In July 2009 we received an email message from Anne Mader, living in the USA:

"I am wondering if gilded glass has been found in any of the Ostia excavations, particularly during the time of Pope Pius IX? The reason I ask is that my family has recently inherited a piece of gilded glass. There is a note with the glass that states it was given to my great great grandfather Sir Admiral Thomas Cochrane in 1864 during a private interview with Pope Pius IX. There is no other information about this piece and my family is not sure why it was given to Thomas Cochrane except that he was a well known Naval officer and we understand that Pope Pius IX was doing excavations in Ostia at this time. There are political undertones that connect the two but I am unable to find a direct link".


"My family has a few items that have been passed down through generations. I had heard the stories about them growing up. However, no one can recall any stories about this piece. I found it in a box of other items. It is amazing what you can find in a box sometimes! I am sure you have this experience a lot in your line of work and it must be very exciting."


"I have been looking at the glass and I can't see a "motto" - there is possibly something on the right side in gold within the inner circle but it does not appear to be very clear. However, the more I look at it in the picture the more it looks as if there is something there - or it could be my eyes making something of nothing."


High-resolution photographs are available:

The glass is kept in a shallow octagonal case, perhaps of leather, inside which is cloth. Two glass sherds are surrounded by a blue ribbon, a third sherd is obviously missing. Above the sherds we see a typewritten note with the text:

Part of a glass vase, enclosing
within its folds a gold motto.

It was dug up when excavating
at Ostia, Italy.

Presented by His Holiness, Pope
Pius IX, on the occasion of a private
interview, at the Vatican, to Admiral,
Sir Thomas Cochrane, G.C.B.

January 20th 1864.

This is a partial copy of a handwritten note. Here we read:

Part of a Glass Vase
enclosing within its folds
a gilt motto - and dug up in
the excavations at Ostia
Presented by
His Holiness Pius the IX.
on the occasion of a private
intervue to - - - - - -
Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane
Lieut(enant) General Lord Rokeby
And Alex Baillie Cochrane Esq(uire) M(ember of) P(arliament)
January 20th 1864
The Vatican - Rome.

The back of this note can be seen on the photograps as well. Here we read:

The piece of glass was
Received by His Holiness
from Ostia immediately
before the intervue

We obviously have two stories here, that of Thomas Cochrane and that of the glass. Let us begin with the Admiral.


Anne informed us that her ancestor is Admiral Thomas John Cochrane, born 5 February 1789, died 19 October 1872. More information can be found at and in Wikipedia. More information about Anne is also at Cochrane was, as the note states, GCB, i.e. had the Grand Cross in the Order of the Bath. There is a slight problem here however. He became an admiral in 1865, one year after the glass was given. However, if the note was written later than 1864, then the information provided (Admiral, GCB) may also be later than 1864. So it is not necessarily problematic that he became Admiral in 1865.

Google Books helps us a bit further. S.W. Fullom had visited Rome, and afterwards finished a book in July 1864 (see the introduction of that book, page v), "Rome under Pius IX". Fullom attacks the Roman Catholic clergy, but is not hostile to the Pope. Political prisoners seem to have been an issue. On page 88 he describes a visit to a prison that he made, together with Henry G. Wreford, correspondent of The Times, Sir Thomas Cochrane, Mr. Baillie Cochrane M.P., and Monsignor Talbot. The name Baillie Cochrane is also written on the note. More information about him is in Wikipedia. Lord Rokeby, not mentioned by Fullom, also has a page in Wikipedia.


Gold-glass may well point to a Christian setting. The author of this page (Jan Theo Bakker) is not a specialist of the Christian period nor of glass, so a wrong assumption was made. Because no "motto" can be read on the sherds of Anne, it was assumed that there were more sherds of the same vessel, but that the pope kept these. The sherds of Anne look like the bottom of a vessel, so the other sherds should belong to the side of the vessel and carried a motto. All wrong, as we will see.

The sherds could have come from Ostia or its harbour district Portus, because of the ongoing excavations there. Until 1870 Ostia was property of the Papal State. Pius IX ordered excavations that took place between 1855 and 1870. He visited Ostia several times and there is a photograph of his visit in 1866. In the same period Portus, the harbour district, was property of the Torlonia family (part of it still is), a very wealthy family of bankers. This family carried out excavations between 1863 and 1869. Most of the finds were taken to the Museo Torlonia in Rome, but Christian objects and objects from Christian buildings were given to the Vatican. Ludovico Paschetto concluded from an entry in the Giornale di Roma, 9 March 1864, that in January-February of that year excavations took place in Ostia "on the other side of the square at the entrance of the city", "in a noble house", perhaps near the Porta Romana he adds. Reported finds: "Various small objects, one of which was a communal drinking glass with the acclamation "maxime dulcis z(esei)", which was perfectly preserved and had a very well written text" (Paschetto 1912, 552-553, nr. 429; the original text is online). Could Anne's sherd belong to this vessel?


