Glassware and the Changing Arbiters of Taste

By: Michael Vickers

Originally Published in 1997

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Collectors and scholars have communicated, through exhibits and auction house sales catalogues, that during the time of the Roman Empire glass was a luxury material highly sought after. We assume that glass in antiquity might represent the acme of human acquisitiveness, and suppose that glass was an autonomous craft with its own traditions. So when we examine and handle ancient glass, we begin to feel that we have shared some of the grandeur of imperial Rome. If so, it is only at several removes, for there is little evidence that glass played any part in courtly life. Everything is relative, and in the case of Roman glass it has been rightly observed by Axel von Saldern that “the more elaborate the decoration of a glass vessel the more likely it is that it was inspired by prototypes in a more expensive ware.” It was vessels of agate and sardonyx that informed the finer glass creations such as the Portland Vase (Fig. 1); and rock crystal pieces that inspired clear glass vessels (Fig. 2). Pliny the Elder describes how such materials were frequently imitated by craftsmen in glass. Wares made of murrhine—a rare variety of fluorspar found in Iran, and the costliest material of all—were no exception. Together with other precious materials (precious in Roman terms, semi-precious in ours), it fulfilled the role that exhibit-goers might believe was played by glass. It was Pompey who had introduced murrhine ware, and the taste for it, to Rome. In celebrating his victories in the east (62/61 BC), he dedicated murrhine cups and bowls in the temple on the Capitolium. Pliny relates how such vessels quickly began to be used by men, as well as gods. Emperor Nero paid 1,000,000 sesterces, the equivalent of a rich woman’s dowry, for a single bowl of murrhine ware, and filled a private theater (presumably the stage) with murrhine vessels he had confiscated. One Titus Petronius, on his deathbed, broke a dipper of murrhine ware that had cost 300,000 sesterces in order to spite Nero. Even fragments of murrhine might be treasured: a broken cup was “preserved, like the body of Alexander, in a kind of catalogue for display,” an early forerunner of today’s museum displays, although we would be more apt to see vessels of glass than of semi-precious stone.

For such vessels are extremely rare nowadays. They tend to survive only in cathedral treasuries or in those European museums that had royal or imperial foundation collections. They hardly ever occur in the archaeological record (although this is the likely source of the three sur-viving murrhine ware vessels that reside in London [Fig. 3], Brussels, and Oxford). In Pliny’s day, rock crystal was “the most costly product of the earth’s surface,” and murrhine ware was to be counted among the most costly products of “the earth’s interior.” On this scale, gold came “scarcely tenth, while silver . . . [was] barely twentieth.” Fragments of rock crystal and murrhine, being intrinsically valuable, were recycled. Glass, by contrast, was composed of sand, lime, and soda, ingredients which came cheap—if they had to be paid for at all. There was a secondhand market in broken glass, or Mullett, but on an industrial scale, far removed from the world of luxury goods made for rich patrons.

How is it then that ancient glass has come to figure so large in the eyes of today’s scholars and collectors? It is not simply that it fetches immense sums at auction or that there is so much of it or that glass is what tends to be dug up and thus has to he treated by specialists in excavation reports. There is an underlying philosophical reason as well. It was only in 1516, with the publication of the saintly Thomas More’s Utopia, that a world was created in which glass was more highly regarded than gold or silver. More’s was a fictional world where the lavishness of the court of Henry VIII was implicitly criticized. The Utopians were systemati­cally conditioned to despise precious metals: “Inasmuch as they eat and drink from vessels fashioned out of clay and glass which, though handsomely shaped, are Bever- Wheless of the cheapest kinds they . . . make night jars and all kinds of squalid receptacles out of gold and sil­ver” (tr. Heckscher). It is interesting to note that the immediate origins of More’s image lay in the New World. Amerigo Vespucci reported that there were soci­eties there which “held as nothing the wealth that we enjoy in this our Europe such as gold and jewels, pearls and other riches” (Vespucci 1893).

