All About Glass

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Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus), Historia naturalis, about A.D. 77

All About Glass

First printed edition published by Johannes de Spira, Venice, 1469

A chief idea in ancient thought and in Renaissance Humanism was the centrality of the individual in the world. Accordingly, the natural world was considered to be less a manifestation of a divine creator and more a stage for the drama of human existence, which made it a source of endless fascination. No wonder, then, that an encyclopedia of natural history dating from the early Roman Empire was extraordinarily popular, not only in its own time but during and well after the Renaissance. Historia naturalis, compiled by Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79) about the year 77, contained 37 books, or topical chapters, covering what was known of the natural sciences up to that time. It included chapters on astronomy, geography, medicine, minerals, human beings, animals, and related historical events. Book 1 indicates the sweep of the work in a detailed table of contents, accompanied by a list of established experts from whom Pliny borrowed. Pliny was as much storyteller as scientist, and his writing is laced with both anecdotes and philosophical musings that, for the most part, bemoan mankind’s misappropriation of nature.

Pliny, the Elder, Historia naturalis, First printed edition published by Johannes de Spira, Venice, 1469. CMGL 84191.In the last pages of Book 36, Pliny introduces the subject of glass by describing the relatively recent decorative technique of tiling vaulted ceilings with glass mosaics. Then he recounts a fable-like tale about the discovery of glass, which takes place on the glistening sands along the Belus River near Mt. Carmel in ancient Syria. Pliny writes: “There is a story that once a ship belonging to some traders in natural soda put in here and that they scattered along the shore to prepare a meal. Since, however, no stones suitable for supporting their cauldrons were forthcoming, they rested them on lumps of soda from their cargo. When these became heated and completely mingled with the sand on the beach a strange translucent liquid flowed forth in streams; and this, it is said, was the origin of glass.”

Elsewhere, Pliny discusses the nature of glass, noting that it was well suited for coloring, that it was pliable, and that it replaced silver and gold in drinking vessels—except for hot liquids, of course. In Book 24, he mentions a theater with a three-story stage: the bottom and top levels were made of marble and gilded planks respectively, separated by a level made entirely of glass!

The 1469 printing of Pliny’s Historia naturalis owned by the Rakow Library is a rare first edition. It was the second title and one of only three works to have been completed by the first printer of Venice, Johannes de Spira, before his death in 1470. Probably no more than 300 copies were published at that time.

Detail of the multicolored letteringIn September 1469, de Spira received the privilege of a printing monopoly from the Venetian Signoria. Judging by the quality of the Rakow Library’s Historia naturalis, we can readily surmise that the privilege was intended to recognize the quality and beauty of his workmanship. This is a magnificent book, if solely for its utter legibility. There is no excess here. The clarity of the gently rounded roman type and the uncrowded, uniform spacing satisfy the eye both aesthetically and functionally, making for easy reading. The decorative touches show the influence of intricate Byzantine art forms that were well known to Venetians, although here they are softer and more delicately rendered. In addition to the lovely multicolored border surrounding the first page, many large initials are used to introduce new sections of text. Each letter is drawn in red, and like a trellis, it is wreathed in a tracery of blue, green, and brown arabesques.

Historia naturalis has had a remarkable longevity. Following de Spira, it was printed in many editions and translated into vernacular languages throughout Europe. The Rakow Library’s collection includes two of these translations: a French edition published in Lyons by Claude Senneton in 1566 [CMGL 97187], and an English edition published by Adam Islip in 1601 [CMGL 97188].

Diane Dolbashian

This essay is part of a series on Treasures in the Rakow Research Library.

Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus). Historia naturalis. Venice: Johannes de Spira, 1469.

——. Natural History. The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1967 correct.

——. The Natural History of Pliny. Volume 6, translated by John Bostock and H. T. Riley. London: George Bell and Sons, 1898.

Science in the Early Roman Empire: Pliny the Elder, His Sources and Influence. Edited by Roger French and Frank Greenaway. London: Croom Helm, 1986.

Published on January 6, 2014