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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Roman Luxury Glass

The Roman glass industry drew heavily on the skills and techniques that were used in other contemporary crafts such as metalworking, gem cutting, and pottery production. The styles and shapes of much early Roman glass were influenced by the luxury silver and gold tableware amassed by the upper strata of Roman society in the late Republican and early imperial periods, and the fine monochrome (13.198.1–.3, 1972.118.185) and colorless cast tablewares introduced in the early decades of the first century A.D. imitate the crisp, lathe-cut profiles of their metal counterparts. The style has been described as “aggressively Roman in character” mainly because it lacks any close stylistic ties to the Hellenistic cast glass of the late second and first centuries B.C. Demand for cast tableware continued through the second and third centuries A.D., and even into the fourth century, and craftsmen kept alive the casting tradition to fashion these high-quality and elegant objects with remarkable skill and ingenuity. Facet-cut, carved, and incised decorations could transform a simple, colorless plate (81.10.237), bowl (17.194.318), or vase (17.194.317) into a masterwork of artistic vision. But engraving and cutting glass was not limited to cast objects alone. There are many examples of both cast and blown glass bottles, plates, bowls, and vases with cut decoration in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, and some examples are featured here.

Glass cutting was a natural progression from the tradition of gem engravers, who used two basic techniques: intaglio cutting (cutting into the material) and relief cutting (carving out a design in relief). Both methods were exploited by craftsmen working with glass; the latter was used principally and more infrequently to make cameo glass, while the former was widely used both to make simple wheel-cut decorations, mostly linear and abstract, and to carve more complex figural scenes and inscriptions. By the Flavian period (69–96 A.D.), the Romans had begun to produce the first colorless glasses with engraved patterns, figures, and scenes, and this new style required the combined skills of more than one craftsman.

A glass cutter (diatretarius) versed in the use of lathes and drills and who perhaps brought his expertise from a career as a gem cutter, would cut and decorate a vessel initially cast or blown by an experienced glassworker (vitrearius). While the technique for cutting glass was a technologically simple one, a high level of workmanship, patience, and time was required to create an engraved vessel of the detail and quality evident in these examples. This also speaks to the increased value and cost of these items. Therefore, even when the invention of glassblowing had transformed glass into a cheap and ubiquitous household object, its potential as a highly prized luxury item did not decrease.