What More had done in his “provisional blue­print for a perfect society” was to forget together the views of ancient critics of luxury such as Juvenal, Seneca, and Pliny himself. His views were regarded as scan­dalous at first. Witness Andrea Alciati’s emblem Against those who sin against Nature (Fig. 4), in which a naked man empties his bowels into a golden vessel while near-by stand a clay pitcher and a glass goblet. The editor Joanne Thu-dius (ca. 1590-1630) commented: “[Does a more scandalous abuse exist than to commit one’s own excrements to gold, while drink­ing from simple glass and earth­enware?” (It should be noted that “simplicity” and “simple” were pejorative words at the time; every instance of their use in the King James Bible is negative, being the opposite of wisdom and subtlety.) With time and with the 18th century Enlightenment, clay and glass came to be accepted in polite society as proper materials from which to eat and drink; simplicity became a virtue. “Polite society” was, by that time, a different creature than it was in More’s day. No longer were kings  and princes the arbiters of taste. Instead, this role was increasingly played by the bourgeoisie of Europe and America. Revolutionary changes helped bring this about, and these were accompanied by the application of new aesthetic values to the re­mains of classical antiquity. The values that prevailed until then had gone back in an unbroken line to antiquity. But things changed drastically and now the archaeological shots were being called by the son of a German shoemaker. Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) even invented the modern concept of “good taste,” with its belief that there is an appropriate aesthetic for every medium. The opening words of his Gedanken über die Nachbahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malaria and Bildhauerkunst (1755) are: “Good taste (der gate Geschmack) which is spreading more and more through the world, had its first beginnings under the Greek sky.”

The ancients, whether Greek or Roman, were in fact largely oblivious to such considerations. Skeuo­morphs (objects in another, usually cheaper material) could be made with impunity; thus objects of gold might be made in bronze, of silver in pewter, of gold, silver, and bronze in ceramic, and—of special interest in the present context—of rock crystal in silver and glass. An example of the last is the way in which both Roman sil­ver cups, decorated with a series of hollow bosses, and analogous glass vessels look to a common, more valuable prototype in hardstone (Fig. 5a,b). The motif is one that is proper to lapidary work, and it will have been taken over by workers in glass and silver, both lower down the scale of ancient material value.

Quartz stone—rock crystal, amethyst, and chal­cedony—was used for some of the more elaborate vessels preserved from antiquity, for example, the chal­cedony cage-cup of which a fragment is currently in Oxford (Fig. 6). It is relatively hard (between 6.5 and 7 on the [non-linear] Mohs hardness scale). Depending on its composition, glass is softer. Glass was therefore easi­er to work, and elaborate effects, such as those achieved by the maker of the glass Lycurgus cup (Fig. 7) in London, could be carried out more quickly.

The Lycurgus cup (once taken to be made of jade or opal) possesses a remarkable property which probably also simulates the effects that could be achieved in hardstone vessels. When “looked at in trans­mitted light, the green colour and the opacity” of the Lycurgus cup “disappear and the glass changes to a transparent wine colour, to a transparent amethystine purple” (Harden and Toynbee 1959). This recalls the chromatic effect noted for two other pieces. Achilles Tatius described a rock crystal cup with a design of grapes that appeared to ripen when wine was poured into the vessel (Achilles Tatius 2.3.1-2). And Heliodorus (5.13) described the strange qualities of a valuable Ethiopian amethyst “of a deep ruddy hue.” The stone was decorated with a boy pasturing sheep whose fleeces the viewer would have said were golden “not by reason of the workmanship, but for that the amethyst shining with his redness upon their backs made them show so fair.” There were also lambs skipping “in the flame of the amethyst, as if they had been in the sun” (ibid.). These are fictional accounts to which the Lycurgus cup stands witness, albeit in much cheaper material.

The surface effect of precious (and not so pre­cious) materials appealed to ancient consumers, and this is what craftsmen attempted to achieve. Paradoxically, it was often the effects of corrosion products that were reproduced. Even more paradoxically, a different range of corrosion products have been prized by modern con­noisseurs and collectors. The patina that forms naturally on gold and silver seems to have been tolerated in antiq­uity, judging by contemporary skeuomorphs. The ruddi­ness of accretions on gold (Fig. 8), and the duskiness of tarnish on silver seem to have been evoked by contem­porary potters. The red-gloss ware that was widespread throughout the Mediterranean and beyond from the 2nd century BC to the Byzantine period, whether Arretine, Samian, Terra Sigillata, North African Slip Ware or Color-coated Ware, emulated the gold vessels on the tables of the rich. Gray and black fine pottery  was made in evocation of silver vessels (Fig. 9), and even relatively inexpensive bronze was imitated by potters. There is thus a category of glazed pottery, yellow on the inside and green on the outside, which is widely thought to have been made to resemble bronze vessels which were cleaned within and left dirty without (Fig. 10).

