Sunday, October 17, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Marco Beretta, The Alchemy of Glass: Counterfeit, Imitation, and Transmutation in Ancient Glassmaking. Sagamore Beach: Science History Publications/USA, 2009. Pp. xvii, 198. ISBN 9780881353501. $59.95.
Reviewed by Janet Duncan Jones, Bucknell University


As a student of the history of glass production and a believer in the intrinsic appeal of the material, I find the central premise of this book—that the nature of glass and of certain key events in the history of glassmaking led to the development of an entire system of thought about the nature of materials (however wrong-headed it might have been)—immensely satisfying. After all, glass is all about transformation – the initial transformation of powdery silica and flux materials into glass, the unusual ability of glass with the addition of metals to mimic precious materials, the quick manipulation of a blob of viscous molten glass into just about any shape in any color at any level of opacity. Watching faces watching glassblowing for the first time is watching wonder. The ambiguous nature of glass, with the characteristics of both a liquid and a solid, has long puzzled and fascinated, so much so that, as Marco Beretta posits in his new book exploring the role of glass in the history of alchemy, some 'envisaged in the very nature of glass the possibility of producing unlimited chemical transformations' (166).

The present study has its origins in an interdisciplinary seminar on glass and the sciences from Antiquity to the Modern Era offered by the author at the University of Bologna in 2002.1 From that seminar came an exhibition, organized with Giovanni Di Pasquale and published in 2004, focusing on glassmaking and the natural sciences during the Roman Empire.2 Beretta sees this book as a kind of prequel to a recent exhibition at the Corning Museum of Glass on glass and alchemy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that illustrated the importance of glass in the development of chemical philosophy and manufacturing. His aim is to take us back to the early history of alchemy and to 'show that glass played an important role in ancient technical and alchemical literature, and that the chemical operations devised to improve glassmaking inspired alchemists to better define the theoretical boundaries of their discipline and, more specifically, the concept of transmutation' (xi). Beretta sets himself an ambitious task that requires him to provide both an account of the early history of glass production and an account of the early philosophical and theoretical considerations of materials, and particularly of glass, that led to the development of alchemy.

In Chapter 1, "Artificial and Natural Glass in Mesopotamia and Egypt," Beretta argues for the centrality of the Egyptians in pondering both the nature of glass as a material within the world of minerals and the nature of imitations of precious and semi-precious stones in glass. Although the Mesopotamians had priority in glass production, he sees their focus as primarily technological and their recipes as their main contribution to later alchemical research. Beretta admits early on that there is little literary evidence for an Egyptian origin of ancient alchemy and that most arguments depend on archaeological evidence and later texts, but asserts that the recent publication of new texts 'enable us to better contextualize Egyptian craftsmen's opinions of their own activities, and to partially reassess the skepticism inspiring the contemporary historiography of alchemy' (8). Unfortunately, after this hopeful early assertion, there is little citation of new source material and the author makes claims that exceed textual or archaeological evidence from New Kingdom Egypt (or later). No one doubts that the New Kingdom Egyptians pursued faience and glass production with energy and creativity, and that their product demonstrates a masterful understanding of the raw materials and technology of their craft. But how does one know that this mastery 'manifested a theoretical interest in the classification of glass within a "philosophy" of matter' in this early period (8)? Late sources are cited as reflections of this scheme and for the relationship between the mineral the divine world, but it is unclear how we get to his assertion that "as the gods' influence over the mineral kingdom was so pervasive, craftsmen who were engaged in the manipulation of metals and stones were in touch with godly particles and fluids, and their capacity to transform matter thus placed them in the position of demiurges" (16). Beretta provides little help for the reader hoping to find the source of his certainty.

To me, the most fascinating line of inquiry in this chapter is the consideration of just what an imitation was in the minds of the ancient Egyptians. Was it a re-creation identical and of identical value to the original material or a mere counterfeit? Perhaps it was a matter of translation, but it was unclear to me what the author meant precisely by such phrases as 'faithful to the original' and 're-creations of native materials.' The discussion is interesting, but not useful in pointing to sources that might help us know what the Egyptians thought.

In Chapter 2, "The Greek Philosophers: Between Crystal and Glass", the author surveys ancient Greek thinking about glass and the ways successive terms used to refer to glass might reflect the evolution of thought about the nature of glass. Archaeological and literary evidence shows the Greeks to have been more interested in theorizing about glass than in making it and the author, developing on his theory of Egyptian origins, posits that the ancient Greeks' understanding of glass held similarities to and was possibly fundamentally influenced by Egyptian ideas. Like the Egyptians, the Greeks categorized glass as a metal because of its 'meltability', but they also saw it as partaking of the nature of rock crystal and valued colorlessness rather than the vivid color that the Egyptians considered an essential quality of glass. A fascinating discussion for those interested in the history of technology concerns the effort, in Aristotle's time, to rehabilitate metallurgy, whose stature was diminished by the intensive technological methods needed for smelting, by demonstrating that such processes merely recreated natural processes. Hence we have, eventually, Pliny's take on the origin of glass from 'an almost natural combination of its main ingredients' in a campfire on a Phoenician beach (39).

