All About Glass

You are here

Reflecting Antiquity: Modern Glass Inspired by Ancient Rome

All About Glass

A groundbreaking exhibition produced by the J. Paul Getty Museum and The Corning Museum of Glass, Reflecting Antiquity: Modern Glass Inspired by Ancient Rome opened on October 18, 2007 at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, and ran through January 14, 2008. Then it traveled to The Corning Museum of Glass, where it was on view February 15 – May 27, 2008.

Reflecting Antiquity was the first major exhibition to focus on the influence of ancient Roman styles on the glassmakers of the 19th century. Modern creations were displayed side by side with the inspirational Roman originals. The exhibition was co-curated by David Whitehouse and Karol Wight.

An Age of Artistic Revivals

Most of us know the 19th century as an age of progress, when spectacular strides were made in many fields, including science and technology, manufacturing, and public education. But as far as art and architecture are concerned, the 19th century also was a backward-looking age, full of artistic revivals. Sometimes a design revival reflected a desire to redefine national identity (as with the Celtic Revival in Ireland). In other cases artists looked back to what they regarded as a purer form of expression (as with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in England).

In Europe, this enthusiasm for past, and occasionally exotic, styles led to experiments with numerous visual languages. For example, the revival of medieval Gothic architecture and ornament was reflected in London’s House of Lords being hailed as “the finest specimen of Gothic civil architecture in Europe” when it was dedicated in 1847. Likewise, Orientalism—the romantic infatuation with images based on the art, architecture, and landscape of the Middle East—blossomed during the 19th century. Also, Japonisme borrowed motifs and aesthetic ideas from Japan after that country opened its ports to foreign trade in 1854.

Revivals in Glass

reflecting antiquity portland vase replica

A number of 19th-century glassmakers responded to the demand for products inspired by historical or exotic styles. Reflecting Antiquity explores the ways in which they drew inspiration from the glass of ancient Rome. The show began with an overview of the ways in which glassmakers in the 1800s ransacked the repertoire of designs they inherited from their predecessors: ransacked, refined, and reinvented.

The exhibition, which contained slightly more than one hundred objects, was really seven small, stellar shows rolled into one. The first room encapsulated half-a-dozen of the different historical styles embraced by 19th-century glassmakers, from ancient Rome to the world of medieval Islam and Renaissance Venice. It is dangerous to make such claims, but this may be a “first:” the first time the role of glassmakers in the well-known and much studied revival of historical styles (Historismus, to use the German term) has taken center stage.

The overview is the appetizer. The banquet follows: one rich course after another. In six self-contained exhibits we celebrate the ways in which ancient Roman glass influenced 19th-century glassmakers and designers.

The Rediscovery of Ancient Glass

The first ancient Roman glass object to attract serious attention in the Renaissance, the Portland Vase was found near Rome some time before 1600. It is a small masterpiece of cameo glass (glass made in two or more layers, with decoration carved through the outer layer or layers). After its transfer to England in the late 1700s, the Portland Vase became an icon of Neo-Classical design. Master potter Josiah Wedgwood poured money and the efforts of his best craftsmen into perfecting ceramic replicas of the Portland Vase, and, later, John Northwood and Joseph Locke sealed their reputations by making glass replicas. (One of Wedgwood’s first ceramic versions (92.7.2), together with Northwood’s and Locke’s unique glass replicas (92.2.7 and 92.2.15), were in the show.) These replicas excited a craze for cameo glass in late-Victorian England. Brothers George and Thomas Woodall, working for Thomas Webb & Sons, led a team of extraordinarily skilled cold workers, who produced meticulously finished examples of cameo glass which, although inspired by Northwood’s copy of the Portland Vase, took on a life of their own and became less and less recognizable as descendents of the ancient Roman masterpiece.

Glass from the Catacombs

Renaissance antiquarians then became aware of “gold glasses”—objects usually recovered from the catacombs (the underground tunnels that served as the cemeteries of the Christian and the Jewish communities of ancient Rome). Gold glasses are decorated with gold foil that is sandwiched between layers of fused glass. This glass began to attract attention in the 1600s, but it was not until 1858 that an illustrated monograph made images of nearly 400 gold glasses available to the public. The craftsmen of Murano produced imitations and, later, variations on the ancient theme.

Cage Cups and Mosaic Glass

reflecting antiquity cage cup

Other imitations followed, as antiquarians and collectors became progressively more familiar with the repertoire of ancient glass. The first Roman cage cup to attract attention in modern times came to light in 1675. The show included three ancient cage cups, including the famous Rothschild Lycurgus Cup, which is green in reflected light and red when light passes through it.

There are nine imitations, and these include the first modern example, made from a design by Leó Valentin Pantocsek in the 1860s.

Ancient mosaic glass became widely known following the rediscovery and excavation of the buried remains of Pompeii in 1748. In the 19th century, glassmakers, especially in Murano, experimented with designs based on these spectacular originals. Sometimes the ancient and modern glasses are so similar that experts have difficulty telling them apart.

Recreating Iridescence

Almost all known Roman glass had been buried for centuries, either in tombs or with the remains of houses or cities. During those centuries, a reaction between the glass and its environment caused the surface of the glass to deteriorate, a process known as weathering. Sometimes weathered surfaces have an iridescent, rainbow-like appearance, and this unintended effect appealed to glassmakers and collectors. The exhibition included both Roman originals with iridescent weathering and modern objects with deliberately iridized surfaces, which range from the subtle hues on two of Pantocsek’s designs to the more strident tones of Frederick Carder and Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Imitating Ancient Rome

The final sections of the exhibition paired Roman objects with modern copies, including a rare “jug within a jug” made in Cologne about A.D. 200 and a faithful copy made just outside Cologne by the Rheinische Glashütten A.G. in the late 19th century. The Rheinische Glashütten specialized in making decorative and useful glasses in a variety of historical styles, and the show included one of their trade catalogues (issued in 1886), which belongs to the Rakow Library.


Published on October 16, 2011