A Fragment of Roman Glass Decorated with Enamel

A Fragment of Roman Glass Decorated with Enamel

In 1975, The Corning Museum of Glass acquired a fragment with enameled ornament that was attributed to the late Hellenistic or early Roman period.1 It was purchased in the marketplace, and the Museum has no record of its history. The purpose of this note is to suggest that it may have been identified incorrectly.

Description

The fragment [^^75.1.112^^] (Fig. 1), which is part of a hollow vessel, is about eight centimeters in height and about nine centimeters in diameter. It has a slightly thickened, rounded rim. The upper wall descends vertically before curving down and in. The wall is two millimeters thick at the top, four millimeters thick at the bottom of the vertical part, and two and a half millimeters thick at the bottom of the curved part. The shape of the base is unknown.2

Figure 1The fragment is made of transparent dark blue glass that contains many small spherical or spheroid bubbles up to one millimeter in diameter, several bubbles one to two millimeters across, and one almost horizontal ovoid bubble five millimeters long. The ovoid bubble is unbroken, and it protrudes slightly from the interior surface, as do some of the smaller bubbles. The glass also contains at least one very small red inclusion and a larger off-white inclusion. Linear decoration apart(see below), neither the interior nor the exterior exhibits any trace of cold working.

The exterior is decorated with five pairs of incised horizontal lines: two near the rim, one halfway down the vertical part of the wall, and two on the curved part of the wall. The pair of lines halfway down the wall is partly concealed beneath the enameled ornament.

The enamel is the most remarkable feature of the fragment. On the exterior, between the two top and two bottom pairs of incised lines, is a scene made by applying a vitreous substance that is firmly bonded with the blue glass. This substance, which is up to two millimeters thick, is granular and contains numerous small bubbles. There are seven colors, all of which are opaque: white, light grayish pink, black, light green, turquoise, light yellow, and dull red. The colors contain a few minute black inclusions.

The decoration consists of part of a figure and vegetation. The figure is a man, naked except for a turquoise cloak or similar garment, which is attached below the neck and billows behind and partly around him. He is pink, and thin rather than fat. He moves, or tries to move, toward the viewer’s left, with his right foot apparently on the %%ground%% and his left leg raised and extended. His head and torso are shown frontally, while his legs are shown from the side. He appears to be relatively old. The top of his head is bald, but he has some white hair, and a white beard. His eyes are turquoise with black pupils. His right arm is bent, and he holds a small white egg-shaped object. He is surrounded by vegetation: a small tree with two green trunks or roots and at least six green stemsor branches. The surviving part of the tree has three red flowers, each of which has three petals, and one yellow fruit, which is round and has two green projections opposite the stem. Two of the plant’s lower stems are in front of the figure’s legs, and two are behind them; one upper stem is in front of his chest, and one is behind his right arm.

The fragment has no obvious weathering, and the surface of the vitreous material is glossy. The edges are fresh and appear to be “new.”

Discussion

The object seems to be unique, although perhaps its republication here will stimulate readers to draw attention to similar, unpublished objects—or, given the fresh appearance of the broken edges, to other fragments from the same vessel. (If the diameter of the rim was about nine centimeters, the circumference of the wall was about 28 centimeters and it could have accommodated three equidistant scenes or, if the object was a cup with two handles, one scene on each side. It is possible, therefore, given the freshness of the edges, that either one or two enameled scenes are still at large.)

In order to gain a better understanding of the fragment, it seems useful to address three questions: (1) how was the vessel made, (2) what was its shape, and (3) what does the scene depict?

(1) How Was the Vessel Made?

Although the fragment was originally described as “cast or possibly blown,”3 the absence of evidence for cold working (apart from the linear decoration), the fire-polished rim, and the presence of a relatively large, elongated bubble demonstrate that the vessel was blown.

After annealing, the object was given to a glass cutter, who added the five pairs of horizontal lines on the wall. Subsequently, the pictorial decoration was created by painting the wall with generous applications of enamel, then heating the objectuntil this material fused, and annealing it.4 Thus the manufacture and decoration of the object required a six-step process: blowing, annealing, cutting, painting, fusing, and annealing.

(2) What Was the Shape of the Vessel?

The fragment has been described as having a rounded base, although the center is missing and the vessel could have had a stem or a narrow foot, of which no trace survives. Indeed, the fact that the object was blown, as well as its size and profile, is consistent with the possibility that it came from a fourth-century or later goblet resembling Isings form 111.5 Third-century and later drinking vessels are sometimes decorated with bands of wheel-cut horizontal grooves, and deep blue glass, although not common, is by no means unknown at this date.6 The fragment, therefore, may be part of a blown late Roman goblet rather than a cast late Hellenistic or early Roman cup.

