The Glass Roots Gallery is part of the visitor experience.
Four thousand five hundred years ago in the cradle of civilisation, someone discovered the secret of glassmaking. How, still remains a mystery. But we know where: Ancient Mesopotamia – modern Iraq and Syria. Perhaps they discovered glassmaking purely by accident. But the evidence is there: solid glass beads and small figurines. Several hundred years later, hollow glass vessels such as cups, bowls and bottles began to appear.
In the beginning, glass was treated as a luxury item throughout the Ancient World, almost like gold. In fact, it was so exclusive that in Egypt no one but the Pharaoh, his high priests and the nobility owned glass. Very early on, craftsmen began experimenting with a wide range of decorative techniques. This led to brilliantly coloured glass and glass decorated with intricate patterns.
In the 1st century BC, the process of glass blowing was invented, probably in one of the major Roman workshops in Syria or Palestine. With the aid of a metal blowpipe, a bubble of glass could be worked into many shapes and sizes. The invention of glass blowing changed everything. Almost overnight, glass became an ordinary household item. Bottles, glasses and tableware became commonplace.
By 25 AD, glassmakers had made another significant discovery. They could blow glass into a mould. This allowed glassmakers to reproduce the same shapes and patterns over and over again. By 100 AD, glass was almost indispensable in every aspect of Roman life. People found that they could use glass to transport liquids of all kinds: wine, perfumes, cosmetics and oils. The glass container flourished.
Medieval European Glass
With the fall of the Roman Empire, Western Europe was plunged into chaos. Famine and plague were rife, millions died and the art of glassmaking declined. So it fell to the Church, especially the monasteries, to preserve glassmaking traditions and skills.
Glassmaking continued to be in a moribund state until the 12th century. Then the Church intervened with a gloriously colourful idea: the stained glass window. Slowly the interiors of giant cathedrals and even the lowliest of parish churches were bathed in warm colours. But the stained glass window had a much loftier mission: it was the means of selling religion. Stained glass windows told the stories of the Bible in pictures because apart from the clergy or the very rich, the majority of the population were unable to read.
While Medieval Europe was ravaged by the Dark Ages and the Roman glassmaking legacy was in tatters, in the East, life, art and culture were flourishing. Glass thrived as an established art form. In Iran, Iraq and Egypt especially, it was also a booming commercial industry. As the Islamic Empire spread, trade and prosperity fuelled invention. What followed were striking new shapes, decorated using the new techniques of lustre painting, gold painting and enamelling.
Venice & Renaissance Europe
For three hundred years, Venice dominated the luxury market. But fame came at a price. The Venetian glass industry was run like a secret society.
In 1450, one of the most important developments in the history of glassmaking occurred – a pure, colourless glass called “cristallo” was invented in Venice. With this new material, the Venetians made elegant and sophisticated vessels.
Obsessed by secrecy and their trade monopoly, Venetian glassmakers were isolated on a tiny island in the lagoon – Murano. Driven by generous rewards and privileged status, invention flourished. The Venetians developed many new ways of decorating and shaping glass.
Northern European Glass
Despite tight control by the Venetian Guild, glassmakers travelled abroad. They established glasshouses and produced Venetian style glass all over Europe. During the 17th-18th centuries, the finest achievement of Dutch glass was the introduction and perfection of diamond-engraving and later, stipple-engraving. Techniques of decorating glass were also greatly refined at this time. Enamellers and engravers were able to work finely detailed and complex designs into glass.
In 1676, George Ravenscroft perfected a formula for colourless lead crystal by introducing oxide of lead. This triggered a revolution. While Venetian cristallo was considered brilliant, this was a new medium altogether. It enjoyed a unique capacity to reflect the light. Able to withstand relief cutting, its prismatic qualities proved ideal in an age before electricity: lead crystal soon made a glittering entrance into the salons of Europe in the form of monumental chandeliers and candelabras.
The glass industry enjoyed a prolonged boom during the 18th-19th centuries. Many new methods of making and decorating glass were developed. Some inventions were based on traditional glassmaking techniques while others, such as acid etching, were new and essentially mechanical.
As the 19th century drew to a close, a strong symbolism became fashionable in literature and fine art. The decorative arts reflected this trend. From 1870, ornamental glassware blossomed. Pioneers like Galle and Lalique contributed to the graceful “Art Noveau” style. They showed manufacturers the potential of glass as a designer material.
Techniques for moulding glass have been around since Roman times. An American invention simply speeded things up. Mechanical pressing began on a small scale in 1825, and soon spread to Europe. Mechanical pressing produced huge quantities of glass at very low prices. For the first time, all but the very poor could afford decorative and table glass.
Not to be outdone by the Europeans, Louis Comfort Tiffany rose to become America’s most celebrated glass designer. Renowned for his famous glass lampshades, his experiments with chemistry produced iridescent glass that resembled Roman glass.