See-Through Art: Relishing Roman Glass

Glass has shaped the world more than any other substance, and in many sneaky ways, it’s the defining material of the human era.”The Atlantic 

For many travelers the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the word “Roman” is the iconic Coliseum in Rome, a jumble of columns shining in the Mediterranean sun, or a time-polished amphitheater. 

Roman cities were built to last, and their legacy of stone is spread from one end of their empire to the other. But they left behind something that’s infinitely more fragile, but equally as informative about their lifestyle: glassware.

Stumbling Into a Roman Villa in Plovdiv: Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

In our world, we’re literally surrounded by glass, and it’s hard to imagine it as new technology, but 5,000 years ago it was. In the ancient world, glass was exceptionally rare. Only the extremely wealthy could afford it. But during the 1st century BCE, glassblowing was discovered in the Syrian/Judean region, and an industry was born.

Suddenly, lighter weight, more functional glass vessels were less expensive than clay pottery. And even though those clever Romans didn’t invent glass, after its discovery they did their part to spread this attractive and useful commodity around the known world.

In Roman times manufacturing glass involved two groups: the glass makers and glass workers. Glass making required large amounts of sand, lime, soda, and heat … lots of heat. So glass makers had to be close to a hefty wood supply as well as all the other heavy, hard to transport raw materials. But once the raw glass was produced, the temperatures needed to melt the chunks were much lower, so working the glass could be done by artisans closer to the markets where it was needed.

Cologne, in northwestern Germany, was established as a regional Roman capital in 50 CE and became a major glass manufacturer and supplier for aristocrats and commoners alike; which explains why the Roman-Germanic Museum (Römisch-Germanisches Museum) has such an extensive and impressive collection of 2,000 year-old glassware.

Even though glass became more common over time, the fact that most of these exquisite pieces were found in situ as part of burial sites indicates the value Romans placed on them.

Yes, it’s ubiquitous today, but the Romans and their artistic glass are a reminder of how special it can be on a personal level and why it’s maintained its appeal through the ages.

And remember Hippocrates famous words:

Art is long, life is short. 

Good Health and Happy Trails,

James & Terri

Photo Credits: 1-5,10-13,20,  Carole Raddato  

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

50 thoughts

    1. Thanks Yvette. I love pithy quotes, and this one is particularly good coming from the Father of Medicine, who had some personal experience with the shortness of life. ~James

  1. What an informative post, you two! I’d never realised that about Cologne, and would love to visit that museum. There’s something very special and personal about handblown glass. 🙂 🙂

    1. Jo, I love Roman art and history, so I’m a bit biased, but I think this is a top notch museum, and I’m surprised that it doesn’t get more attention. In addition to a wonderful glass collection it has incredible mosaics and other Roman artifacts (it even has a real Roman sandal, not something I’ve ever seen). If you get a chance don’t miss it. ~James

    1. Darlene, I’ve seem videos of archaeologists at work, and seeing 2000 year-old glass vases reinforces why they are so careful with their tools. I can’t imagine how nerve-racking it must be removing one of these vases from the ground. ~James

  2. For those living in the U.S., Roman glass can be also be seen a little closer at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York. But I don’t remember anything as exquisite as those vases with the blue “fringe.”
    I loved your post. We have had a long time affinity for glass: my first job returning from military service was with PPG Industries, a maker of glass on the industrial level and Alie has always loved fine glass.
    And like Priorhouse, above, I found the last quote to be special.

    1. Ray, thanks for the heads-up on the Corning Museum. I can imagine their museum collection and glass-making information is impressive.

      Those amphora with the blue fringe are my favorites as well. As I looked at this collection I had to keep reminding myself that it was 2000 years old. Some of it is slightly primitive looking (maybe by design), but most of it would fit perfectly in a modern gallery. And with your experience in the glass industry, I’m sure you can appreciate more than most what an effort it took to make these pieces in Roman times.

      Also FYI, given Alexandria’s infinite supply of pure, white sand, it developed into a center for clear glass, which got to be all the rage as the industry matured. ~James

  3. Thank you for the wonderful history lesson. I’m always fascinated by the art of glass blowing but never thought much about its origin. Looks like an interesting museum filled with a stunning collection of beautiful works of art glass.

