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Work Flask in the shape of a bird

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Roman Art

Flask in the shape of a bird

© 1997 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

This small sculptural flask is one of a great number of glass birds produced in northern Italy during the first century AD. It was made by blowing glass, a technique discovered by Romans at the eastern reaches of the empire circa 50 BC. These bird flasks were toiletry containers and have been found all over the Mediterranean area. They contained cosmetics in powder form, access to which was gained by breaking the end of the bird's tail.

A toiletry container

This bird-shaped flask in transparent, slightly bluish glass is one of a great number of small naturalistic containers designed to contain cosmetics in powder form, access to which was gained by breaking the end of the bird's tail, rather like a modern ampoule; there is no other opening in the flask. Traces of white powder are still visible inside the bird's body. Most of these containers were discovered in tombs, where their contents may have been used to prepare the body of the deceased before burial. However, it seems that these birds were not designed specifically for funerary rites, but mainly as everyday toiletry containers. Examples of these birds, for example, were found in the baths at Herculaneum in southern Italy.

Glassblowing technique

This powder container was made by glassblowing, a technique that was perfected circa 50 BC by Roman glassworkers in the eastern Mediterranean region. The technique is identical to that used today. It consists of gathering a small quantity of glass (the gob) at the end of a metal pipe about one meter in length (the blowing iron) and then blowing down the pipe so that the gob of glass inflates. The gob is then rolled on a flat surface (the marver) and worked with various tools to obtain the desired shape. Cosmetics were inserted into the vessel in powder form when it was finished; the glassworker would then seal the container while it was still hot.

Production of glass birds

Production of these small glass birds was particularly abundant during the reign of Emperor Augustus (27 BC-AD 14) and was still quite popular until circa AD 70. Although many such birds have been found in Greece, Cyprus, and Syria, northern Italy (particularly Piedmont) and the canton of Ticino in modern Switzerland seem to have been the principal region for the production and distribution of this type of container.

Bibliography

Arveiller V., "Le verre soufflé romain", Feuillet pédagogique du Musée du Louvre, 3, n 29, Paris, 1998.

Technical description

  • Flask in the shape of a bird

    First century AD

    Italy

    Unknown

  • Transparent blown glass

    H. 9 cm; L. 17.5 cm

  • Campana Collection, purchased 1861

    Cp 9051, S 5905, S 5902, S 5903, S 5904

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Sully wing
    1st floor
    Antique glassware room
    Room 34

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