Lycurgus Cup - History


The cup was "perhaps made in Alexandria" or Rome in about 290-325 AD, and measures 16.5 x 13.2 cm. From its excellent condition it is probable that, like several other luxury Roman objects, it has always been preserved above ground; most often such objects ended up in the relatively secure environment of a church treasury. Alternatively it might, like several other cage cups, have been recovered from a sarcophagus. The present gilt-bronze rim and foot were added in about 1800, suggesting it was one of the many objects taken from church treasuries during the period of the French Revolution and French Revolutionary Wars. The foot continues the theme of the cup with open-work vine leaves, and the rim has leaf forms that lengthen and shorten to match the scenes in glass. In 1958 the foot was removed by British Museum conservators, and not rejoined to the cup until 1973. There may well have been earlier mounts.

The early history of the cup is unknown, and it is first mentioned in print in 1845, when a French writer said he had seen it "some years ago, in the hands of M. Dubois". This is probably shortly before it was acquired by the Rothschild family. Certainly Lionel de Rothschild owned it by 1862, when he lent it to an exhibition at what is now the V&A Museum, after which it virtually fell from scholarly view until 1950. In 1958 Victor, Lord Rothschild sold it to the British Museum for £20,000, £2,000 of which was donated by the Art Fund (then the NACF). The cup is normally on display, lit from behind, in Room 50 (it forms part of the museum's Department of Prehistory and Europe rather than the Greece and Rome Department), which is currently closed for refurbishment. From November 2012 to August 2013 it is on display with other British Museum pieces at The Art Institute of Chicago's Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman and Byzantine Art It is considered able to travel to important exhibitions and in 2008 was exhibited in "Reflecting Antiquity, Modern Glass Inspired by Ancient Rome" at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, in 2003 at the Hayward Gallery in London in "'Saved! 100 Years of the National Art Collections Fund", and in 1987 in "Glass of the Caesars" in the British Museum, Cologne, Milan, and Rome.

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