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The history of dark glass

By Hermione Spriggs

We are so accustomed to seeing ‘through’ glass in our everyday lives that it is often taken for granted. The darkness of naturally-occurring obsidian reminds us that glass creates visionary access, and holds memories of deep geological time

Italian glass has long been at the forefront of artisanal innovation. Parisvetro continues this tradition at the center of a rich array of design workshops that thrive in Venice and surrounding Veneto, a region that was already renowned for its multicolored and gold-spun glasswares by the thirteenth Century. Going back further, the origin of glass in Italy and elsewhere – for all its contemporary utility – is far from transparent. Let’s take a moment to look into this deeper, darker history of glass.


The glass itself is made from Silica, a substance found in quartz and a major constituent of sand. The first manufactured glass was probably produced by chance, the jewel-like droplets arriving as an accidental byproduct of working metal on sandy ground. But glass in fact predates the origins of any technology, and a magpie-like attraction to “accidental” glass seems to be a near-universal trait for many ancient and contemporary peoples alike.


Obsidian is found along the plate-boundaries of the earth. One example local to Veneto is Stromboli, a small island off the South coast of Italy. You might expect to find crystalline evidence of Italy’s glass-manufacturing industry washed up along its shoreline. But in Stromboli, Italian sea-glass has natural origins and began life as magma from the earth’s molten core, ejected from the crater of the island’s still-active volcano.


Obsidian is by definition glass, formed by the rapid cooling of silica-rich lava, which solidifies without crystallization into a smoky-black translucent mass. Strombolian obsidian exists in large enough quantities to be mined; elsewhere-natural glass is less abundant.


However, independent of context or quantity, the improbable origin and dark reflective surface inspires awe and mythical significance. Perhaps the best-known artifact made of obsidian is the black mirror belonging to occult philosopher John Dee, now kept in the collections of the British Museum. Dee – then astrologer to the Queen – used the polished black disk for “scrying” or mirror divination in the sixteenth century. Elsewhere the name of Aztec god Tezcatlipoca literally translates as a “smoking mirror”. Other black mirrors similar to Dee’s have been found in Mayan archeological sites in Mexico with small holes that suggest they were worn around the neck as objects of adornment.


Whilst Dee is said to have used his black glass to communicate with angels, the ancient Maya put obsidian to other spiritual uses. Knapped blades have been recovered at ritual sites with evidence that the sheer edge of obsidian flakes was once used for bloodletting ceremony. The structure of obsidian allows it to be formed into a blade up to three-hundred times sharper than steel, a property that makes it desirable for surgical scalpels and a preferred method for eye surgery today. Geologists are warned for similar reasons not to hammer obsidian, as its tendency to fracture into minuscule flakes easily damages sight.


On Easter Island in Polynesia, huge monolithic Moai figurines gaze with eyeballs made from obsidian. When the local Rapa Nui added these eyes they “awakened” the statues, bringing them to life as protectors of an otherwise colonially-vulnerable landmass. In the Western United States, apache tears (small, round pebbles of obsidian) are kept to heal grief whilst recalling the defeat of Apache warriors in Arizona who rode their horses off a mountain to their deaths, rather than be killed by US Cavalry. Airborne droplets of obsidian known to scientists as ‘Pele’s tears’ are so-called in reference to the frustration of a woeful Hawaiian goddess.


We are so accustomed to seeing ‘through’ glass in our everyday lives that it is often taken for granted. The darkness of naturally-occurring obsidian reminds us that glass creates visionary access, and holds memories of deep geological time. With this in mind, a behind-the-scenes glimpse into Italian studio Parisvetro reveals a workshop containing a miniature volcano and material transformations as ancient as the ontogenesis of life itself.

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