The Alchemy of Glass: Counterfeit, Imitation, and Transmutation in Ancient Glassmaking

The Alchemy of Glass: Counterfeit, Imitation, and Transmutation in Ancient Glassmaking

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Beretta, Marco

In antiquity, glass, more than any known product of the earth, was a material that could be easily shaped and colored to imitate any precious stone or mineral substance; its natural lustre and transparency inspired ancient naturalists and philosophers at a very early stage to find an explanatory theory that could give a rational account of these marvelous properties. Such efforts increased after the technical revolution inspired by the introduction of glass-blowing during the first century BCE, and were intimately connected with the history of alchemy. The present study illustrates how glass played an important role in ancient technical and alchemical literature, and how the chemical operations devised to improve glass making inspired alchemists to better define the theoretical boundaries of their discipline and, more specifically, the concept of transmutation.


“ . . . presents a strong and coherent analysis of the early association of alchemy and glassmaking. The book is an excellent example of how material history can draw together previously disparate areas of study and shed new light on well-known sources. Historians of alchemy, technology, and material culture will benefit from Beretta’s expert synthesis of alchemical, philosophical, and technical theory with the practice of glassmaking. He has opened the way for further research in this area.” —Technology and Culture, 2011, 52 

“ . . . Thus, in summary, the book can be recommended as a source of historical quotes related to glass, stones, and pigments, and is nicely illustrated; but it does not offer a meaningful discussion or interpretation of the valid and interesting topics raised.”—Journal of Archaeological Science, 2011, 38

“ . . . Beretta is a distinguished historian of chemistry at the University of Bologna, and his text, rich in bibliographic references and notes, gives evidence of his rigorous approach. He is also a vice-director of the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, and in the past he has been involved in establishing a number of exhibitions that presented ancient artifacts of a scientific or technological nature. The practical aspects of gathering such materials, then describing and displaying them, have clearly been a valuable discipline for the development of a book that deals with mixed data of significant complexity: on the one hand, the surviving, often unprovenanced, relics from antiquity; and on the other, texts that can be infuriatingly esoteric and sometimes even deliberately misleading. Here is an effort to bring the evidence together, make sense of it, and offer an intellectual framework for its understanding.” —ISIS, 2011, 102(3)

“ . . . As anyone trying to break new ground in an interdisciplinary field, Beretta may become a relatively easy target for criticism from specialists—as perhaps epitomized in this review. However, he deserves much credit for bringing such an important topic out of historical neglect and for advancing some interesting theories and sources. Deservedly, this volume will find its way to institutional and private educated libraries alike, and it should become a valuable reference point for both science historians and archaeologists.” —Metascience, 2011 (June 28)

“. . . Beretta’s book shows how hermeneutic categories that are not limited to the transmutation of metals can highlight new helpful elements, not only for an investigation into the origins of alchemy, but also for drawing new boundaries of this flexible and enigmatic ‘science'” —Early Science and Medicine, 2011, 16

The Alchemy of Glass is a wonderfully rich description of theoretical considerations. The author guides us (Chapter 1) through the world of ancient glassmakers in Mesopotamia (2500 BC), with recovered recipes on cuneiform tablets, to the Egyptians (1400 BC), for whom glassmaking was a holy profession under direct control of the Pharaohs. Imitation of gems was well known in both civilizations, and glass enjoyed an even higher ranking than gold . . . Who will be the best audience for this book, with such a high information density (xvii + 198 pp., almost five hundred notes with references)? Since the guiding principle derives from the many philosophical texts, some knowledge of ancient history is desirable. However, also for the reader without a classical education, this volume will open an interesting innovative view on ancient glass-making and its specific connections to alchemy.” —AMBIX, 57(3)

“ . . . The slim volume is beautifully produced on high-quality paper in a sturdy binding, and is enriched with over five dozen well-reproduced high-resolution images, most in color, many of which depict objects rarely or never seen in print . . . The work should be on the shelf of every scholar working in ancient science or technology . . . Alas, the book is a flawed gem and demands caution. Errors small and large pervade the text, and many of the arguments deployed are muddled or mistaken. Despite its beauty and value, readers must read with care . . . ” —Aestimatio, 2010, 7:232–249

“ . . . 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.” —Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 2010, 10(41)

“ . . . The thorough bibliography of primary and secondary sources alone makes acquiring this book a sound investment . . . One of the book’s greater contributions is the innovative approach of concentrating on the history of one particular material, glass, to shed light on the evolution of broader issues in the philosophy of matter . . . ” —Bull. Hist. Chem., 35(2)

“ . . . Beretta employs archaeological and literary sources in his interpretation of the impact of glass production on the ancient world. By relating a technical industry (glassmaking) to the cultural and religious values of the societies that employed it, the author presents an interesting perspective on ways the development of vitreous craft knowledge was incorporated into existing religious values and practices in ancient civilizations. He also relates advances made in glass industries (especially glassblowing) to their affect on scientific discovery and cultural changes from ancient Egypt to early modern civilizations . . . Summing Up: Recommended. All levels of academic and general readers with a background and interest in classical archaeology.” —CHOICE, 2010 (May)

“Beautifully illustrated, this study of the ancient art of glass making and the way in which it joined with the art of alchemy, is a fascinating exploration of another way of looking at nature that has resonance today. (The author) has combined document sources with artistic and archaeological evidence to piece together the history of glass production…This work is well and clearly written and would find a wide audience of lay readers.” —SciTech Book News