Museum Home Current Exhibitions Molten Color: Glassmaking in Antiquity

October 8, 2010–February 26, 2017 at the Getty Villa

Blue Perfume Flask / Unknown
Blue Perfume Flask with White, Yellow, and Turquoise Feathered Decoration, Greek, 400–200 B.C.

Over 180 ancient glass objects from the collection of Erwin Oppenländer are featured in this exhibition.

The Oppenländer collection, which the Getty acquired in 2003, is remarkable for its cultural and chronological breadth. It includes works made in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Greek world, and the Roman Empire, and spans the entire period of ancient glass production, from its origins in Mesopotamia in about 2500 B.C. to Byzantine and Islamic glass of the eleventh century A.D.

Also notable in the Oppenländer collection is the variety of ancient glassmaking techniques, such as casting, core forming, mosaic, inflation, mold blowing, cameo carving, incising, and cutting. All these techniques are still used by glass artists today.

White Perfume Flask / Unknown
White Perfume Flask with Purple Zigzags, Greek, 600–300 B.C.

Core-Formed Glass

Core forming was one of the earliest glassmaking techniques. Glassmakers shaped the body of the vessel around a core of ceramic-like material, wound colored trails of hot glass around it, and added handles and a rim. They then let the vessel cool and removed the core.

Most early core-formed containers were small flasks for perfumed oil, such as this one, which is only about five inches tall.

The coloration of the container shown here indicates that it was meant to imitate marble.

Amber Hemispherical Bowl / Unknown
Amber Bowl with White Ridges, Roman, A.D. 1–100
learn_more See the ridges on the bottom of this bowl.

Cast Glass

Casting is a technique of pouring hot glass into a mold. After the glass cools, glassmakers use various grinding and cutting techniques to refine the vessel's form and decoration. Decorative patterns are sometimes cut into the sides with a cutting wheel.

Bowls were the most common cast vessels. Pendants, inlays, and other small objects were also created using this technique.

This bowl has two layers of different colors. Much of the white overlayer was removed through grinding, leaving ridges of white over the amber underlayer.

Bowl with Blue and White Canes / Unknown
Bowl with Blue and White Canes, Greek or Roman, 100–1 B.C.

Mosaic Glass

Mosaic glass vessels are among the most colorful ancient containers. They were formed by fusing numerous slices or ribbons (lengths) of cane in molds until they melted together into a swirl of colors, as seen on this blue and white bowl.

Multicolored canes and figural compositions for plaques and beads were made by layering different colors and manipulating them into designs. Roman mosaic glass later inspired Venetian glassmakers to create millefiori (Italian for "thousand flowers").

Lidded Container with Marbling / Unknown
Lidded Container with Amber and White Marbling, Roman, A.D. 1–100
learn_more See this container's translucent lid.

This pyxis, a lidded cosmetics or jewelry box, is made from marbled glass, a variant of mosaic glass.

The Roman glassmaker created a swirling pattern (similar to agate) by melting multiple colors of glass together.

Blue Splashware Cup / Unknown
Blue Splashware Cup, Roman, A.D. 1–100

Free-Blown Glass

In the environs of Jerusalem, in about 50 B.C., glassmakers discovered they could inflate glass into a bubble at the end of a tube. This new glassblowing technique allowed glassmakers to produce vessels so quickly and cheaply that glass containers began to replace clay ones for household use.

Blown-glass vessels were decorated using a variety of techniques—pinching, pressing, pulling, painting, applying trails (threads of glass), and rolling in colored glass chips before reinflating (to create splashware). Glass with cut decoration was made to imitate hard-to-cut rock crystal and is often colorless. Painted glass is very rare, and the pigment has often worn away.

This splashware cup was a luxury item that was probably used in a wealthy home. It was decorated by rolling hot blue glass into glass chips of other colors.

Lotus Bud Beaker / Roman
Lotus Bud Beaker, Roman, A.D. 1–100

Mold-Blown Glass

In about 25 B.C. glassmakers began to create decorative vessels, such as this cup, by blowing glass into a mold with incised designs. Mold fragments of stone, clay, bronze, and plaster have survived from antiquity. The earliest makers of molds for glassware may have been ceramists familiar with constructing molds for clay vessels.

Mold designs often incorporated decorative elements, such as palm fronds, columns, or lotus buds (as on this vessel), that disguise the joins of different sections.

Cup with Black, Green, and White Canes / Greek or Roman
Cup with Blue, White, and Yellow Canes, Greek, 100–1 B.C.


Glass had both practical and decorative uses in antiquity, just as it does today.

The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Etruscans stored ink, food, cosmetics, and perfumed oil in glass containers. They used glass tableware and played with glass game pieces. They looked into glass mirrors, lit the night with glass lamps, and gazed through glass windows. The wealthy decorated their homes with glass mosaics, inlays, and statuettes.

This patella cup was used nearly 2,000 years ago for eating and drinking.

Blue Perfume Flask / Unknown
Blue Perfume Flask with a White Trail, Roman, A.D. 1–100

Perfume was precious and merited fine containers such as this one.

A glassmaker inflated this vessel and then wound a white trail around the blue glass body to create an elegant pattern.

This exhibition is a variation of a show that was presented January 28–July 24, 2006, and January 11–April 23, 2007, at the Getty Villa.

Watch a glassmaker demonstrate ancient glassmaking techniques.

Core-Formed Glass (2:05)
Mosaic Glass (2:50)
Free-Blown Glass (1:59)
Mold-Blown Glass (1:47)
Glassmaking Techniques