What is – and what was, historically – the significance of glass as an artistic material? What forms of knowledge are required for its making, and what aesthetic agency does it possess? These questions lie at the core of a workshop organised jointly by the British School at Rome’s Faculty of Archaeology, History and Letters and its Faculty of the Fine Arts, led by Rosamond McKitterick and Vivien Lovell in collaboration with Hugo Chapman, the Simon Sainsbury Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum.
Writing about the legendary origins of glassmaking, naturalist Pliny the Elder reported that a group of merchants gathered on the Syrian sea-shore to cook their meal on a fire. As they could not find any stones to support their cauldrons, the men employed for the purpose some lumps of nitre which they had taken from the boat: ‘upon its being subjected to the action of the fire, in combination with the sand of the sea-shore, they beheld transparent streams flowing forth of a liquid hitherto unknown: this, it is said, was the origin of glass.’ (Natural History, Book 36:65)
Since its legendary beginnings, glass and its industry have provoked reflections about the complex intersections between technical and natural knowledge, aesthetics and artistic practice, trading networks and material culture. They therefore represented an ideal case study to inaugurate a brand-new series of BSR events on the historicity of materials. The Glass Study Day, held at the British Museum on 2 November 2017, brought together an interdisciplinary group of scientists, humanities scholars and artists to discuss the history, archaeology and practice of glassmaking and consumption from a variety of perspectives and to showcase research developed by BSR scholars and practitioners in this field.
The visual qualities of glass – its translucency, transparency and polychromy– make it an aesthetically appealing, yet challenging material to display. In a series of fascinating gallery talks, curators Hugo Chapman, Dora Thornton and Lesley Fitton, glassmakers Mark Taylor and David Hill, and BSR faculty members Rosamond McKitterick and Susan Walker, stimulated a dialogue about the aesthetics of glass across the Mediterranean from antiquity to the Renaissance, and about the different historical and cultural narratives that glass artefacts contribute to articulate as museum displays.
A fragile artistic material, glass naturally invites questions about its conservation and physical care. A visit to the British Museum’s Ceramics, Glass and Metals Conservation Studio and Scientific Research Laboratory, introduced by Andrew Meek and led by the museum’s conservation specialists, illustrated the practices and technologies available for the scientific study of vitreous artefacts, and for their restoration.
Following such close-up analysis of artefacts in the galleries and study rooms of the museum, in the afternoon our workshop participants gathered in the British Museum’s Stevenson Lecture Theatre for a final session of lectures open to the public. Following an introductory speech by BSR Director Stephen Milner, John Shepherd and John Mitchell respectively exposed the key contribution made by BSR scholars to the archaeology of glass, and the significance of glass excavations and study at the early medieval site of San Vincenzo in Volturno. Art historians Paul Hills and Stefania Gerevini turned to medieval portable artefacts and Renaissance paintings to illuminate the role played by glass and by other translucent materials in the definition of Venetian visual culture. They were followed by artists Antoni Malinowski and Liz Rideal, who bore witness to the enduring aesthetic potential of transparency and translucency by discussing their recent work with glass at the BSR and across the UK. Finally, material scientist Lindsay Greer surprised and charmed us all with his exposé on the material and chemical structures of glass – fun fact: who knew there was a frog that vitrifies in order to survive the chill of winter…
Stefania Gerevini (BSR Research Fellow and Assistant Professor of Art History at Bocconi University)
Photos by Claire Burridge.