We expected to find more information about the vessel with the text "maxime dulcis z(esei)" in C.R. Morey, The Gold-Glass collection of the Vatican library with Additional Catalogue of the Other Gold-Glass Collections, Vatican City 1959. This is a very complete catalogue of the Roman gold-glass in museums in many countries. However, the text is not mentioned. Perhaps the sherd was not accessible in 1959. We found out later (see below) that it was once in the Museo Gregoriano (Profano? Etrusco?). The Museo Gregoriano Profano was housed in the Lateran Palace as part of the Museo Lateranense. It was integrated with the Vatican Museums (i.e. transferred to Vatican City) in the years 1958-1963 by order of Pope John XXIII. The collection was reopened in 1970. So the collection was being transferred in the period when Morey studied and published the gold-glass.

We then looked at a guide of the Museo Lateranense published by Marucchi in 1922. There were two halls in which finds from Ostia were on display: sala XV and sala XVI. On pp. 87-88 at nr. 940 Marucchi gives a short description of a showcase with terracotta and glass objects. There was also a showcase with bronze objects, and he says that these were transferred in 1920 from the Museo Etrusco Vaticano. They were brought there even though they have nothing to do with the Etruscans. It is interesting that the current Museo Gregoriano Etrusco (which has kept its name, unlike the Profano) has "Sala XV. Antiquarium Romanum, terrecotte, vetri, avori." That sounds a lot like what Marucchi wrote. Very confusing, and further consultation of the literature is necessary. The vessel could of course also be in a store-room.


We went further back in time. The text "maxime dulcis z" is mentioned in H. Volpel, Die altchristlichen Goldglaeser, Freiburg 1899. On p. 96 at nr. 14 (no illustration available) he states that is was found in 1864 in Ostia and is now in the Gregorian museum. He mentions the text in a section with inscriptions called "Lateinisch mit Eigennamen", in other words, he regards "maxime" as the name of person. It is the vocative of the name Maximus, and the translation would be (courtesy Jesse de Does): "Sweet Maximus, may you live" (i.e. in paradise). The text is also mentioned in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum XV,II,1 by H. Dressel (who is well-known for his work on classifying amphorae). He reads "z(eses)" instead of "z(esei)". He adds: "In fundo vasculi rep. a. 1864 Ostiae prope Mithraeum, litteris aureis, Mus. Vatican. Gregorian. Inscriptum coronae gilvo colore pictae. Descripsi a. 1894". That is: "On the bottom of a vessel found in 1864 in Ostia near a mithraeum, with gold letters, in the Vatican Gregorian Museum, with the depiction of a pale-yellow crown. I made the description in 1894". The find is furthermore mentioned by G.B. de Rossi in the Bullettino di Archeologia Cristiana 1864,5, p. 40. De Rossi states that the find was made by Pietro Ercole Visconti near tombs in which Christian funeral inscriptions were found. As we wrote earlier, L. Paschetto has suggested (with a question mark) that the vessel was found near or amongst the tombs to the east of Ostia in the so-called Porta Romana necropolis. However, in the 1860's Pietro Ercole Visconti was excavating tombs to the south of Ostia, today known as the Porta Laurentina necropolis. The mithraeum mentioned by Dressel is most likely the Mitreo degli Animali, not far away from the necropolis, and excavated by Carlo Ludovico Visconti (nephew of Pietro Ercole) in 1867. Note that Dressel states that the text is "on the bottom of a vessel". Here alarm bells started to ring. If what Anne has is also a bottom, but without a motto, then we are talking about two different objects.


We now found this: "The early Christians in Rome buried their dead in subterranean galleries or catacombs, sometimes in burial chambers but more often in niches or loculi along the narrow corridors. It was customary after burial to seal the tomb and frequently there were impressed in the moist plaster or cement, fragments of gold glass which had originally formed the bottoms of drinking vessels" (C.L. Avery, "Early Christian Gold Glass", The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 16,8 (1921), 170-175). Something else we should have asked ourselves earlier: are the letters normally on the inside or outside (on the bottom of the bottom)? But neither was the case, see Google books. Here we read about "designs in gold leaf enclosed between two layers of glass". That would explain the words "holds within its folds" on the note.

We are now inclined to think that Pietro Ercole Visconti found at least two glass bottoms, or a bottom and a complete vessel, belonging to Christian tombs in early 1864. He presented them to the pope, who kept the one with the text "maxime dulcis z", and gave another one to his English visitors. There may well have been an inscription on Anne's sherds. In that case Anne's sherds are not a "less interesting" part of a vessel, but a complete object related to a Christian child, man or woman from Ostia.

[jthb - 2-Feb-2010]