The gazing ball, that shiny, reflective colorful globe perched atop a stand, has been used in gardens both in Europe and the United States as a decorative garden ornament. However, this lovely glass ball is also full of lore and legend.
The gazing ball is said to have been invented in Venice, Italy, in the 13th century. Skilled glass blowers crafted beautiful spheres in many sizes and colors. An Italian priest and chemist, known as Antonio Neri , referred to gazing balls in 1612 as "spheres of light." Francis Bacon, in the 16th century, remarked that a "proper garden would have colored balls for the sun to play upon."
The gazing ball became popular in the 19th century because King Ludwig II of Bavaria had the balls placed throughout the gardens at his castle Herrenchiemsee, a replica of the castle at Versailles. Many homes in Europe and the United States had gazing balls in the Victorian era.
Gazing balls are typically made of hand-blown glass. They range in diameter from 4 to 12 inches. Since the colors in a gazing ball are on the inside of the glass, any color imaginable could be used. The end of the ball was sealed to keep out moisture and to protect the color.
Myth and Legend
Gazing balls have had many names through the centuries: spirit balls, witch balls, friendship balls, butler balls and spirit catchers. People thought gazing balls brought good luck and prosperity to a home and abundant growth to plants and flowers. Homeowners put them near the front door of the house to keep evil spirits and witches away. Victorians gave them to each other as gifts of true friendship, thus the name friendship ball.
Gazing balls were not only beautiful in the garden, but were also practical inside upper-class homes during the Victorian era. Known then as butler balls, they stood on a small pedestal in a dining room near the door, perhaps on a sideboard or buffet. From the doorway, the servants had only to glance at the gazing ball, which reflected the room, to see if guests needed anything.
Gazing Balls in the Garden
Not only do gazing balls look attractive in the garden surrounded by flowers, but they can also be placed in a pond or other water feature (they can be anchored so as not to float to the sides break). Smaller versions of the gazing ball can also be hung in trees, and these were once called faerie balls.