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Glass From the Ancient World
by Bob Brooke

Ancient Rome will once again come alive at the Corning Museum of Glass when it mounts an exhibition devoted to ancient mold-blown glass. The exhibition will feature works from the early first century A.D to the 7th century A.D.—600 years after the innovations of Roman glassmaker Ennion.

Embedded within the main exhibit is another, Ennion and his Legacy: Mold-Blown Glass from Ancient Rome, which will explore the diversity of Roman mold-blown glass, which was traded across the Mediterranean world. The exhibit, which opens on May 16, 2015 and runs through January 4, 2016, will also reveal the stories these vessels tell about the ancient world—from the development of the perfume and oil trade to the celebrity culture surrounding gladiators and Roman empresses.

On display will be 129 works, including highlights from the Museum’s collection of ancient glass, along with loans from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other international public and private collections. The exhibit will illustrate the relationship between mold-blown glass vessels and their counterparts in ceramic and metal, which had been shaped in molds for centuries. The Romans introduced the use of molds in glassmaking at the end of the 1st century B.C., shortly after the introduction of glassblowing—a revolutionary breakthrough that made the production of vessels faster and simpler. Roman glassmakers quickly adapted the molds, which had been used to shape ceramic and metal objects, for glassblowing and enabled quicker manufacturing processes, standardization of size, the production of multiples, and more elaborate, intricate designs than those seen previously in ceramic or metal.

The Corning Museum of Glass is home to the most comprehensive collection of Roman glass in the world. The images depicted on these pieces reveals what was important in popular culture in the ancient world—from the gods to favorite gladiators. In addition, mold-blown glass played an important role in the ancient marketplace. Back then, capacity of storage vessels varied. But the uniformity of mold-blown vessels ensured that consumers got what they paid for.

The glass vessels from the ancient Roman world are diverse in size, shape, and decoration. Some designs have direct links to religion, mythology, and literature, while others contain images and inscriptions that identify gladiators and were sold as souvenirs at the arena.

One of the most common surviving of mold-blown objects is perfume bottles. A
variety of colors among the surviving examples have led scholars to speculate that the colors may have played a role in marketing different scents.

There are also examples of a popular form known as a “janiform” head flask, or vessels with two faces placed back to back. These flasks were inspired by the Roman god Janus, who presided over beginnings and endings, and thus was used as a guardian of doorways; Janus was represented as a double-faced head.

Vessels, believed to be souvenirs from chariot races and gladiatorial combats, are noted for their inscriptions, naming the participants at the events.

Much of what scholars know today about mold-blown glass they learned from careful observation of the vessels themselves, noting the location of the mold seams, and using these same seams to identify how many parts of a mold glassmakers used to shape the glass. The exhibition will also feature a new video on Roman mold-blowing glass techniques to illustrate how the manufacture of these vessels may have been achieved. Very few molds have survived from antiquity, so modern glassmakers have attempted to recreate ancient techniques by using the designs of ancient vessels to replicate molds and create ancient style glass vessels with them.

Embedded within The Corning Museum of Glass-organized exhibition is the Metropolitan Museum of Art-organized exhibition, Ennion: Master of Glass, which brings together 24 of the 50 known, still surviving works by Ennion, a glass artist who was active in the mid-first century A.D. It will be on view through October 19, 2015.

Ennion produced the finest mold-blown glass in antiquity and historians presume he was the owner and master craftsman of a glass workshop located somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean region, perhaps in Sidon, a site in modern-day Lebanon. He was the first glass artist to sign his works, incorporating into his designs a prominent inscription in Greek that reads: "Ennion Made (It)." Beyond Ennion’s name, little is known about the man or his workshop. His wares have been found throughout the ancient Roman world, attesting to their desirability.

Other inscribed works in the exhibit include the names of their makers, such as Aristeas, Neikais, and Jason. The show will explore Ennion’s legacy in a variety of ways, including his artistic influence on the medium, his successful attempt to promote himself and his workshop through a uniform signature, and the ancient stories revealed by his decorative and figural designs.

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