Wondrous Glass: Images and Allegories

The invention of glass-blowing occurred at a time when thinkers were pondering the physical phenomena around them. For Lucretius, the properties of matter were a primary concern -- not least the properties which enable us to see through glass but not through other materials. He writes:
Though voice may pass unharmed through winding pores in things,
yet images demure;
for these are rent asunder -- save it be they stream
Through passages unbent, as those of glass,
Wherethrough all atoms speed their winged flight.
( On the Nature of Things IV.87.)
Not long after these thoughts were formulated, glass became a favorite subject for still life painters eager to explore the qualities of transparence, color, and light. The earliest still life representations featuring glass vessels all depict the objects filled with fruit. As a motif, the still life with fruit goes back to Classical Greek prototypes known to us only through the descriptions of them by Roman authors. Pliny notes that Zeuxis "produced a picture of grapes so successfully that birds flew up to the stage-building". In any case, the thin-walled transparency of blown-glass vessels such as the carchesium from Toledo challenged the painter to capture the optical qualities of the glass container as well as the image of the fruit within.

Painters and poets were also intrigued at this time with the similarities between glass and water. Still life paintings from Herculaneum depict clear glass vessels filled with water. In these versions, the glass is transparent, and the water within is a glimmering surface of light. In a more lyrical way, the painting from Boscoreale also juxtaposes the qualities of glass and water. Here, the glass bowl of gruit, painted as if sitting on a window sill, is adjacent to an idyllic landscape scene in which shimmering-clear brook water trickles down over the rocks. Only a few years later, Horace was to compose his ode to the spring of Bandusia; and indeed, poem and painting evoke the same image of glass:

O spring of Bandusia, more shining than glass,
deserving of sweet wine and flowers,
tomorrow you will be presented with a kid whose forehead,
swelling with the tips of horns,
gives promise of both love and battles;
in vain: for he, the offspring of a playful flock,
shall stain for you your chill waters with his red blood.

The black hour of the flaring Dog-Star knows
no means to touch you:
you provide pleasing coolness
for tired oxen and the straggling herd.

You also shall become one of the famous fountains,
since I describe the oak tree planted over your hollowed rocks
from which your chattering waters jump down.
(Book III, Ode 13.)

The imagery associated with glass in the other poems by Horace is sometimes evocative of darker thoughts. "Indiscreet trust" is "as clear as glass and ready-charged with secrets to repeat" in Ode 18 of Book I; and Circe, in contrast to the faithful Penelope, is "like glass" in Ode 17 of Book I. So too, in the visual imagery of Roman art there is a darker side to the portrayal of one quality of glass, at any rate: Its quality of reflection. In every culture, mirrors are laden with associations of deep psycho-social significance. Rome was certainly no exception. A mirror could be any reflecting surface. In the Pompeiian wall paintings, imagery of reflection seems always to be of a foreboding kind: Narcissus with his face reflected in the dark pool of water; Thetis reflected pensively in the gleaming shield of Achilles; and the enigmatic scene of a woman in the Villa of the Mysteries whose image is reflected in a hand mirror. This last scene is puzzling on two counts. The image we are shown in the mirror is not the proper image that would be depicted if the painter's aim had been to show a rendition of actuality. Rather, we see a strange scene in which the standing companion looks down into the mirror; and in the mirror she sees the same view of the seated woman that we see from outside the picture. Furthermore, the form of the mirror is unusual, and perhaps unique. It must be either of silver or glass set into a folding, square "compact."

Pliny speaks of glass mirrors on several occasions. In one instance he is very explicit on the subject:

Silver mirrors have come to be preferred [to bronze ones]; they were first made by Pasiteles in the period of Pompey the Great [106-48 B.C.]. But it has recently come to be believed that a more reliable reflection is given by applying a layer of gold to the back of glass.
(Natural HIstory XXXIII.45.)
By the seventh century, glass seems entirely to have usurped the place of metal for mirrors. At least, Isidore of Seville tells us that "no other material is more fitting for mirrors . . ." (Etymologies XVI.16.)

Whether the mirror in the Villa of the Mysteries is a very early glass one, or whether it is an unusual silver one, its powers of reflection transcend the ordinary and venture off into a zone of allegory which we on the outside looking in are not yet equipped to comprehend. As we attempt to understand the sometimes enigmatic world of Rome, glass certainly acts as a mirror on its art, its poetry, its observations of nature, its cults and social morés, and its networks of trade and diplomacy. The images we perceive are of a complex, many-faceted society. And this is as it should be--for these images reflect back upon the complexities and antitheses inherent in glass itself. Even the derivation of the Latin work for glass -- "vitrum" has been much disputed by etymologists beginning with Isidore. He tells us:

It is called glass [vitrum] because it is, with its clearness, transparent to the vision [visus]. For in other materials whatever is contained inside is hidden, whereas in glass whatever clearness or appearance is manifested on the outside, it is the same inside, and though enclosed in a certain manner, is manifest.
(Etymologies XVI.16)
Thus, according to Isidore, "vitrum" comes from "videre" -- meaning "to see." Later etymologists have suggested other ideas on the subject. One proposes the Sanskrit "vithura" -- meaning "fragile, brittle, breakable thing." Another proposes a derivation from the Latin "virere" -- meaning "to be green." Still another proposes a descent from the Sanskrit "vitrás" or "vétás" -- meaning "white, light, shining."

And so it is that wondrous glass means many things.

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