Chapter 3, "A Technical Revolution: The Introduction and Cultural Impact of Glassblowing," explores the sudden transformation wrought by the revolutionary introduction of glassblowing both on glass production and on thinking about glass. In slightly more than a generation, glassblowing transformed glass manufacture from a labor-intensive luxury industry into one of the first models of mass production. Here Beretta makes a persuasive argument for one of the central premises of his book—that the quick spread of glass into the fabric of daily life (in the form of table wares, wall decorations, even cinerary urns) and the transformation of lighting (through the introduction of windows and lamps) engendered a sense of wonder that renewed intensive consideration of the nature of the material. One of the most interesting aspects of this chapter is the author's careful consideration of the role of glass as a medium for understanding the nature of the eye and in the development of early optical instruments.

Where previous chapters focused on the development of the philosophy of materials, Chapter 4, "Glass and Alchemy" deals with the emergence of true alchemical thinking and writing, i.e. about the intentional transmutation of materials. Many of my frustrations with previous chapters were resolved by the clarity with which terms, chronologies, and background are handled in this chapter. While the debate about the nature of imitation is referred to in previous chapters, here it becomes clear that, by the early first century CE, glass gems in imitation of precious and semi-precious stones come to be considered by some, like Livy and Seneca, to be contemptible counterfeits created by craftsmen who 'contended with nature over the act of creation' (96). Beretta sees debate on imitation arising as glassblowing allowed craftsmen to produce elegant objects of nearly any color and degree of transparency. Beretta also sees it as no coincidence that the emergence of true alchemical thinking coincided with the invention of glassblowing. "The marvelous effects achieved through the development of glassmaking surely encouraged the idea that the imitation of nature could be brought to such extraordinary heights that the artificial fabrication of natural objects was in reach" (107). The chapter ends with an intriguing survey of the textual and archaeological evidence for specialized scientific and alchemic equipment (although it is not clear where the line between the two lies) in the ancient world.

Chapter 5, "From Byzantine Glass to Early Modern Alchemy," surveys the rise and fall of the fortunes of glassmaking in the period after the division of the empire and of treatises on the subject up through the mid-18th century. In the 4th century AD, glassmaking and experimental science both migrated east. Beretta sees Constantinople as the place where alchemy evolved as an independent discipline of high status at a time of 'widespread experimentation with new glass techniques'(141). Evolving ideas filtered back to the west (the glassmaking industry at Torcello is born in the 8th century), but it was with the cathedral builders that glassmaking rose again to prominence in the west as stained glass became 'an important part of the practical and metaphysical aspects of the new Church architecture'(146). In surveying the rise of the more comprehensive treatises on glass making, Beretta describes how the stubborn veil of protective, monopolistic secrecy with which the production of glass had been surrounded from its earliest period of production aided in the promulgation of bizarre stories about the mysterious nature of the material and helped glass remain the darling of alchemists.

In his epilogue, Beretta describes a final transformation, in the eighteenth century, when economics and the commercial potential of glass intervened, much as they had in the first century AD, to transform the nature of production. But this time, scientific scrutiny and chemical analysis pierced the veil and, with all the ferocity of those who had earlier protected the secrets of glassmaking, scientists like Pierre Loysel in his Essai sur les principes de l'art de la verrerie3 stripped away those secrets using new abilities to determine specific gravity and to make caloric assessments of heat (170). Whereas Loysel proclaims a new beginning for the industry, Beretta mourns the loss of the level of perfection in ancient glassmaking "as if the art's alchemical status added something extra to its productions, never to be repeated again" (170-171).

I came to this book with a fairly comprehensive knowledge of the history of glassmaking, but none at all about the history of alchemy. Thus, I found myself frustrated on several levels. Early chapters contained sweeping unsupported statements throughout, particularly on the centrality of the Egyptians to early developments in the history of alchemy and to Greek thinking about the nature of glass. In addition, here is little help at the start for the reader trying to understand what alchemy is, how it fit into ancient scientific thinking, and when it appeared as a distinct discipline. The author's terse dismissal of the Mesopotamian glassmaking industry in preference to the Egyptian (on scant evidence either way), his long tour of Trowbridge's old linguistic territory in Chapter 2, and his inaccuracies on small matters such as the Byzantine origins of gold sandwich glass in Chapter 5 (it is known in the Hellenistic period) undercut his more interesting arguments.

These weaknesses may have much to do with the chronological arrangement of the chapters. As I read on, and the author found himself on more secure footing, his arguments became more coherent, more persuasive, and his digressions (on optics, on scientific equipment, on medieval alchemists) more informative. I almost wished that I had read the book backward or that the author had found a way to organize the book that played more to the author's strengths. In the end, the book rewarded my efforts with an enlightening and persuasive argument (of interest to historians of glass, of alchemy, and to general readers) for the importance of the particular (and peculiar) nature of glass as a material and of advances in glassmaking technology to the birth and evolution of alchemical thinking in the pre-modern world.


1.   This seminar resulted in M. Beretta, ed. When Glass matters. Studies in the History of Science and Art from the Greco-Roman Antiquity to the Early Modern Era. Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 2004.
2.   Beretta, M. and Di Pasaquale, G. Le verre dans l'empire romain. Exposition présentée à Florence, Museo degli Argenti, "Musée "des Argents", palais Pitti du 27 mars au 31 octobre 2004 (Arts et Sciences). Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris 2006.
3.  Pierre Loysel, Essai sur les principes del l'art de la verrerie (Paris: Desenne 1799-1800).

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