    1. Ingrid, I’m sure you’ve seen modern glass artisans at work, now imagine how that process would work 2000 years ago. I’d love to be the fly on the wall when the first glass blower had the idea and then tried it for the first time. ~James

  4. I’m glad to see the acknowledgement that glass is a true art form. It is so fragile and yet, look at those wonderful pieces that survived. Truly amazing!
    Leslie

    1. Leslie, the diggers had to be on high alert to carefully pull so much fragile glass from the ground without some breakage. But with a 2000 year-old vase a little effort to reassemble would probably be something an archaeologist would welcome. ~James

  5. Your comment on Alexandria reminded me of what melting a little sand can accomplish, James and Terri. It’s easy to see how some person discovered glass as a result of a really hot fire. Harder to imagine how they discovered the art of glass blowing. I also thought about glass making in nature, obsidian. Nature provides mountains of it in Oregon. 🙂 –Curt

    1. Curt, I’ve always wanted a big chunk of obsidian and never really had the chance to collect one. I was at some national park and sneaked a tiny piece, but what I truly wanted was a grapefruit-sized piece. I don’t remember seeing much when we lived in Oregon. Where are the big outcrops? ~James

      1. There is a mountain of it outside of Bend at the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. Of course being a National Monument…
        On the other hand, if you are down California way on Highway 395 near Mammoth, there is the Obsidian Dome on National Forest land where you could easily grab the heaviest chunk you could carry. (If you and Terri have never driven 395 it is a must for you, James.)
        Peggy and I came on an absolute wonderland of obsidian while backpacking in the Three Sisters Wilderness area of Oregon east of Bend, but you would have to backpack to get to that. 🙂 –Curt

      2. Thanks for the info Curt. We’re hoping to take a camping road trip out west later this year and we’ll put this area in the hopper. We haven’t been to this area, so obsidian or no, it sounds interesting. I keep a rock hammer in the van so I’ll be ready if an outcrop happens by. 🙂

      3. Bring gloves, too, James. 🙂 That obsidian can cut! If you are traveling down 395, you also have the ghost town of Bodie, Mono Lake, and the Alabama Hills where dozens of Westerns were filled. Both Yosemite and Death Valley are within a day’s drive. But you might want to skip Death Valley in the middle of summer. –Curt

      4. This is all great info Curt and sounds like an area we will definitely visit. We lived in Oregon on the coast for a while, but didn’t get down to this part of CA/Or. Thanks.

    1. Rebecca, at the height of its popularity glass was an everyday item to the Romans, which speaks not only to its usefulness and versatility, but also to the improvements it made over clay. ~James

      1. Chilean poet Pablo Neruda asserted that beverages taste better when sipped from colored glass. He would decorate his windows with colored glass bottles to enjoy the colors cast by the sun on the walls.

  6. Really loved this one about glass. What do you know about the discs of Roman glass that become jewelry in Israel and Jordan? They fascinated me, but how genuine are they?

    1. Louise, you’re above my pay grade with that question, and it probably falls more in your wheelhouse than mine :). I haven’t encountered Roman disc jewelry, so I can’t say. But as a general comment, the Romans made major bucks on their glass trade, and consequently, would have been exporting it all over the empire. I hope you are well in these unhealthy times. ~James

  7. I have seen glass blowers at work a few times, creating their margical art, but I did not know anything about all the history behind it. So fascinating. I would love to visit the Museum in Cologne. Amazing to think of a glass collection from 2000 years ago…wow.

    1. Gilda, if you happen to be near Cologne and have an interest in Roman history, glass, and mosaics, this museum is an excellent stop. As an added bonus, it’s next door to the Cologne Cathedral (you can see it in our photo of the Museum), which is quite famous and worth a stop. As I said to someone else, I’m surprised the museum doesn’t get more attention. I hope you and Brian are well and weathering the COVID storm. ~James

  8. James and Terri I particularly enjoyed this post as we are in the middle of watching a Netflix show about glassblowing, have you seen it? It is quite amazing to watch the immense creativity and skill, technique that is required to make a glass piece.

    Love the collection of photos of glass pieces.Very beautiful and captivating.

    Peta

    1. Peta, I checked out Netflix and found a competition series called “Blown Away.” I assume this is the one, and I’ll check it out. Thanks for the recommendation.

