This post comes from Dr. Karol B. Wight, President and Executive Director of The Corning Museum of Glass. Ennion and His Legacy: Mold-Blown Glass from Ancient Rome, the largest exhibition to date devoted to ancient mold-blown glass, is on view until January 4, 2016. Read more about Ennion in Dr. Wight’s first and second posts in this series.
Inflating glass in molds carved with decorative and figural designs was a technique used to create multiple examples of a variety of vessel shapes with high-relief patterns. The molds used to shape this ancient glass were complex in their design, and the mold-blown glass vessels of ancient Rome tell a wealth of stories about the ancient world, from gladiators to perfume vessels, from portraits of a Roman empress to oil containers marked with the image of Mercury, Roman god of trade. When creating designs for mold-blown glass, artisans had a wealth of sources from which to choose. For centuries, myths and epic poems were used as image sources in order to paint murals on walls, to decorate ceramic vessels, to form scenes on metalwork, and to carve stone sculpture. Imitating the natural world was another artistic practice, so human heads, animals, or fruits, among other designs, also served to inspire. When designing their molds, glass artists frequently followed the practices of their fellow artisans working in clay and other materials, and scholars can easily associate vessels made with the same imagery in a variety of materials. But glass artisans also chose to forge their own path. They created new designs and shapes that were unique to glass because the properties of glass enabled this material to do things that other materials could not, due to its malleability when hot. Lotus-bud beakers, for example, are a design found only in glass.
Among the most common forms of mold-blown glass are tall drinking glasses, presumably used for wine or beer. The decorative knobs from which they take their name are shaped like the buds of the lotus flower. These knobs helped the drinker to maintain a secure grip. Lotus-bud beakers have been found throughout the Roman Empire in various shapes, colors, and sizes. All were manufactured in molds made of three or four sections: one for the base, and two or three for the sides of the vessel.
Vessels with Images from Myth and Literature
Artists in antiquity often depicted the same commonly known and understood scenes in their artistic creations, no matter what material was used—stone, ceramic, metal, glass, etc. Such scenes were usually drawn from myths or epic poems, and because this artistic vocabulary was shared, art historians and archaeologists can identify imagery more easily.
Vessels for Wine
Artists often decorated vessels used to drink or serve wine. The imagery was associated with wine drinking or the merrymaking of the followers of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. The god is shown among his followers—maenads with billowing drapery, satyrs holding curved staffs or wineskins, and the god Pan, identifiable by his goat horns and animal legs.
Most of the head flasks that have survived from antiquity were made in simple, two-part molds and depict youthful, beardless males with flowing hair. Most heads appear back-to-back, and are often called as Janus flasks, named after the Roman god who oversaw beginnings and transitions, and after whom the month of January is named.
Almost all of the glass flasks are made with simple, narrow necks, and they functioned as containers for liquids. In some instances, the necks were constricted to make a narrower opening through which the liquid could flow. This variety is known as sprinkler flasks, which probably held precious perfumed oil.
Grotesque Head Flasks
Some heads display features that are exaggerated and even grotesque: large noses, high cheekbones, and prominent lips. They also have a very distinctive hairstyle, with a short tuft of hair combed to the back of their balding heads. Grotesque male figures and heads were common in Roman art. In some instances, the figures are depictions of Roman actors wearing theatrical masks. The open mouths of these heads suggest that they, too, may represent theatrical masks.
Perfume Bottles and Pyxides
Small flasks that held perfumed oils have survived in abundance from ancient times. Their function and decoration give us a glimpse into ancient life. Along with lidded round boxes (pyxides) used as containers for jewelry or cosmetics, these flasks would have graced a dressing table. There are many different designs for the perfume flasks, and their decorative motifs often do not have a clear association with their function. These motifs—symbols related to Bacchus (the Roman god of wine), images of birds, and different vessel shapes—seem to be purely decorative. But fruit-shaped flasks in the form of dates and grape clusters clearly advertise their contents.
The decoration found on pyxides is very elegant and refined, with slender palmettes and garland swags. It relates these vessels to Ennion’s cups and jugs, and some scholars believe that they may have been made in the same workshop.
Numerous scent bottles have survived from antiquity, perhaps because they were often placed in burials as gifts to the deceased. These small flasks were made in a variety of shapes, patterns, and colors, and in some instances, such as with grape flasks, their forms were designed to advertise their contents. The molds used in the manufacture of these flasks were frequently made in two parts, but more complex molds of three or more parts were also used.
Flasks Shaped like Fruits
Certain flasks were deliberately designed to imitate different fruits, such as dates and grapes. Flasks shaped like dates come in a variety of forms, although all are very lifelike. While the majority were made with amber-colored glass, other colors, such as cobalt blue, were also used in their manufacture. Numerous date flasks have survived from antiquity, and presumably these vessels held date oil. Ancient authors record that dates were often given as gifts in the New Year to ensure sweetness and fertility. It is possible that date flasks were also given as New Year’s gifts for the same reason.
Flasks shaped like clusters or bunches of grapes were probably used to hold wine. Some are quite lifelike, while others are more stylized. Some grape flasks are without handles, while others were designed with handles and pouring spouts, making them wine pitchers.
Theater, particularly comedy, was widely popular in the Roman world. Theatrical troupes crossed the empire to perform well-known dramas, and theatrical imagery was widespread. Masks, in particular, had great artistic appeal. Today, they serve to document elements of ancient stagecraft because masks were created for specific character types. We can identify the prostitute, the old slave, the noble patrician, and the young bride, among many other types.