N.Y. Met Presents Ennion, Master Roman-era Glassmaker: Did He Invent Branding?

Biggest-ever retrospect of the 2,000-year old brand-conscious glass master at the Metropolitan Museum showcases 24 of his unique works, many lent by Israeli collectors.

The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York

The glass jug is distorted, fragmented; its delicate form is warped by fires of destruction, and its original olive green tint is charred and discolored.

The roughly 2,000-year old shattered pitcher is a snapshot from one of the most dramatic times in Jewish history. It was found in the ruins of a once-prosperous house consumed by the fire and destruction that followed the Roman conquest of the Old City of Jerusalem in 70 CE, ending the Great Revolt.

This is just one of the stories told by the unique objects on display at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in an exhibition focusing on Ennion, the greatest glassmaker of ancient Rome.

Ennion, who lived in the 1st century and is believed to have worked from around 1 to 50 A.D., produced intricately decorated glass vessels that were highly sought after across the Roman world, and have been uncovered in archaeological digs from Israel to Spain. Only 55 complete or fragmentary works by the great artist have ever been found. Now, 24 of them have been gathered from around the world for the largest-exhibition ever of the artist's work, according to the museum.

Ten of the objects on display were loaned by Israeli museums and collections, including six by the businessman and antiquities collector Shlomo Moussaieff.

Also on display are works by other glassware makers of the time, including one by Ennion's main rival, Aristeas.

The star of the show however is undoubtedly Ennion, who had mastered the recently-invented technique of blowing molten glass into complex multipart molds to create exquisite pieces. Most of his known creations were wine jugs and cups, brightly colored in cobalt blue, amber and olive green, and decorated mainly with geometric patterns and images of plants.

Master marketer of luxury goods

Little is known about the artist himself: Ennion's name has only reached us because he signed his pieces, in a highly unorthodox manner at that.

While potters and other craftsmen of antiquity did sign their pieces sometimes, they did so in a discreet and non-standardized manner, says Christopher Lightfoot, the organizer of the exhibition and the Met's curator or Greek and Roman Art. Not so Ennion: He incorporated his name in the decoration, depicting a Roman-styled tabula ansata – a tablet with dovetail handles often used for dedications on monuments – to display a Greek inscription that reads: "Ennion made me."

So while little else may be known of the man himself, the manner of his signature on his works does tell us something about him: he had an ability to market what may have been history's first mass-produced luxury goods brand.

Lightfoot says that Ennion's name indicates Semitic origin. Scholars believe he may have come from Sidon, in today's Lebanon, which was famed for glassmaking.

Based on his apparent place of origin and the absence of human or mythological characters in the decoration of his works, he might have been Jewish, and been observing the biblical ban on depicting the human form, Lightfoot says. However, he qualified, it is more probable that Ennion was simply following the style of the period, in which human figures were commonly depicted in pottery, but rarely on glass.

In any case, the artist's standardized logo was strategically placed so that it would be visible when the vessel was used to pour or drink from.

"Many artists signed their works but he did it in a way that makes it a very significant part of the decoration," Lightfoot told Haaretz. "He clearly was very proud of what he did, and he clearly made the label prominent so people could ask for these products specifically."

The exhibition "Ennion: Master of Roman Glass" runs at the Met through April 13 before moving to the Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York from May 16, 2015 to January 4, 2016.