WINE GLASSES OF THE RENAISSANCE
In the classical antiquity, wine was considered a liquid filled with supernatural qualities which eventually turned into religious symbols. By association, wine’s vessels were thought about the same way: bowls, cups and goblets were not only the implements needed for wine’s daily handling and consumption, but also the mystical tools for its diverse ritual representations.
In fact, the wine cup became a powerful symbol central to the Greek Dionysian secret cult, Roman Bacchanalia celebrations and Christian Eucharist liturgy. The Eucharist’s chalice – glorified as the holy "Grail", meaning pot or goblet in Old French – has been, and still is, essential to Communion, one of the most complex religious rituals.
What did wine vessels look like then? All kind of shapes and materials, actually. Historically, wine has been consumed using a variety of vessels made from wood, stone, clay, ceramic, animal horns, ivory, bronze, silver, gold and… glass. It is acknowledged that the very first recorded mention of glass being used as a drinking vessel can be found in Pliny the Elder’s book “Naturalis Historia” (77 BC), where he declared that: “for drinking wine, glass vessels have superseded the silver and gold ones”.
In the “Last Supper”, the famous mural painted by Leonardo da Vinci in 1498 for the Dominican monastery Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milano, peculiar ample ceramic wine bowls are disseminated on the holy table. True enough, in Jesus time the poor mainly used cheap, large baked clay or ceramic bowls for drinking. Flat wine cups made of clay or ceramic like those pictured in the da Vinci's masterpiece appear also in other Renaissance Masters works of art such as in Michelangelo and Bellini’s “Drunkennes of Noah” and in Tiziano’s “Bacchanal”.
However, in the High Renaissance artists like Veronese (“The Wedding at Cana” and “The Feast in the House of Levi”), Caravaggio (“Bacchus”) and El Greco (“Last Supper”), started to include in their paintings wine cups of the same shape but made of a clear glass called “cristallo”, to be in vogue with the new age fashion.
Hand-blown crystal, developed during 15th century in Venice by celebrated genius artisans like Angelo Borovier, was the first transparent glass ever made in history and it was incredibly expensive, sold hundred times the price of normal glass, and exported everywhere throughout Europe and Middle East. In 1455 Barovier was given a decree by the Venetian Republic granting him the exclusive rights to the production of cristallo through the techniques he had invented.
Thus, on the tables of the Italian Renaissance upper class, wine was served in those large, flat, stemmed (!) crystal glasses filled with wine to the brim. As a Sommelier would teach you today, the guests were expected to lift it by wrapping three fingers around the stem and raise it to the lips without spilling a drop. A rule of polite drinking behavior described by the Italian poet Giovanni Della Casa in his 1558 “Galateo”, the very first treatise on table manners swiftly adopted by all European aristocracy.
The English noble catholic monk Richard Lassels wrote in his 17th Century book “The Voyage of Italy”, that “Italians love to drink wine leisurely, and they have glasses that are almost as large and flat as silver plates, almost as uneasy to drink out of”. Among other Renaissance Italian artists, also Domenico Ghirlandaio’s frescoes show not only similar glasses, but also elegant, long-necked, crystal “decanters” from which the wine was poured.
Magnificence, elegance and civility were considered virtues in Renaissance Italy; the elite with power and funds would spend large sums on building great projects, sponsoring artists in various media, advancing progress. Being art and wine a natural pairing, Popes, Princes and Patricians of the Renaissance competed in selecting the finest of both, in order to raise their own greatness. Wine glasses have been featured in countless artworks throughout history, however, the uniquely transparent, light and shallow cristallo wine glasses of the Renaissance were indeed beautiful, delicate and valuable objects of art.
Since the dawn of civilization, the shape of the wine glass has evolved through a series of historical and religious influences, technological advances, practical needs and the desire for beautiful objects, while obviously following wine in its glorious journey. Wine - in its glass - “is sunlight, held together by water" as Galileo Galilei famously put it, that is the most educated drink in the world, integral part of human history and culture symbolizing divine, taste and style in the continuous pursuit of a perfect and an enjoyable life.