How does a glass bowl get formed or an exquisite sculpture get made? This is done through the art of glassblowing. The practice involves shaping the material using heat and, as the term implies, blowing. It’s a relatively simple act that has the power to create awe-inspiring art that can be functional, decorative, or both.
The techniques used in glassblowing have remained nearly the same since it was first discovered. It involves molten glass (glass with the consistency of molasses) that is gathered at the end of a hollow pipe. Air is then blown through that pipe and the pliable glass blooms into a bubble form. From there, it’s shaped by swinging, rolling, or blowing. Afterward, additional elements that would make the glass functional (think handles or stems) are attached using welding.
History of Glassblowing
Humans working with glass can be traced back to the prehistoric times of 4000 BCE. Men had not discovered glass blowing at that time, but they did take advantage of the natural glass called obsidian that was the result of volcanic eruptions. The hardened material was used in making tools, arrowheads, and amulets. At this time, humans also figured out the recipe for glass: sand, plant ash, and lime. The plant ash helped the sand to melt and the lime was a stabilizer that protected the material from moisture.
By 1500 BCE, people in Mesopotamia and Egypt shaped their own vessels by forming hot glass around solid cores and dung. After the glass cooled, the cores were removed to reveal a hollow form. In addition to making bowls, glass tiles were also created at this time.
We have the Syrian people to thank for the invention of the blowpipe. Around 300 BCE, they created the tool for which modern glassblowing is built upon. It caught on with the rest of the Roman Empire and they began experimenting with the practice by inventing new shapes and forms. The artisans also improved upon the basic glass formula to create designs within the material and decorate it using metal inlays.
The best glassblowers were in the Middle East and their secrets for how they produced glass were heavily guarded. During the Middle Ages, however, Italy—specifically Venice—became the mecca for glassblowing as the process was revealed through trade between the two places. The Italian government then forced all of the glassblowers to Murano island around 1300 CE. There, they perfected their craft and developed cristalo, a clear glass. They also produced new colors.
It was a huge risk for glass blowers to leave Murano—the act was punishable by death. But many succeeded in escaping and took their techniques to other parts of Europe and Asia.
The Renaissance is when glassblowing became more widespread and was developed throughout Europe. In the 17th century, you could get a textbook on the subject called Arte Vetraria or The Art of Glass. During this time, more practical uses of glass began to emerge that still exist today, like window panes and glass bottles.
Art Nouveau, the artistic movement that was popular at the end of the 17th century and into the 18th century, was where we saw the development of art and mass fabrication. Louis Comfort Tiffany was working during this time and designing iconic lamps, stained glass windows, and more.
Mid-Century to Present
The middle of the 20th century saw the rise of glass studios and artists who were working independently of large factories to produce their own creative pieces. In doing so, the techniques and approaches used in glassblowing have been both refined and new ones invented.
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