Roman Cantharus

above: the Disch
Cantharus, a two-
handled Roman cup
from about 300 AD
(photograph courtesy of
The Corning Museum of Glass)




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Ancient and Roman Glass
from the
Glass Encyclopedia


Ancient and Roman Glass: A short explanation

Glass was used in the form of a glaze on stone objects, on clay or pottery objects, and on objects made of faience (powdered quartz) as early as the 27th century BC in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Glass objects such as beads and seals are known to have been made in about the 18th or 19th century BC in Mesopotamia, and these are thought to be the earliest artifacts made entirely from glass. Glass beads with dates that could be verified were made in the 15th and 16th centuries BC in Syria, Palestine, as well as Mesopotamia. Next came glass vessels, core formed by wrapping strands of molten glass around a packed-sand core which was removed once the glass cooled, and made in Mesopotamia and Egypt as early as the 16th century BC. Cast glass vessels and mosaic pieces came next, but it was not until the mid to late first century BC that glass blowing was invented, probably in Syria which was a Roman province at the time.

The importance of Roman Glass derives partly from the status of glass making as a major craft within the Roman Empire. Glass making was a small scale artisan activity until Emperor Augustus (emperor from 27BC to 14AD) decided to include glassmaking in the crafts he wanted to develop by centralising them in Italy. He imported glass workers from Syria and Judea along with their tools, skills, and technologies and the Eastern methods of mold-casting and free-blowing grew into an industry on the Italian mainland. They didn't volunteer, most of them were brought to Italy as slaves. Nevertheless, glass soon became a successful alternative to pottery for tableware and containers for liquids and foods and its use and manufacture spread throughout the Roman Empire.

And just like today, glass was used for utilitarian purposes like storing liquids but also for decorative artistic purposes, like the Cantharus (two-handled cup) shown above. This blown glass cup is decorated with gold foil cupids sandwiched between two layers of glass which have been fused together. It has a cage and glass handles that were then applied.

There is another kind of caged vessel produced by Roman glass artists, where the cage is carved away from the glass body of the piece. The Lycurgus Cup, now in the Britith Museum, is a superb example of a caged cup. It was many years before modern glass artists developed the skills to reproduce that technique. The Lycurgus Cup has the added feature that it is opaque olive green in normal light but when the light shines through it the colour changes to translucent red. The reason for this is because of the colloidal gold and silver which was included in the molten glass mixture together with various chemicals.

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Roman glass is not usually expensive, so it is easy for the beginner to build up an attractive collection. Only the rare items are highly priced, like the cameo pieces which are priceless. One of the reasons that so much Roman glass has survived the best part of two thousand years is because it was buried with care as funeral goods. Kept safe inside a stone coffin or a pottery container it was often affected by water and chemicals that seeped into it resting place but it remained undamaged until unearthed in recent centuries.

Roman Cameo glass was usually made by blowing two layers of different coloured glass and shaping into a vase or bowl, cup or other vessel. After the glass cooled, the outside layer which was usually white, was carved away using hand tools to reveal the dark colour underneath (usually dark blue or nearly black) and leaving the design in white standing proud of that inner layer. The Portland Vase is the most famous of these Roman cameo treatures, so precious and so fascinating that it has been reproduced just a few times in England since the late 18th century. Josiah Wedgwood borrowed it in 1786 from the Duchess of Portland in order to make copies of it in jasper ware. But it wasn't until 1876 that a copy was made in glass, by Northwood. And only a few glass artists have shown the patience and the skill to make another one.


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