Tracing the scintillating history of glassmaking and the art of glass

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For thousands of years, artisans have explored the endless possibilities offered by a glass. Spanning both time and space, the ancient practice of glassmaking remains one of the most widespread art forms in the world. Together with its versatility, it is this timelessness that has solidified the importance of glassware in the history of art.

Have you ever wondered how this whimsical art form evolved? Here, we take a closer look at the history of glass art, tracing the major glass contributions made by cultures around the world.

How is glass made?

How glass is made

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Typical glass is made of quartz sand (silica), a soda (sodium carbonate), and lime (calcium oxide). When heated to a very high temperature (around 3,200 degrees Fahrenheit) and rapidly cooled, this mixture becomes molten glass.

The malleable material can be shaped using a variety of methods, including nucleus formation (when hot glass strips are wrapped around a heat resistant core), foundry (when molten glass is poured into a mold), and glass blowing (when a torch is used to shape hot glass into a collapsible bubble).

These glass-making methods have been used by artisans for centuries, resulting in a rich practice that transcends both object and culture.

The history of glass making

Ancient Beads

Antique glass beads

Group of pearls, 2nd century AD (Photo: Cleveland Art Museum Public domain)

The earliest known example of glass as an artistic medium is found in pearls. In the third millennium BC, the ancient Egyptians began making cobalt blue beads using a method comparable to the formation of nuclei.

In addition to Egypt, glass beads appeared in a variety of cultures over the following centuries, including Iran 2,000 years later and China in the 1st century BCE.

Mesopotamian mosaics

Mesopotamian mosaic

Detail of “War” from “The Standard of Ur”, 2600-2400 BCE (Photo: Wikimedia Commons Public domain)

Shortly after the emergence of bead making in Egypt, artisans in Mesopotamia began to make mosaics—assemblages comprising tesserae (small fragments of glass, stone or other organic materials). These mosaics were mainly found in temples and contained an exquisite collection of ivory pieces, shells and smooth stones.

Although not made of glass, these decorative collages laid the foundation for mosaics made thousands of years later during the Hellenistic period.

Hellenistic goods

Hellenistic glass

Mosaic glass bowl fragment, 2nd-mid 1st century BCE (Photo: The Metropolitan Art Museum Public domain)

The Hellenistic period was an era of ancient history that lasted from 323 BCE to 31 CE. In addition to mosaics, which featured both intricate designs and designs inspired by classical mythology, Hellenistic glassmakers in Greece perfected the art of core formation. Using this technique, they produced opaque (non-transparent) handhelds ships designed to contain scent oils.

Inspired by this approach, glassmakers in contemporary Italy began to produce millefiori (from Italian thousand, or “thousand”, and flourish, or “flowers”), a mosaic glass made up of molten glass rods that have been cut to reveal their multi-colored cross sections.

Glassblowing in the Roman Empire

Roman glass

Photo: Charos Pix CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the 1st century BC, glass blowing emerged with the establishment of the Roman Empire. Invented by the Syrians, this technique was used to make glass containers for commercial consumption, a feature that led to its proliferation throughout the empire and, later, around the world.

Islamic colored glass

Islamic stained glass

Jabir ibn Hayyan Geber, Arab alchemist (Photo: Welcome collection CC BY 4.0)

The 8th century saw glassmakers in the Middle East start producing colored glass. In Kitab al Durra al Maknuna (“The Book of the Hidden Pearl”), an Arabic manuscript written by the Persian chemist Jābir ibn Ḥayyān, the secret of the magical medium is revealed, while dozens of “recipes” for colored glass (made using ‘cobalt oxide) and artificial gemstones are documented.

Medieval stained glass

Stained glass window in the Sainte Chapelle

Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, France (Photo bank by javarman / Shutterstock)

In the Middle Ages, colored glass was present throughout Europe in the form of stained glass. Until the 12th century, these windows were small and featured simple compositions defined by thick iron frames, a style typical of Romanesque architecture.

In the 12th century, however, Gothic architecture emerged and the windows became larger, lighter and, thanks to tracery, a decorative but enduring form of stone support, increasingly ornate.

Venetian chandeliers

Murano glass

Ca ‘Rezzonico, Venice – Murano glass chandelier with twenty lights in two rows, decorated with brightly colored glass flowers, made in the mid-18th century by the workshop of Giuseppe Briati in Murano (Photo: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

During the Renaissance, medieval stained-glass windows lost popularity while in Venice, luxury glassware experienced a revival. Here, master glassmaker Giuseppe Briati designed the ciocche chandelier, an elaborate luminaire with floral garlands and leaf strands adorned with Venetian crystal, blown glass and gold leaf.

The ciocche came to characterize Murano glass, a genre of glassware known for its innovation and beauty.

Tiffany lamps

Tiffany lamp

(Photo: Can Pac Swire CC BY-NC 2.0)

In 1885, Louis Comfort Tiffany established the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company in New York. Inspired by the glass art of the past (especially blown glass from the Roman Empire), Tiffany crafted spectacular stained glass lamps without the use of paint or enamel.

To achieve this, he designed favrile glass, a support which he compared to “the wings of certain American butterflies, to the necks of pigeons and peacocks, to the wing covers of various beetles”.

Contemporary glass art

What is contemporary art

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Contemporary glassmakers continue to carry on the centuries-old tradition. Many, like American artist Dale Chihuly, have drawn on the ancient art of blown glass to produce fascinating and avant-garde sculptures. Others have proven the timelessness of the traditional mosaic, which now materializes like everything from pothole fills to digital recreations. And some are simply breaking the boundaries of glassmaking with their innovative techniques.

Either way, one thing is clear: today’s top glass artists have taken an already ethereal profession to exciting new heights.

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