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Glass, An Ancient Eastern Art

The maniac in the British Museum who shattered the Portland vase with his cane almost cost the world a great art treasure. For this ten inch high urn of overlayed glass with its gem cut milk white cameo figures on a cobalt blue ground, is great Roman glass art. Restored, it still shows its Marriage of Peleus and Thetis.

The discovery of glass, like bronze, was probably world-wide, but glass achieved great beauty in ancient India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria, China, Greece and Rome. Glass is melted sand (or flint or quartz crystal) plus soda from weed ashes, or potash from wood. In a molten state called "metal," it is very workable. A "gather" (bubble or paraison) of it on an iron rod or blow pipe can be shaped on the marver (glass worker's table), or molded, blown, or blown-molded to almost any form.

Refinements have added workability, clarity, brilliance, color and beauty. Lime makes glass stable, harder, and more brilliant. Lead helps the fusing and adds weight, toughness, workability, and an inner silvery gleam, a high quality of light reflection, and a ringing tone. Glassmaker's soap (manganese) clears it to crystal. Fire polishing smooths and brightens it. The annealing oven eases out weaknesses caused by working and shaping and uneven thickness, lessens brittleness, and toughens it.


Glass gets its color from metal oxides cooked with the pot metal, and from reheatings. Copper oxide anciently gave turquoise blue, green, or red. Cobalt gave light to deep blue. Manganese gave amethyst to purple, and with iron, orange to brown. Iron gave green, and with copper, forest green. Tin gave milk or opaque white. Silver nitrate, reheated, gave yellow. Iron gave brownish yellow. Gold gave amber, or, reheated, gave ruby red; reheated with tin it gave pink, with manganese, purple. Gold leaf, scattered through the bubble, gave aventurine. Modern copper and forge scales give copper "aventurine."

The Egyptians loved colored glass. Some mosaic glass in the Berlin Museum from 2000 B.C. shows the perfection of Egyptian coloring. And Egypt's King Tuthmosis III, 1501 B.C., left a turquoise blue goblet now in our Metropolitan Museum.

Rome's Nero paid well for two clear glass "cups." India's crystal glass, made from calcined quartz, stirred the ancient world. But China wanted "jewels" so she colored and carved her glass as jade, chalcedony or crystal. Egypt too made "jewels" at will, grinding them to shape and design on her lapidary wheels.

Eventually an iron pipe, long enough to keep the heat from the glass blower, and hollow so air could be blown down it into the hot glass "gather" to expand it from bubble to glass object, was developed. Core winding-shaping vessels over a sand and clay core-then became passe. Blowing, swirling, and trundling of the pipe, using rod, pinchers and scissors; and later, blowing the bubble into a mold or pressing it in a mold, gave form to glass. Feet, stems, handles and decorations were added.


Rods and threads formed most glass ornament. For a rod, a gather of glass was rolled on the marver, reheated to soften, and a boy caught the hot roll's end with his tool and ran, pulling the hot soft roll into a rod. This rod was then cut to handy lengths, and threads were made from it by reheating a length, and nipping and pulling small pinches out into threads.

Mosaic rods were made by arranging colored rods so the end of the bunch formed a pattern, usually a flower face. This bunch of rods was fused and drawn to a smaller rod, cut into slices and fused into wall plaques or set in floor cement. Rome's glass works at Alexandria dropped these slices in a clear glass mold and fused the whole into a mosaic vessel. The Venetians caught the slices on their clear glass bubble and blew their millefiori (thousand flower) dishes.

Rods with milk or colored threads, or milk colored rods, arranged in a mold and caught up in clear gather were blown into Roman filigrane or Venetian vitro di trina (lace) glass. Milk white threads or rods with clear glass gave latticinio trim, or made enamel or "cotton twist" stems for English wine glasses. Threads wound about neck, body or base of a vessel, or prunts or leaves, gave a simple trim. Ribs, gadrooning, or diamonds, etc., were added or molded. Pincers nipped decorations from the bubble. Agate, calcedonio or schmelz was made by marvering and fusing different colored gathers. Casing put one blown bubble or case into another until two, three or even five cases (layers) were made. After fusing they were blown to shape.


Gilt glass was gold or silver leaf, engraved, painted, and fastened between two layers of glass and used for vessels, mosaics and altar pieces. Lapidary wheel and diamond point made engraved or cut glass. Roman cameo glass, cut from cased or layered glass as from many layered agate or chalcedony, showed the design and shadings by skilful cutting of the colored layers to varying thicknesses over their darker backgrounds.

Rome scattered crystal, colored, mosaic, gilt, cased, filigrane, cameo, engraved and cut glass through the Mediterranean and over Europe which long had made glass for enameled altars and household vessels. When Rome fell many glass workers followed Constantine to Byzantium.

In Byzantium (Istanbul since 1922) a new glass glory of mosaic "painting in glass" put biblical scenes on Christian church walls. The Saracens, Crusaders, and later the Turks scattered the Byzantine glass artists and some took their glass secrets up the Danube to spark Bohemian and German glass to new life for the Renaissance.

The Saracens made their brilliant colored lamps, cups and water bottles, often enameled deep rich blue, and lavish with gold. Bubbles in the glass gave a strength which kept much of it unbroken to modern times. Religion forbade use of animal decorations, but flowers, geometrics, arabesques and Arabic writing made their enamel patterns. Europe's Crusaders brought home quantities of it.


Venetian sand marsh weeds made ethereally lovely, thin-walled clear cristello, or frosted, vitro di trina, millefiori, and other fancy glass. Swirling, crimping, strapwork, flowers, winged creatures, or poised birds enriched many a foot, stem and bowl.

Bohemia rediscovered Roman "gold ruby" and from the local sand and forests made a hard heavy glass. This she engraved and cut with diamond point and lapidary wheel. The invention of copper and lead wheels run by foot power gave modern cut glass. Fluoric acid ate away the glass into prepared patterns, and this new "etching" gave a new delicate, shadowy decoration to glass.

England added more lead to Roman crystal glass and made a strong new lead glass, often called flint glass. Plain or cut, it was a new high in clear and brilliant glass beauty.

American glass followed mother country styles. Then Deming Jarves sponsored pressed pattern glass which brought cut glass patterns and lacy glass to the masses. Many colored varieties of glass, and patterns of glass, and acid-finished or satin glass had vogue. So did fine cut glass. Louis Tiffany's lustered iridescent glass and his engraved crystal are becoming heirlooms.

Modern glass, crystal, bubbled or colored; blown, molded or cut, engraved, acid etched or sand blasted, thin or massive, is quantity produced. French Emile Galle's cloudy pattern glass preceded Lalique's acid-etched, semi - opaque, heavy vessels and molded crystals.

Swedish glass designs put machine-made fine crystal in reach of us all. While the British Museum's purchase of American Sidney Waugh's pictorially engraved Zodiac bowl shows some modern glass has attained collectors' status.

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