Mosaic glass enjoyed a brief period of popularity in the Islamic world, in the eighth and ninth centuries in Mesopotamia and probably Syria. The majority of extant Islamic mosaic objects were unearthed at the site of Samarra’, the capital of the Abbasid dynasty (750–1258) founded on the Tigris River in 836 A.D. To our knowledge, no specific term for this type of glass was used in the Islamic world; since the fifteenth century, it has commonly been known as millefiori (Italian for “thousand flowers”).
Mosaic glass first appeared in Egypt about 1400 B.C. and has been produced intermittently for 3,500 years up to the present day. The technique gained popularity in different areas of glass production, usually for short periods. It is seen in the Hellenistic art (332–165 B.C.) after ancient Egypt, then in Rome and Alexandria in the fourth century A.D. There is no evidence of continuity between late antiquity and the eighth century, and the Islamic manifestation of the technique was probably an attempt to imitate and duplicate Roman examples. This revival represented a remarkable accomplishment, as the tradition had been interrupted and every stage of the process had to be reconstructed on an experimental basis. In the fifteenth century, the technique was “reinvented” in Venice; in the nineteenth century, it again became popular throughout Europe.
The millefiori technique is time-consuming though not overly complicated. Individual roundels of glass are sliced from long canes that are created by gathering glass of different colors around a core. Each roundel retains the cross-section pattern of the original cane. To create a vessel, slices from the same or from different canes are arranged in a disk, then heated and slumped in a mold in the shape of the finished product. The roundels fuse together to form the object, which, upon cooling, is smoothed and polished. Islamic mosaic vessels, unlike the majority of Roman examples, are typified by canes with a “bull’s-eye” pattern, in which a large monochrome core is encircled by one or more rings; often, the outermost ring is formed by two alternating colors that fuse and create whimsical patterns.