Today, ancient silver is buffed up, bright and shiny, but the patina on bronze objects is preserved rather than being subjected to radical cleaning to restore the metal’s golden appearance (for bronze was another kind of “poor man’s gold”). The modern concept of a “noble patina” is another product of Winckelmann’s perversion of ancient values. Even stranger is the mod­ern taste for corrosion products (“iridescence”) on ancient glass vessels (Fig. 11), a taste that is clearly catered to by the manufacturers of the pseudo-ancient pieces that fill souvenir shops around the Mediter­ranean. It was also a feature of art nouveau Tiffany glass. This again represents a reversal of ancient attitudes to material culture.

Another paradox is that bourgeois taste of the later 19th century was much more in keeping with antiquity than was that of its critics. A French observer of the contemporary scene could write: “Rich, one would like to appear what one is, and even a little more; poor, one would like to appear what one is not, that is to say rich, at least in a certain measure: that is not impos­sible, for even if wealth itself cannot be borrowed, the signs of wealth are borrowed and can be imitated.” This is how it was in the classical past. For others, for whom “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” the cheap imitation of  expensive materials was unforgivable; and because skeuomorphism was reprehensible in the modern world, its manifestations in antiquity were overlooked.

In the case of glass, a further erosion of tradi­tional values occurred when, in the 18th and 19th cen­turies, industrially made, lead-enriched glass came to play the role hitherto played by rock crystal. This new material combined the clarity and brilliance of the hard-stone with a softness that enabled it to be cut or engraved with relative ease. It was also much less brittle than either rock crystal or normal glass. Lead-enriched glass even came to be called “crystal” in its own right, with no qualification; and with the help of skillful audi­ence targeting, it became the stuff of expensive wedding presents and the like (Fig. 12). The fact that there was a “handmade” element in this “poetry in crystal” enhanced its appeal with a public that had been conditioned by the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement.

The Arts and Crafts movement was another manifestation of Utopianism. A seminal literary work was William Morris’s News from Nowhere (Greek utopia = “nowhere”). The inhabitants of this earthly paradise enjoyed the use of “Banded workshops” in which folk collect to do handwork in which working together is necessary or convenient such work is often very pleasant. In there, for instance, they make pottery and glass . . . there are a good many such places, as it would be ridiculous if a man had a liking for pot-making or glass-blow­ing that he should have to live in one place or forgo the work he liked . . . As to the crafts, throwing the clay must be jolly work: the glass­blowing is rather sweltering job; but some folk like it very much indeed.

This analysis of glassworking and the motivation of its operatives is less than robust, but the underlying atti­tude of mind (in addition to a reluctance to notice skeuomorphism) came to prevail within the intellectual elite from which university professors, museum direc­tors, and professional archaeologists were drawn. Collectors chose to subscribe to similar ideals (for to collect was, at least until recently, the hallmark of enlightened good taste). The media joined in, and the general public followed suit.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and we have all benefited from a gentler world in which rich men no longer fight over limited supplies of pre­cious materials. It could be argued that we are all the richer if artists prefer to work with urine or dead sheep in formaldehyde rather than gold, silver, or precious stones (the autonomy of the artist is another conse­quence of the changes that occurred in the 18th centu­ry). What is perhaps a cause of regret is that ideas that had their origins in early modern fictions at best (or wishful thinking at worst) have been unquestioningly applied to antiquity. The ancient past was indeed a for­eign country, and they did do things differently there.

Cite This Article

Vickers, Michael. "Glassware and the Changing Arbiters of Taste." Expedition Magazine 39, no. 2 (July, 1997): -. Accessed February 24, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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