Monday, November 3, 2014

The Dance of Lead Crystal Reprise

Roemer type drinking glass c. 1677,
George Ravenscroft.
The entire fourth part of Antonio Neri's book L'Arte Vetraria is devoted to the preparation of lead glass, a forerunner of what is now commonly known as lead crystal. This section is unique in the book in that it contains the only instance of the author giving direct advice to glass artists themselves:
"To work lead glass into various drinking glasses or other vessels, or even to draw cane for beadmaking, it is necessary to raise the punty [out of the melt], and to make a gather of glass by turning. Take it out, let it cool somewhat and then work it on a well-cleaned marble [marver]. The marble should be somewhat cool, and well bathed with water before use."
He goes on to describe what might be termed a kind of dance with the glass. As with a human partner, gentle patience is required in learning the boundaries of what can and cannot be done. Ultimately, an artist must come to understand the material's behavior and personality in order to result in a great partnership. For the artist who makes unrealistic demands, glass can be a heartbreaker.  
"This sort of glass, lead glass, is so runny that were it not cooled, and taken up by turning [the punty] to wind a gather, it would be impossible to work. It is so runny that it would not even hold onto the punty, because it is as loose as soup. This arises out of [the fact that] the lead calx causes it to become very fluid."

"Namely, gather the glass little by little, allow it to cool, and work it over marble frequently bathed in water. Furthermore, make sure to keep the pot of glass rather calm, and in a place in the furnace where it will not see too much heat, otherwise it will not be possible to work this glass at all."
It is true that the formulation of modern lead crystal is a relatively recent development. This is a composition of crushed silica (sand or quartz), potash (potassium carbonates) and lead oxide substituting for calcium to stabilize the composition. It is also true that lead has been added to glass since its invention a few thousand years ago. It is not clear that this addition was always intentional, but a Babylonian tablet of 1700 BCE gives a recipe for pottery glaze that explicitly contains lead. At some point, a discovery showed that small amounts of lead and pigment smeared on glass and fired made stained glass paintings possible. The earliest examples of colored stained [1] glass windows date to first century Pompeii and Herculaneum.  In medieval Europe, leading up to Antonio Neri's time, lead glass was used in mosaic tesserae and in artificial gems.

Finally, it is worth noting that Neri's childhood church in Florence, Cestello (now called Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi), was then run by Cistercian monks. It was the Cistercian luminary St. Bernard of Clairvaux who, in the twelfth century, built the first church with large windows, urging, "The soul shall seek the light by following the light."

This post first appeared here 15 November 2013.
[1] See comments, edited 11 November 2014.


  1. Hi Paul,
    I am surprised to see the comment "The earliest examples of colored stained glass windows date to first century Pompeii and Herculaneum". I have not seen anything about stained glass before 8th century prior to this. Where does your information about stained glass in Pompeii come from?

    1. Irene

      I am with you on this one completely; there were definitely no stained glass windows known to exist in the first century. All I can think is that when I wrote that sentence I meant to say “tinted glass windows date to first century Pompeii and Herculaneum,” but even this is misleading. There is no evidence that first century glass windows were intentionally colored, more likely it was the result of metallic impurities in the raw materials. I have corrected the text accordingly – thank you for pointing out my error!

      For anyone interested, there are a few pictures of Roman era window panes here: and here

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.