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The eternal beauty of Ancient Roman glass

This tall, intact Roman glass amphora, ex Sotheby’s, circa 2nd to 3rd century AD, sold for $3,250 at Artemis Gallery in March 2016. Photo courtesy of Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers Archive

NEW YORK – Ancient glass was crafted to serve a variety of needs — bowls for eating or food preparation, vessels to store essential oils or perfumes, and in home decoration (think flooring, windows and mirrors). It was also an excellent material to incorporate into sophisticated jewelry designs.

Glassmaking was at first a tedious process, requiring much finishing work. It was not produced widely, but by the end of the 1st Century BC, Roman Empire glassmakers, experimenting with new techniques, perfected a game-changing way in which to make hollow pieces by inflating glass through a hollow tube. This allowed glassblowers to make glass vases and vessels more quickly and efficiently than before and enabled the artists to express their creativity with delicate and luxury glass pieces.

The unique properties of glass made it far superior to pottery and metalware. Before glassblowing revolutionized the industry, pieces were cast in a hot kiln, formed around rods or cones or cut out of slabs of glass.

Roman glass was peerless in both its aesthetics and technique, and its wide array of forms and sizes, in both free-blown and mold-blown pieces, are still greatly appreciated today.

Important Roman aubergine glass aryballos used to carry oil to public baths, original bronze chain, circa 1st century AD, sold for $7,000 + buyer’s premium at Artemis Gallery’s April 5 sale. Image courtesy of Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers Archive

Among early examples of Roman glass, which showed Hellenistic influences, colors were vivid, ranging from emerald green to cobalt or peacock blues. Over time, tastes changed and colorless or delicate aqua hues in fine glass became desirable.

Among rare cage cups – so named for their applied outer decoration rendering the effect of a vinelike cage – the most famous example is the 4th century AD “Lycurgus Cup” on view at The British Museum. It is important for being the only known complete ancient cage cup with figural decoration and dichronic properties that render either a green or red hue, depending on whether light passes through it from the front or back, respectively. Cage cups were among the finest of late Roman luxury glass productions. Fewer than 50 such examples are thought to have survived.

4th century AD Lycurgus Cup from the collection of The British Museum, showing a variation in its dichromatic quality as lit from behind. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, 2011, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license

While glassblowing represented a huge leap forward, cast-glass techniques were still used, especially in crafting wide glass bowls and large-mouth cups. The Romans embraced Hellenistic glass practices such as using gold glass in banding to decorate pieces, but they also pioneered such techniques as mosaic and micro-mosaic patterns and striped banding.

The greatest advantage of glassblowing, especially when partnered with molds to create “mold-blown” objects, lies in the wealth of forms and shapes artists could create: flasks, bottles, animals and more.

Among glass vessels, amphora were popular in the 3rd and 4th centuries in the Roman Empire, and they remain highly coveted by today’s collectors. Usually double-handled, these vessels were distinguished by having a tall narrow neck, usually slightly flared, with a pear-shape body. They were mainly used for carrying liquids, most often wine.

Commenting on the enduring appeal of Ancient Roman glass, Bob Dodge, founder/executive director of Artemis Gallery in Erie (suburban Boulder), Colo., said, “Ancient glass is beautiful to look at. The colors and forms achieved by ancient workshops are incredible. Add to that the breathtaking iridescence some of these vessels have developed and you get something that is visually very appealing and, in many cases, just gorgeous beyond one’s imagination.”

“Add to the visual attraction, factors such as their delicate nature, the romance of thinking who or how such items were used and even the intrigue of how such items made their way to market and you have something that nearly everyone might appreciate if not covet,” he added.

One of the fascinating things about Roman glass, Dodge said, is the myriad forms in which it was produced. “You can find plates, bowls, cups, goblets, unguents [a small bottle commonly used as an oil container], perfume bottles and more. Generally speaking, the more intricate and the more complex, the more desirable these objects are,” he said. “Vessels that have added glass threads, or rigaree, are always popular. Pouring vessels like the oinochoe with their trefoil spouts and delicate handles are also quite desirable. The Romans also made vessels in ceramic molds in the forms of fish, human heads, even dates or figs, and these always bring great interest. But above all, collectors clamor for glass that has developed the most fiery iridescence.”

A massive and fine Roman glass trefoil oinochoe, circa 3rd to 4th century AD, fetched $7,000
at Artemis Gallery in October 2015. Photo courtesy of Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers Archive

Roman glass was also used to fashion jewelry, both in its time and centuries later, when items were made with ancient glass fragments that had been found and dug up.

Among period-made pieces, Roman jewelry featured colored gemstones and glass, which was in sharp contrast to the earlier Greek style of jewelry that centered on metalwork. Jewelry back then was worn not only to beautify but to indicate social status. Glass provided an affordable alternative to more costly materials such as gemstones and could be carved to stunning effect in rings, necklaces and beaded pieces.

“Turning glass shards into wearable art is not something new. The ancient Romans did it themselves 2,000 years ago. But in modern times, we have seen a pretty major resurgence over the last 40 years,” Dodge said. “When you see the incredible color found in some of these glass fragments it is no wonder that modern artists saw a new canvas in which to express themselves. The Ancient Romans may have cast off these glass bits but nature has transformed them into something of unimaginable beauty, using every hue in its vast color palette. Nature did all the hard work, but modern artists share in the credit by creating works of wearable art that can make even a rainbow blush with envy.”

Large and heavy pair of Roman 18K gold and translucent glass earrings in grape-cluster form, Imperial Period, circa 1st-3rd century AD, 10.9 grams, auctioned for $1,800 + buyer’s premium at Artemis Gallery’s April 5, 2018 sale. Photo courtesy of Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers Archive

Roman glass has had a far-reaching influence on glassmaking. Perhaps the first, and certainly most famous, workshop to try to copy the iridescent quality of ancient glass would be Tiffany Studios, just before the end of the 19th century, Dodge said. “Tiffany added chemicals to their glass recipes to achieve a wonderful opalescent appearance. At about the same time, French companies like Favrile, Daum Nancy and Galle turned their attention to making glass that paid homage to the masterpieces of Ancient Rome.”

Collecting ancient glass has been popular since the time of Louis XV and Lord Elgin (of Greek marble fame), Dodge said, noting that European and elite American travelers went to Italy, Greece and countries around the Mediterranean Sea to buy ancient glass directly from the ancient cities where it was made and later unearthed.

“It was an appealing souvenir of their travels and a way to show their interest in the age of the classics. There has always been something romantic about the great ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome,” he said. “Additionally, ancient glass is simply stunning to look at and the fact it has survived upwards of 2000 years in a nearly perfect state is quite amazing.”

Click to visit Artemis Gallery’s website.

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