The Beauty of Greek Vases

UCD Special Collections holds a wonderfully lavish four volume set of early 19th century books entitled Pitture de vasi antichi de la Collection de son Excellence M. le Chevalier Hamilton.

Much is known about Sir William Hamilton the antiquities collector and the influence of the dissemination of the images from the vases has been well documented. Very little is known, however, about the production of this particular edition which we have here in Special Collections.

We know that the books were published in Florence between 1800 and 1803 by the Sociata Calcografica. Each volume is 56 x 37cm, contains text in Italian and French and includes around 60 plates depicting scenes from classical era Greek vases. The volumes are bound in red goatskin, known as red morocco to those describing book bindings, with blind tooling on the covers and the spine. The book covers and raised bands are lined with gilt (gold) and all of the edges gilt.

All told, it’s a very ornate publication.

Sir William Hamilton (1730 – 1803) was an English diplomat, scientist and antiquary. He was appointed Envoy – Extraordinary to the Spanish court at Naples in 1764. During his time there he collected antiquities including marbles, sculptures and vases that had been found during archaeological excavations as well as those found in tombs.

Although keen to acquire for his collection the artefacts left as grave goods, Hamilton showed a genuine interest in their context and commissioned sketches of the sepulchres and tombs with grave goods in situ.’ (ODNB)

The volumes held in Special Collections contain one such sketch.

Scene of excavation at Nola

Caption reads ‘Scene of the excavation of a tomb in the vicinity of Nola which demonstrates how the vases came to be found.’

In the 1760s Hamilton commissioned a series of illustrated books entitled Antiques étrusques, grecques et romaines . The books were written by Pierres Francois Hugues also known as Baron d’Hancarville. Hancarville supervised the drawing and engraving on copper plates of images from the vases. This book and, in particular, these images of the vases became very influential in terms of interior design all over Europe. Josiah Wedgwood who established the still extant Wedgwood Tableware and Homeware in 1759 was very much inspired by these depictions of the Hamilton collection.

Hamilton sold this collection of Greek vases to the British Library in 1772 but returned to Naples the following year. Over time, his habit of collecting took hold again and by the 1790s he had assembled a second collection of 1500 pieces. Some of these were described in a text written by Hamilton entitled Collection of Engravings from Ancient Vases, published in 4 volumes 1791-95. This book contained illustrations by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. Though the illustrations in these Tischbein volumes are considered to be far superior to the work of Hancarville, the set of four were less expensive than their 1767-76 counterparts.

The set held in Special Collections is an Italian and French translation of the 1791-95 Tischbein edition. They were published by the Sociata Calcografica in Florence 1800-1803. It is unclear whether Tischbein himself was involved in this publication as a student of his, Antoine Cléner, is said to have re-engraved the copper plates used to produce the illustrations for this edition.

In any case the end product is beautiful. The engravings were hand-painted to produce stunning reproductions of the original Greek vase images.

Prior to fleeing Naples in 1798 during the Napoleonic wars Hamilton arranged to have his collection transported to England. Unfortunately, many of the vases were lost when the ship carrying them, the HMS Colossus, ran aground. Those that did survive were purchased at Christie’s in 1801 by another collector Thomas Hope. In another twist, the Hope collection, as it became known, was sold again in 1917 and on this occasion the founder of the UCD Classical Museum , the Rev Henry Browne worked with the National Museum to purchase twenty of the Hope vases. Some of these vases are held in the UCD Classical Museum today.

UCD Classical Museum

UCD Classical Museum. Courtesy of the Panoply Vase Animation Blog.

However, none of those in the Classics museum seem to be depicted in Pitture de vasi antichi, though they would have been part of Hamilton’s second collection. The second collection originally contained 1500 vases before the HMS Colossus sunk. Pitture de vasi antichi contains in total 246 plates which is only a small proportion of the number of vases that were originally in the collection.

All four of the volumes held in UCD Special Collections are available digitally. However, this is one case where I can say with absolute certainty that you need to see the real thing!

'Pitture de vasi...'

There they are, the ‘Pitture de vasi…’. Don’t they look lovely!

  • This post was researched and written by Evelyn Flanagan, Head of Special Collections, UCD Special Collections.

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