      We visited a glass factory in the mountains of West Virginia (Blenko Glass), and it was very cool. There was no organized tour, but the artists were working in an open warehouse and visitors just stood around and watched them work. Actually, it was fun because there was no pressure of any kind and we stood behind a low wooden barrier about 15 feet away from the action. I love this stuff. I hope you and Ben are well. ~James

  9. I am amazed at the intricacy of the pieces in the museum. It’s one thing to think of this ingenuity thousands of years ago but the quality of the art is mind boggling.

    1. You’re right Sue. There were a few of these pieces that I would have been totally happy to take home. I still wonder about blowing glass 2000 years ago. How on earth did that work? ~James

  10. It’s all so beautiful. And astonishing. I remember seeing ancient Roman glass in a museum in Turkey and being totally blown away that they knew how to do that way back then! Still amazes me, though I don’t know why it should.
    Alison

    1. It amazes me as well Alison, and I have all sorts of questions about the process. For instance, when they were blowing the molten glass, what type of mouth tube did they use? There weren’t that many high-temp metals around in Roman times. So yes, I think your amazement is justified. ~James

  11. It’s amazing that some of the patterns actually look modern. However, my favorite is that amphora within an amphora. Coming up with that idea and ending up making it are really astonishing — a work of a true artist! When I return to Cologne one day, I’ll make sure not to miss the Römisch-Germanisches Museum.

    1. Bama, you’re right about the modern look of some of this work. There’s a level of delicate artistry that’s astounding for what must have been relatively primitive tools at the time. In the case of that particular piece, I wonder if it was planned in advance, or perhaps it was a creative way to salvage an already broken amphora? Either way it’s very creative and a wonderful piece. ~James

  12. We particularly love the colour/texcture changes that the centuries have wrought in many roman pieces. though that while pot with the coloured blobs could have been made yesterday! (And not a crack or chip).
    We seem to have lost our blogs – byt Graham will try and retrieve them. when we do, look at Metoponto Museum with it’s matchless collection of Ancient Greek pottery…

    Yes – I maintain that Art and some architehture is all that remains whe civilisations die. Just hope ours is NOT on the way out…

    Love to you both,
    #Jackie. http://www.dreamitdriveiteurope.com

    1. So sorry that you lost your blog posts Jackie. We live in fear of our blog being hacked and try to keep a backup, but even then, it would be a huge project to reconstruct. Good luck retrieving it.

      We had seen a few examples of Roman glass, but never a collection this extensive nor of this quality. As you mention, the modern look of some of these pieces is astounding, and a testament to the artists’ creativity. The level of achievement of the Romans is unbelievable, and yet, they’re all gone. There’s a big lesson there. ~James

  13. Very cool post. I admit, I’ve never given any thought to the origins of glass. Funny how so many things we take for granted have such an interesting history. And the act those pieces are thousands of years old astounds me.

    1. Laura, most historians believe that glass was discovered by accident, when the ingredients just happened to be in a very hot fire. Of course, I suspect that many things that humans have today are lucky accidents. But it’s the transition from glass blobs in a fire to these amphora that’s the testament to our human intelligence and creativity. ~James

  14. Wow, these are so gorgeous and delicate and wondrous too! I’m really curious about the one with the candelabra; do you have any information about this particular gem of glassware? What conveyors of treasure troves you are, James and Terri 😉

    1. Amit, some of these pieces had info cards in the display, but as you might imagine, they were in German. So unfortunately, we don’t really know much except the dates. Given this extensive collection I’m sure there’s an expert on staff so maybe there’s something on their website (hopefully in English 🙂 ). ~James

  15. Love the end quote! And what a beautiful collection of glass treasures you’ve shared — all a great reminder that this common material can be uncommonly beautiful. Hope you’re both doing well! ~Kelly

    1. Kelly, last night I was watching a Youtube video of Chihuly and his workshop, and every piece of his work is a reminder that glass can be uncommonly beautiful. We are both hangin’ in waiting on our second dose of the vaccine (Yay!) and itching to get back on the road. Take care of yourself. ~James

  16. So hard to believe that glass — in its many forms — has been around as long as it has. What great examples you’ve shared! And what a marvel this craft has been and continues to be. Thanks for all the info.

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