Roman Painted Glass Bottle

1st century A.D.









H: 11 cm

Dia: 7.5 cm





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This bottle is the typical shape for unguentaria (pharmaceutic or cosmetic oil containers) of the 1st century A.D. It is richly decorated with painting and remarkably preserved, making it quite rare and among the most outstanding luxury products of the Roman Imperial period. The bottle has a slightly concave circular bottom and a pear-shaped body; it joins the tall cylindrical neck, terminating with the rim folded in and flattened. Once there was a stopper to keep the precious oil from spilling and evaporating (traces of gold are visible on the interior of the neck: it could be that the stopper was made of beaten gold as the one belonging to the painted jar from the Corning Museum of Glass collection).

The bottle was produced in a free-blown technique and hand-painted along the wall and bottom of the vessel. The bright pigments (yellow, red, green, and white) were pulverized and mixed with liquid before they were fired. The drawing was applied free-hand without a preliminary sketch (sometimes made with the incision lines). There are both ornamental motifs and representations. The yellow creates dots and circles on the shoulder; yellow is also used for the line that encircles the lower part; on the bottom, there are large dots and a star in a light color. Twined branches of vine and ivy occupy the entire body; one can recognize the distinctive shapes of their leaves. Two birds are found among the foliage; one is turned left with its head and the beak in the opposite direction, another bird is shown facing right; this brings the sense of real-life to the composition, the fragile decoration is full of charm.

The study of decorative motifs used for painting on glass vessels shows that the most popular were the garlands, sea creatures; horses and gazelles; and birds and branches. The dot and star/rosette motif on the bottom is understood as the maker’s mark or his signature necessary to identify and protect the products of particular value on the market. The depiction of the birds and scrolls of the vine and the colors employed on the present bottle are similar to those on the famous painted amphoriskos from the Hermitage Museum collection and a cup in the Civico Museo in Locarno, Switzerland. This closeness can suggest the same production workshop and even the same artist. The traditional belief that most of the luxury items were produced in Alexandria and exported to the West is shifted by the idea of a Northern Italian workshop, probably established by the glassmaker who emigrated from the Eastern Mediterranean.

The total number of the found pieces of painted glass is about seventy-five; most of them are fragments, which testifies this bottle’s rarity. The production date of this bottle is established as A.D. 20-70, based on the dated archaeological complexes.


Richly decorated with painting and remarkably preserved.


Art market, prior to 1960s;

Ex-private collection B. R. Wagner, collected in the late 1960s-1970s.


BIAGGIO-SIMONA S., I vetri romani provenienti dalle terre dell’attuale Cantone Ticino I, Locarno, 1991, pp. 62-71, ill. 4; pl. 3, figs. 4-5.

HARDEN D. B., Glass of the Caesars, Milan, 1988, pp. 259-262, 269, no. 147.

KUNINA N., Ancient Glass in the Hermitage Collection, St. Petersburg, 1997, p. 289, no. 178.

RÜTTI B., Early Enamelled Glass in NEWBY M., PAINTER K., eds., Roman Glass, Two Centuries of Art and Invention, London, 1991, pp. 122-36. fig. 24c, pl. XXXIII b.

RÜTTI B., Les verres peints du Haut Empire roman: centres de production et diffusion in FOY M., NENNA M.-D., eds., Échanges et commerce du verre dans le monde antique, Montagnac, 2003, pp. 349-359

SALDERN A. von, Glass 500 B.C. to A.D. 1900, The Hans Cohn Collection, Mainz-am-Rhein, 1980, pp. 46-7, no. 38, pl. 4.

WHITEHOUSE D. B., Begram reconsidered, in Kölner Jahrbuch 22, 1989, pp. 151-157.

WHITEHOUSE D. B., Roman Glass in The Corning Museum of Glass II, Corning, 2001, pp. 255-256, no. 847; p. 258, no. 853 (jar with gold stopper).