, were put in its place, it would excite a great deal more attention. It is really monstrous to witness such wanton destruction! I am quite grieved about it. Yet what will be the punishment? Perhaps a fine of a few pounds or a month's imprisonment and he may then come out and destroy something else!
Much has changed, of course, since Madden's day, but there are curators here and there who still find it hard to fight the conviction that the objects in their care belong to them, and not to greasy hoi polloi who so impertinently insist on trampling through the galleries for which their taxes are paying.
A trustee of the museum happened to be on site, looking at manuscripts in Madden's room, and it fell to him to grovel in a letter to the Duke of Portland, who had loaned his vase to the museum, with news of the "most lamentable occurrence which has happened only a few minutes ago within our walls ... I have this minute come from the room, where the attendants are occupied in sweeping up the remnants of what less than an hour ago was one of the noblest ornaments of this great National Collection, and a monument of your Grace's liberality and of the trust you reposed in our safe-keeping."The Portland Vase
The Extraordinary Odyssey of a Mysterious Roman Treasure. Copyright © by Robin Brooks. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.