Since ancient times, man has used resinous substances for lighting and the pressing of woodland berries and animal and vegetable fats as a means of illuminating the darkness. As of the 4th century, olive oil was used for lighting.
Oil lamps reached Rome via Magna Grecia (that area of southern Italy colonized by the Greeks from 7th-c . B.C.) and the oil lamps rapidly substituted the candles which the Etruscans had used.
Of modest cost and easy fabrication, terracotta lampade were in every home.
The lamps were used to illuminate the different rooms of the house, the shops, the temples, the baths and the theaters. They also had a wide religious, auspicious, votive and above all funerary use.
Oil lamps have been found in large quantities in cemeteries, especially in the catacombs.
As symbols of life and to accompany the deceased on their afterlife journey, they were often included in the funerary equipment placed in the tombs. The lampade – also called “lucerne” – were offered as an ex-voto – a vow – to the gods and frequently used as a propitious gift for the beginning of the new year. The lamps were also exchanged as a tribute between lovers.
Exquisite glass lampade brought light into the homes of wealthier Romans, such as the diatretum cup pictured below. The pinnacle of Roman glass-making (only about fifty such cups exist), the “reticulated cup” consisted of an inner beaker and an outer shell of decoration, standing out from the body of the cup and attached by short stems:
Few Roman lamps were made of bronze as this metal was less available. In Pompeii, bronze lamps were found only in three homes.
Yet bronze will be used for oil lamps in the Middle Ages, although also terracotta continued to be used (as in the first lampada below) – and the medieval shapes will become more elaborated and fanciful:
While on the terrracotta lamps the decoration was concentrated on the disc, the handle and sometimes the lid are privileged in the bronze oil lamps.
The above terracotta Roman lampade and the medieval oil lamps are among the treasures of the Lungarotti family’s Museo dell’Olio in Torgiano, an exceptional small, private museum guiding you through the cultivation and transformation of olives since pre-historic times.
Exquisite 17th-19th c. oil lamps in bronze, silver, and Venetian blown glass are included in the museum’s fine collection:
This museum is a treasure. Mille grazie to the Lungarotti family for olive oil illumination.
Read here about the ancient treasures of Umbria’s “liquid gold.”