Glass of the Romans

35 Centuries of Glass Galleries

The works of Roman glass on view in this area of the 35 Centuries of Glass Galleries attest to the creativity of the ancient glass artists who developed new glassmaking techniques and distributed their wares throughout the Mediterranean and northern Europe.

Rome’s geographical and political expansion during the second and first centuries B.C. brought about a stability that allowed for greater economic development and an expansion of commerce. During the first century B.C., glassmaking spread from the eastern Mediterranean to the west. By the middle of the first century A.D., Latin writers such as Pliny recorded that glass was being made in Italy itself.

In the middle of the first century B.C., glassmakers working in the environs of Jerusalem made a revolutionary breakthrough in the way glass was made, altering forever the impact of glass. They discovered that glass could be inflated at the end of a hollow tube. This technical achievement made the production of glass vessels much quicker and easier, and as a result, glass became a less expensive commodity that was affordable to a wider population.

Inflating glass on a blowpipe allowed glassmakers to develop new shapes and decorative techniques. While older styles, such as mosaic glass, remained popular, new forms and designs quickly gained in popularity. Hot bubbles of glass could be rolled in chips and bits of glass of different colors, a technique called blobbing [59.1.88], and thin strings of hot glass could be wound around or over the surface of a bubble, a technique called trailing or snake-thread decoration [82.1.1]. Glass could be inflated in molds carved with decorative and figural designs to create drinking cups [66.1.36] and beakers with high-relief patterns.

New cold-working techniques were also developed, such as gilding, painting [55.1.86], and placing a thin layer of gold foil, carefully cut with designs, between two layers of colorless glass to produce gold glasses [90.1.3]. One category of cut and blown glass — cameo glass [52.1.93] — remained a luxury item, however. A bubble of hot glass of one color was encased in a layer of one or more colors, and after annealing (slow cooling), the outer layers were cut away to create a design in relief. The most common color scheme of Roman cameo glass was opaque white over transparent dark blue.

Featured Objects of the Glass of the Romans Gallery