The Science Behind the Sparkle

Glasses, ceramics, rock crystal, glazes, enamels, gemstones, and smalts are just some of the aluminosilicates that have brightened our lives from the Bronze Age to the present day. Aluminosilicates are found throughout art and material culture, and these ubiquitous materials are often poorly understood. This class will explore the technologies of manufacture, mechanisms of degradation, and social significance of these objects starting with ancient Egyptian faience, known as the first engineered/high- tech ceramic. This self-glazing quartz-based material is currently being studied as the most promising candidate for 3D printed ceramics. We go on to explore aluminosilicates for a fuller appreciation of their economic and political importance (particularly in the cases of eighteenth- century porcelain and the glasses made by the Venetian Empire). In addition, we will study the many changes that these materials experience over time and their reactions with their environments (which will be shown to belie their seemingly enduring nature). Case studies will include the technologies and conservation challenges of Meissen porcelain, Venetian smalts as artists’ pigments, and the remarkable innovations of Wedgwood’s Etruria Works. Ancient Roman glassmaking innovations will be explored, including the transformation of glass from a luxury good to its prominent use in everyday life including vessels such as unguentaria and architectural mosaics. The technological innovators at Sèvres and San Cloud, Jingdezhen and Trenton(!) will all be examined in what amounted to an arms race for the most unique and compelling palette of glaze colors. The social role of rock crystal as a rare luxury good and a critical component for lighting fixtures will be explored, along with its man-made replacements. The use of stained-glass windows from medieval cathedrals to Louis Comfort Tiffany and their nanotechnology- based colorants will be examined. Assignments will include a term paper on one aspect of the history of aluminosilicate- based material culture and a group writing exercise producing images and label copy for a virtual exhibit on innovation milestones for aluminosilicates.

3 credits. Depending on final research project, this course can satisfy either the pre-1800 or non-western requirement.