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Ennion and His Legacy: Mold-Blown Glass from Ancient Rome

All About Glass

At the end of the first century B.C., glassmakers working in the environs of Jerusalem made a revolutionary breakthrough in the way glass vessels were made. They discovered that a gob of glass could be inflated at the end of a hollow tube. This technical achievement—glassblowing—made the production of glass vessels much quicker and easier, and allowed glassmakers to develop new shapes and decorative techniques. One technique, inflating glass in molds carved with decorative and figural designs, was used to create multiple examples of a variety of vessel shapes with high-relief patterns.

Glass was not the first material to be shaped in a mold. For many centuries, clay vessels, architectural elements and figurines were formed in molds and then fired. And bronze, silver and gold vessels were also shaped by casting in molds. But for glass, the manufacturing process was quicker, and the designs were ultimately more elaborate because of the capabilities of hot glass to take on intricate designs. The glass of antiquity has largely been replaced today by plastic, and we are surrounded in our daily lives by molded containers in much the same way as the ancients were.

The molds used to shape glass were complex in their design, and part of the exhibition examines the mold-blowing technique. Much of what scholars know today about mold-blown glass is drawn from careful observation of the vessels themselves, noting where the mold seams are located, and using these same seams to identify how many parts of a mold were used to shape the glass. Very few molds have survived from antiquity, thus today modern glassmakers have attempted to recreate ancient techniques by using the designs of ancient vessels to replicate molds and creating glass vessels with them.

The molds used to shape the glass are diverse in size, shape and decoration. Some mold designs have direct links to religion, mythology, and literature, while others contain images and inscriptions that identify gladiators in combat and were sold as souvenirs of the arena. They provide us with a glimpse of the richness of life in Roman times, and, as with the souvenir vessels, can be linked directly to consumer practices still taking place today.

By their very nature, mold-blown glass vessels are examples of serial production – works of the same design being made in multiples. As such, ancient mold-blown vessels were valuable in the marketplace both to the seller and to the buyer. We take it for granted today that milk cartons contain a quart or a liter, but in antiquity, capacity could vary. The uniformity of mold-blown vessels ensured that the consumer was getting what they paid for.

The mold-blown glass vessels of ancient Rome can 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. Their diversity and beauty is remarkable, and they make the ancient world come back to life.

Among the earliest workshops to design and create mold-blown glass was one in which a man named Ennion worked. Ennion was the first glassmaker to sign his glass objects by incorporating his name into the inscriptions that formed part of the mold’s design, and thus he stands among a small group of glass workers whose names have come down to us from antiquity. But who was Ennion? Beyond his name, almost nothing is known of him, and there are only a few clues as to where he may have worked and lived.

The language used for the inscriptions that form part of the designs in Ennion’s molds is Greek, not Latin. This fact enables scholars to believe that Ennion lived and worked in the region along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea where Greek was commonly spoken, rather than in a region of the western Mediterranean where Latin was the common language. Some scholars have argued that Ennion was from Sidon, a city located along the coast of modern-day southern Lebanon, and one that was noted by both Strabo and Pliny the Elder as being a place of particular importance for the Roman glass industry. But to date, no archaeological evidence of glass workshops has been uncovered at that site to support what the ancient writers recorded.

Archaeologists working in different parts of the Mediterranean basin and beyond have found fragmentary and nearly complete works by Ennion. One of the most securely dated archaeological finds is a magnificent jug that was badly damaged when the building in which it was located burned down in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 when the Romans, led by the future Emperor Titus, sacked the city. Most of the excavated pieces of Ennion’s glasswares have come from ancient burials located around the ancient Mediterranean basin, from Cadiz, Spain, to Panticapaeum in the Crimea. The evidence from archaeology suggests that in addition to being widely traded, Ennion’s glassware was highly valued and accompanied its owner to the afterlife.

Ennion’s works stand apart from the larger corpus of mold-blown glass for their refined designs and delicate decorative patterns. His designs set a high standard that his competitors attempted to emulate, but were unable to do so.

Ennion and His Legacy: Mold-Blown Glass from Ancient Rome is on view at The Corning Museum of Glass from May 16, 2015 to January 4, 2016.

Published on January 5, 2015