History of Millefiori glass

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millefiori glass paperweight
Ancient techniques are used today to produce ornate millefiori glass paperweights and jewelry.
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Millefiori glass has a unique history involving several ancient civilizations

The history of Millefiori glass is traced as far back as ancient Egypt around 1400 B.C.E., though the relatively recent 1849 edition of the Oxford dictionary marks the first appearance of the word ‘millefiori’. Though ‘millefiori’ (thousand flowers) takes its name from the Italians, this form of glass was produced by different cultures at different times and cannot be credited to one culture. Prior to its naming, millefiori glass was referred to as mosaic glass.

Millefiori glass is distinctive for its intricate, floral pattern and vibrant colors. From jewelry, and tiles, to vases and kitchen glassware, the common uses for millefiori glass have not changed much over the course of its long history. The form is made by fusing slender glass rods or canes of different colors together. The fused rod is then pulled and sliced into thin disks. The disks are arranged into a pattern and fused together to form one larger piece, also referred to as a murrine.

Early Uses of Millefiori

According to historians, the Egyptians' production of mosaic glass was followed by the Persians, the Romans, and then the Islamic world. The technology to produce mosaic glass was lost for several centuries and did not appear again until the Venetians used it in the 15th Century. In the history of millefiori, the use of mosaic glass in ancient times was spread out over vastly different cultures, but the process of making this ornate glass art followed the same basic steps.

Each culture produced mosaic glass for specific purposes. Here are some of the common ancient uses, many of which can be seen in museums around the world:

•    During the first century B.C.E., Romans used millefiori in glass bowls.
•    Persians were the first to use glass mosaic beads in ornate jewelry from the fourth to first century B.C.E.
•    Around 850 C.E., thick mosaic glass in Iraq had a bull’s-eye design and was used as floor tiles in the rooms of palaces.
•    Mosaic beads were also found in tombs northern Iran, dating from the first to third century C.E. 

Millefiori Glass Revival and Recent History

Historians with expertise in the history of millefiori have not found evidence that millefiori glass was produced between the fall of the Roman Empire and the reappearance of mosaic glass in the Middle Ages. In Venice, millefiori rods were made for vases and dishware.

During the eighteenth century, France and England began using millefiori in decorative paperweights. Around this time, French companies Clichy and Baccarat produced some of the more iconic millefiori designs, such as candy canes and stars.

European glassmakers brought millefiori to the United States in the nineteenth century. Today, antique glass collectors seek out early millefiori pieces for the value and craftsmanship.

Early Millefiori Designs Preserved in Museums

  • In Persia, some of the earliest mosaic glass beads used in jewelry had spiral patterns and often used the colors red, blue, and yellow.
  • From the Middle East, glass mosaic bowls have been found in red, yellow and green.
  • From Iraq, broken tiles indicate a colorful past with yellows, greens, reds, whites, turquoise, and black.

In the contemporary history of millefiori glass, admirers of the art have bountiful sources. Millefiori glass is made all over the world by large companies and independent glass artists. Other forms of glass art that are popular with artisans include stained glass, as well as dichroic and fused glass.

Illinois State Museum

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