From the August/September 2015 Issue:

Art & Antiques: A Toast to the Roemer

    By: Leslie Gilbert Elman |

The ubiquitous wine glass seen in many Old Masters paintings has a name and a history

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enlarge | The painting Still Life with a Salt by Pieter Claesz (c. 1640-1645), in the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amster­dam, is one of many featuring a roemer. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum
Next time you visit a museum to admire the paintings of the Old Masters, take a moment to focus on the details. If you’re a lover of antique furniture and objects, those details will reveal some remarkable things—the setting of a table, the arrangement of flowers in a vase, the design of embroidery on a bodice or collar, the style of jewelry dangling from an earlobe. (Remember Girl with a Pearl Earring, the painting by Johannes Vermeer that inspired Tracy Chevalier’s novel?)

Still-life paintings are especially intriguing because they’re documentary evidence for home decor fashions of a certain time and place. The more you study, say, Dutch paintings of the 17th century (a favorite of mine), the more you see consistency and repetition in the objects depicted. The plates, the bowls, the table coverings and, in particular, the distinctive wine glasses you’ll see over and over again. They are called roemers (römers), from the German word for “Roman.”

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enlarge | Dated 1644, the detailed landscape of the Dutch city of Nijmegen etched into the bowl of this roemer is based on a book illustration. Made in the Netherlands or Germany sometime between 1675 and 1700, this roemer has three rows of raspberry prunts on its hollow, cylindrical stem. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum
Raise a Glass
A roemer’s unmistakable style consists of a generous rounded bowl atop a long, thick, hollow stem. The stem is decorated with blobs of glass—called prunts—that most often were impressed with a clay or metal stamp to create a bumpy “raspberry” design. The foot of the roemer usually was formed from glass coiled into a spiral, although the roemer depicted in a still-life on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City by German painter Georg Flegel has a beaded edge around its base and others have plain rounded edges.

At first glance, it might seem over-large, top-heavy and precariously fragile. Yet, as befits an object devised by the practical-minded Germans and adopted by the practical-minded Dutch, the roemer was created with a purpose. The generous bowl holds a generous portion of wine. The heavily decorated, textured stem provided a grip for the gentlemen whose fingers would be greasy from the hearty meal they no doubt would enjoy along with their wine. (Glasses at the table were a necessity; forks less so.)

The glass itself was typically a green-tinged type called Waldglas, or “forest glass,” that was made in rural areas of northern Europe. Heavily wooded areas gave glassmakers easy access to trees that could be cut down and used to fuel glass furnaces. Potash from those wood-fired furnaces was a component of the glass mixture. Iron impurities in the sand used to make the glass produced its distinctive green color, the preferred hue to complement the crisp white wines of the Rhineland. In fact you’ll still find wine served in simplified roemers there today.

The name roemer might relate to the fact the ancient Romans were the ones who introduced glass-making to Germany, because the prunt decoration can be found on glass dating back to ancient Roman times or because the shape of the glass resembles ancient Roman drinking vessels. A similar drinking vessel called a Berkemeyer, with straight sides and a funnel-shaped bowl, was popular also in the 17th century. You’ll see both depicted numerous times in the still-life paintings of Dutch artists Pieter Claesz and Abraham Mignon.

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enlarge | The engraving on this roemer depicts the course of the river Rhine from Mainz in Germany to Utrecht in the Netherlands—perhaps the very route the wine traveled. It’s based on an illustrated 1555 map published in Germany by Caspar Vopel, a mathe­ma­tician and cartographer. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Dressing Up the Drinking Glass
Roemers were found in prosperous households of the sort that would provide guests with copious quantities of wine. If the number of times they appear in paintings is any gauge, they were objects of great fondness, probably because they represented a feeling of conviviality.

Some were engraved with coat-of-arms designs, flowers and vines, or poetry and mottos. The collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam contain roemers decorated with detailed maps and landscapes of Dutch cities that were etched into the glass using a diamond point. A presentation roemer engraved in 1619 with the crowned coat-of-arms of Maurits, Prince of Orange and Count of Nassau, sold for more than $75,000 at Christie’s London in December 2012.

Less commonly, the glass was painted, such as the roemer in the collection of the Rijksmuseum depicting an allegory of Peace and Freedom painted in a monochrome fashion known as grisaille.

Although they don’t come up for sale often, roemers can be found at auction from time to time. A glass roemer from the early 17th century sold for more than $3,700 at Christie’s London in March 2013. More ordinary pieces in less pristine condition can be had for less. A set of nine roemers sold for around $3,000 at Christie’s Amsterdam in 2011.

Long after these beloved drinking vessels were depicted in works of art, roemers have become works of art themselves.

Leslie Gilbert Elman, author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous and Totally Off the Wall Facts, writes about antiques and other subjects for Design NJ.