(3) What Does the Scene Depict?

The man is almost a caricature. He is old, with sparse white hair and a beard, and his physique is less than impressive. The scene, however, is dramatic: the man’s agitated appearance and the presence of parts of the same plant both in front of and behind him suggest that he may be trapped in it and struggling to extricate himself.

The most obvious explanation of the scene is that it represents the punishment of Lycurgus. In the version of the story told by the poet Nonnus about A.D. 500, Lycurgus attacked Dionysus and his followers. Brandishing an ax, Lycurgus chased Dionysus into the sea and turned his attention toward the god’s female devotees, the maenads. One of the maenads, Ambrosia, threw a %%stone%% at Lycurgus, who retaliated by abandoning his ax and picking up a %%stone%% to throw at her. Ambrosia appealed for help to the goddess Earth. Earth opened up a fissure in the %%ground%% to protect Ambrosia, who was transformed into a vine. The vine grew rapidly and trapped Lycurgus in its tendrils.7

As Sidney M. Goldstein observed: “The story of Lycurgus might be plausible [as the subject of the scene] if the figure were interpreted as wideeyed with horror at being trapped by the vine. However, [the vegetation] is clearly not a grapevine but a pomegranate or lemon tree.”8

The objection that the plant is not a vine is a powerful but not (I think) conclusive argument against identifying the man as Lycurgus. In fact, the man has several attributes that we expect of Lycurgus: he has a beard, he is naked (in Roman art, he was usually depicted wearing only boots), he appears to be distressed, he clutches something (perhaps a %%stone%%) in his right hand, and he is caught up in a small tree. While the tree is not a vine or a realistic rendering of any tree known to me, it does have one very unusual attribute of the vine described by Nonnus, who recounted how, as Ambrosia sank into the earth, her legs were transformed into the twin stems of the plant that entangled her attacker. The tree shown on the fragment has two trunks or roots. I suggest, therefore, that the man is Lycurgus trapped in vegetation and grasping the %%stone%% that he intended to throw at Ambrosia.

Conclusion

A review of the form of the fragment, the method of manufacture, and the enameled decoration leads to two conclusions:

1. The fragment is part of a blown vessel, perhaps a fourth-century or later goblet, with wheelcut linear decoration.

2. The enameled scene does depict the story of Lycurgus, but the decorator misrepresented the vine that entrapped him.


This article was published in the Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 50 (2008), 306–309.


Notes

1Acc. no. 75.1.112. The fragment was published on two earlier occasions: in “Recent Important Acquisitions,” Journal of Glass Studies, v. 18, 1976, p. 240, no. 2; and in Sidney M. Goldstein, Pre-Roman and Early Roman Glass in The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning: The Corning Museum of Glass, 1979, p. 157, no. 334. This latest publication of the fragment owes much to conversations with William Gudenrath, resident adviser of The Studio of The Corning Museum of Glass.

2Goldstein [note 1].

3Ibid.

4For this technique employed in the Roman period, see William Gudenrath, “Enameled Glass Vessels, 1425 B.C.E.– 1800: The Decorating Process,” Journal of Glass Studies, v. 48, 2006, pp. 23–70, esp. pp. 32–40.

5Clasina Isings, Roman Glass from Dated Finds, Archaeologia Traiectina, v. 2, Groningen and Djakarta: J. B. Wolters, 1957, pp. 139–140. Compare, for example, the profile of the fragment with that of a goblet at Corning (acc. no. 52.1.71) published in David Whitehouse, Roman Glass in The Corning Museum of Glass, v. 1, Corning: The Corning Museum of Glass, 1997, p. 105, no. 156.

6Whitehouse [note 5], pp. 246–256, nos. 418–432 and 434–437, of which no. 430 is a goblet and no. 424 is deep blue.

7Nonnus, Dionysiaca XX–XXI. For students of ancient glass, the story is conveniently summarized in D. B. Harden and J. M. C. Toynbee, “The Rothschild Lycurgus Cup,” Archaeologia, v. 97, 1959, pp. 179–212, esp. pp. 194–195. See also Donald B. Harden and others, Glass of the Caesars, Milan: Olivetti, 1967, p. 249.

8Goldstein [note 1].

Published on January 22, 2013

David Whitehouse, Senior Scholar
David Whitehouse (1941-2013) joined The Corning Museum of Glass in 1984 as chief curator. He was named deputy director of collections in 1987, was promoted to deputy director of the Museum in 1988, and became director in 1992. He was appointed to...
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