Oeuvre

A SARDONYX VASE WITH HANDLES


THE “DASHKOV VASE”

Probably ROME, 1st century A.D.

Height: 9,5 cm (3 ¾ in.)

Provenance : -Princess Catherine Dashkov (1743-1810), Saint Petersburg
Acquired in Rome in 1780 for 300 ducats
-Miss Martha Wilmot (1775-1873), Storrington, England
-her son, General Wilmot Henry Bradford (1815-1914)
-presented to Prince Alfons von Clary und Aldringen (1887-1978) and his wife,
Palazzo Clary, Venice.

The circular carved body of vase with handles is decorated with a moulding.
Condition: one handle broken, two little breaches to the foot and a tiny hack on the body.

Antique hard-stone vases still preserved are extremely rare and have always been selected for princely collections or church treasuries. They were, as cameos and intaglios, the quintessence of the most refined luxury during the antiquity. That kind of small vases contained, at that time, highly precious Oriental perfumes and unguents.
Unknown in Italy before the 1st century B.C., the lapidary art developed in Rome at the end of the Roman Republic when arrived gemcutters from Egypt, Near East and Greece. Julius Caesar was one of the first important gem collector. Due to success, workshops settled in others towns like Pompeii, Aquileia and Tarento and their peak was during the Augustan period, late 1st century B.C. and early 1st century A.D., when luxury developed in parallel with the extension of the Empire. During the reign of Constantine, in the early 4th century, there was a revival of this art that went on in the Byzantine Empire. This production was executed for people connected to the Imperial power who equally praised their magnificence and political symbolism: their collection of beautiful hard stone vases expressed the imperial power and wealth.
The most comparable piece, in shape and proportions, is an agate vase (fig.1) housed in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art . Other vases, of the same period and quality but different shapes, belonged to the Medici collections and are today housed in the Museo degli Argenti in Florence.

Princess Yekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova Dashkov (1743-1810) (Fig.2) is one of the most striking figures of the reign of Empress Catherine of Russia. She took part in the Glorious Revolution of 1762 which resulted in the murder of Peter III of Russia. The latter would have expected to repudiate Catherine in order to marry the sister of Princess Dashkov, Elizabeth Vorontsova. Accomplice in the conspiracy, Catherine Dashkov was an intimate friend and confidante of Empress Catherine of Russia, even if tiffs occurred. Widowed in 1769, she faced difficulties at the Court due to the rise of Catherine’s favourite, Count Orlov, and Princess Dashkov decided to travel abroad together with her son and daughter. She decided to go to Great Britain. On the way, bathing at Spa, she met Mrs Hamilton, widow of an Irish rector, who, a few years later, introduced her to her young cousin, Martha Wilmot. Princess Dashkov lived in London while her son studied at Westminster School. Her literary and scientific reputation procured her entrée to the society in most of the capitals of Europe; she met Horace Walpole and David Garrick, as well as Diderot and Voltaire when she went in France. Back to Russia in 1771, she spent seven years in her estate before living for two years in Edinburgh where her son was carrying on with his studies. Back to Russia, incarnating the emancipation of women in Russia, she was named director of the Russian Academy of Science in Saint Petersburg in 1783. In 1784, she was also named the first president of the newly created Russian Academy and published a dictionary. In 1794, the princess and Catherine quarrelled over a tragedy which the princess had allowed to be published by the Academy and princess Dashkov retired to Troitskoye, her estate 100 km from Moscow. Two years later, Emperor Paul ordered her to retire to a miserable village in the government of Novgorod as a punishment for the death of Peter III. Delivered one year later, she came back to Troitskoye, her huge estate with 3 000 serfs and 200 servants. In 1803, the two sisters Wilmot arrived from Cork. Ladies in waiting to the princess at Troitskoye, they often went with her at Moscow where they met the Russian Court. The sisters prevailed upon the princess to write her memoirs who dedicated them to the younger sister, Martha. The two sisters would publish the memoirs in 1840. Disappointed by her children, the princess got especially enthusiastic about Martha. She commissioned five portraits of the young lady and gave her many presents: money, jewels, diamonds, shawls, sable coats, books miniatures, watercolors and prints. Her most emblematic present is certainly the fan presented by the later Empress to princess Dashkov during their first meeting.

She shared with the empress the same passion for engraved stones. She bequeathed her mineralogical collection to the Academy and the larger part of her collections to Martha Wilmot, her lady in waiting who followed her into exile in Trotskoie from 1803 to 1808. The princess would also dedicate her memoirs to Martha Wilmot, who later married Mr Bradford, chaplain of the British ambassador in Vienna. They settled in Storrington where their daughter Catherine wrote in 1859, with help from her mother, the Green Book , a manuscript containing the descriptions, complemented with watercolours, of the objects bequeathed by Princess Dashkov. The manuscript describes precisely our vase (fig.3) page 26: “Antique Sardonyx Vase (called Alabastrum) bought at Rome by the princess in the year 1780 for 300 duckats. This description of Sardonyx vase polished within and without, was used by the most wealthy and luxurious of the ancient Romans, for containing rich scents and unguents. A more common material for the same purpose was Alabaster. Hence the term “Alabastrum” has been applied generally and there is no doubt that the alabaster box of very precious ointment mentioned in the gospels, was a vase of this kind. Prof. Steinbüchel, late director of the Imperial Cabinet of Antiquities at Vienna, told me that there are two similar ones there, but hardly as perfect. They are extremely rare and highly valuable, he only knows of one other, which he had seen at Rome in the year 1820.”

The Green Book is also illustrated with people met by the two sisters in Russia and described in their diary and letters.