Glass is most commonly defined as an inorganic example of fusion that has cooled due to its transition from liquid to solid. Typically brittle and transparent, glass is abundant as an artistic medium today, but it is certainly well-known for its purely functional uses. The earliest examples of glassmaking are traced to Mesopotamia around 3500 B.C. Over the centuries various glassmaking centers, such as Venice, have achieved great acclaim for their contributions to glassmaking artistry and to the creation of artistic objects conceived in glass.
Scientifically speaking, glass is made from pure silica or quartz sand. Other ingredients are typically added such as sodium carbonate, lime (calcium oxide), magnesium oxide, and aluminum oxide. Additionally, other ingredients may be added to change the properties of the glass to suit a particular purpose. Ancient glassmakers began with soda ash which they obtained from various plants. The earliest examples of glass work may have been created as a byproduct of faience which is an important material in the evolution of glass.
Archaeologists have demonstrated that glassmaking was a technological secret. Glassmaking centers emerged and their methods for producing glass were carefully guarded in order to protect their work force and ultimately their trade monopolies on a relatively luxurious commodity. The earliest glassmaking instructions or guide book dates to roughly 650 B.C. The techniques, however, began to spread by the end of the Bronze Age. The term glass has a decidedly Roman influence which is unsurprising as the term took root from the glassmaking center at Trier which was under Roman control. Glass blowing, discovered around in the first century B.C., helped to transform the glassmaking field. From this period on, glassmaking technologies spread throughout Europe taking hold, of course, in some highly specialized centers.
Early glass was often formed into beads. During the Roman period glass was decidedly functional (beautiful and luxurious) but primarily used for drinking vessels. Intensely colored glass was highly prized during the Hellenistic period. The desire for highly colored glass was then replaced by a desire for more purely colorless or aqua colored glass during the first century A.D. As the centuries drew by, the renewed desire for stained glass was a highly prized example of glasswork.
Different geographic locations became known for various glassmaking technologies and glass products. The Anglo-Saxon realm, for instance, became known for its glass vessels and glass jewelry. The Islamic world was particularly known for its extraordinary colored glass lanterns. During the Medieval period Venice began to perfect many glassmaking techniques to market glassware that was unrivaled throughout the world as evidenced by the elegant glassmakers of Murano, an island within Venetian territory.
Today glass is still used to create artistic glassware and glass objects. From vases to paperweights, glass is an important art medium that continues to be housed and displayed in many of the world’s most prestigious galleries and museums. Glass sculptures, mosaic glass tiles, and etched glass are additional examples of this medium that has roots in the ancient world.