You are here

Le verre dans l’empire romain: Exposition présentée à Florence, Museo degli Argenti, Musée “des Argents,” Palais Pittidu mars au 31 octobre 2004

July 2008 (112.3)

Book Review

Le verre dans l’empire romain: Exposition présentée à Florence, Museo degli Argenti, Musée “des Argents,” Palais Pittidu mars au 31 octobre 2004

By Marco Beretta and Giovanni di Pasquale. Pp. 359, numerous figs. Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris 2006. €39. ISBN 2-7118-5163-X (paper).

Reviewed by

This useful volume, lavishly illustrated in color, serves as both the catalogue for the exhibition of the same name originally presented at the Museo degli Argenti in Florence in 2004 (27 March–31 October) and a valuable introduction to the technology of glass production and to the wide-ranging impact of the invention of glassblowing in the mid first century B.C.E. upon Roman life and scientific inquiry. I did not have the opportunity to see the exhibition, which focuses on objects taken, for the most part, from the collections of the Antiqarium of Pompeii and the National Archaeological Museum of Naples; these remarks are based solely on the French edition of the catalogue published in conjunction with the remounting of the exhibition in 2006 (31 January–27 August) at the Cité des sciences et de l’industrie in Paris.

As a specialist in ancient glass, I have filled my library with catalogues, large and small, from museums and private collections that present ancient glass narrowly as the material of attractive cosmetic containers, tablewares, and lamps. Excavation catalogues, constrained by what is found, do little to counter this impression. Too often, those outside the specialty construe the study of glass to be a more limited version of the study of ceramics. This catalogue has a series of excellent, informative essays by some of the most interesting thinkers on the subject of ancient glass and its organization. It mirrors the exhibition, emphasizing the revolutionary aspects of glass in Roman life and thought, moving us beyond the traditional model and demonstrating how the study of glass and ancient thinking about glass can take us deep into the creative and scientific heart of the Roman empire.

Like glass itself, the premise of the exhibition is alluring. We are asked to consider how one technological breakthrough—glassblowing—sparked a series of revolutions: technological, quotidian, architectural, and scientific. The authors of the 16 excellent essays that make up the first section of the volume not only introduce us to the fundamental qualities of glass as a material and to the processes employed to make glass and fashion it but also invite us to consider how the properties of glass were understood and explored by ancient philosophers and scientists. They challenge us—who take glass for granted in our everyday lives—to consider the myriad ways in which the first blown glass transformed the daily lives of ancient Romans with colorful, thin-walled, translucent tablewares affordable to many for the first time, with blazing lamps that magnified light, and with transparent windows that broke down boundaries between interior and exterior.

The focus is also on Campania and on the well-preserved corpus of mid first-century C.E. material from the towns and villas buried by Vesuvius. It is here that some specialists see the new industry of glassblowing reaching its early technical and economic maturity, giving rise to an entirely different production model, far closer to mass production and mass marketing than had been possible before. New forms and functions of glass vessels exploded onto the scene as workers engaged in exuberant experimentation.

The essays in this volume mine a rich vein of topics related to Roman glass of the early Roman empire with contributions by Stern on glassworkers in ancient Rome; Schwarzenberg on rock crystal; De Carolis on glass in Roman daily life; Paolucci on Flavian glass, with particular reference to finds from Pompeii; Ciarallo on the role of glass in the storage of food, in medicine, and in magic; Dell’Acqua on window glass; Beretta on glass and vision; Strano on Claudius Ptolemy and glass; Di Pasquale on glass and machines; Verità on the chemistry of Roman glass from Pompeii; Arletti et al. on the archaeometry of gaming pieces from Pompeii; and Ciappi on the rediscovery of archaeological glass and the experimentation this sparked in the 18th and 19th centuries. These essays are at the same time scholarly and accessible, admirably comprehensive even as they focus on material from Campania, and generously illustrated with useful diagrams and color photographs. Particular attention is paid, where appropriate, to ancient sources for each topic, and useful citations abound. The general bibliography to the volume, while light on standard works about ancient glass, offers a valuable emphasis on glass in its technical and cultural context.

The catalogue itself, with its high-quality illustrations and helpful (if brief) entries, will be useful to the student of Roman glass, particularly to those interested in the technical aspects of the industry. The first section, on the technological revolution of glassblowing, emphasizes the rapid transformation of the glass industry in the early Roman empire and gives us a tour of major types of glass—blown, molded, and cut—represented in the large corpus from Campania. The second section, focusing on daily life, illustrates domestic assemblages and emphasizes the gradual replacement of metal and ceramic vessels with glass. The third section is dedicated to the architectural revolution—the “conquest of light”—afforded by large panes of blown window glass and light-magnifying glass lamps. The final section, on the scientific revolution, emphasizes the way in which scientists of the period used transparent glass to make strides in optics and in measurement, and how these developments allowed for important advances in medicine and in observations of the natural world and of objects of small size.

This volume is an excellent resource for those interested in an engaging introduction to Roman glass production and in exploring the remarkable impact of the invention of glassblowing on daily life and scientific inquiry in the early Roman empire. It is a model of how to employ diverse sources of evidence to paint a comprehensive picture of a pivotal moment in human technological progress. It never lets us stray far from a sense of wonder that through this evidence we can witness how, almost overnight, the application of human breath to hot glass sparked a burst of creative energy that turned up the light on domestic life and pushed forward the nature of human scientific endeavor. Vive la révolution!

Janet Duncan Jones
Classics Department
Bucknell University
Lewisburg, Pennsylvania 17837

Book Review of Le verre dans l’empire romain: Exposition présentée à Florence, Museo degli Argenti, Musée “des Argents,” Palais Pittidu mars au 31 octobre 2004, by Marco Beretta and Giovanni di Pasquale

Reviewed by Janet Duncan Jones

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 112, No. 3 (July 2008)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1123.Jones

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.