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Bohemian Glass

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Before the fifteenth century, Bohemian glass could hardly claim a nationality of its own, inasmuch as it was so similar to Bavarian glass, an early German potash glass, which likewise originated in the Bohemian forests. The ideas and efforts of three men gave early Bohemian glass the impetus which ultimately pushed Venetian glass off Europe's finest tables and made Bohemian the dominating glass until the whims and caprices of fashion turned to the sparkling English and Irish flint glass.

These three men so important in Bohemian glass history were: first, that art loving, queer recluse, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II (1552-1612), who imported Milan rock crystal engravers to Prague and successfully made a heavy glass in imitation of rock crystal (genuine rock crystal is cut directly from white crystalline quartz); second, Caspar Lehmann, the German engraver, brought to Prague by Rudolph in 1590, who cut, engraved, and decorated this new Bohemian ware in true rock crystal style; third, Johann Kunckel, the Silesian alchemist who in 1670 first put color into the new Bohemian glass. His famous ruby glass was produced by the addition of gold and tin to the molten glass. Judging from present prices of this old ruby glass, Kunckel's alchemy included a bit of economics.

By the end of the seventeenth century, Bohemian glass had acquired a definite individuality characterized by massive crystal glass of rugged shapes, colored or uncolored, and decorated with most positive engraving. With the addition of calcium to the forest potash base, the Bohemian glass achieved a crystal clarity previously unknown. Deep cut engraving methods carried over from rock crystal work, found ideal background and ample metal for bold intaglio decorations and for lighter engraving and etching. They particularly favored the heavy intaglio engraving which imparted unusual perspective and realism to their imperial eagles and electors, escutcheons, and other decorative devices. Etching and engraving were reserved for the lighter surface decorations, especially landscapes, portraits, coats-of-arms, emblems, and human figures, and the oft-recurring stag in the forest seen on the numerous decanters, toilet bottles and pitchers.

The first quarter of the eighteenth century saw Bohemian glass pass Venetian in popular favor, which position it maintained for some fifty years, when it surrendered to the English and Irish flint glass. Instead of meeting this new glass with a better Bohemian glass, Bohemian makers apparently got panicky and attempted new and strange designs very much as did the Venetians when Bohemian glass appeared. In 1730 the Bohemians worked out something new, the "inserted gold" process in which they encased thin gold between the layers of double-walled goblets. More experiments and commercial modifications of this process might have proved less fatal to their prowess than the rococo products to which they turned. Though it never regained its dominating earlier position, Bohemian glass continued one of the recognized fine wares, and later its influence was evident in all glass of the Germanic and Low Countries. Today Bohemian glass is characterized by its remarkable clearness and deep and sharp cutting; qualities which have persisted through all Bohemian modifications and improvements.

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