Notebook, 1993-


GLASS - Glossary - A List of Museums and Galleries

American - Bohemian - Chinese - English - French - Irish - Venetian

Glass - Venetian

The origins of the Venetian glass industry are obscure. In late classical times glass was probably made at Aquilea [midway between Venice and Trieste], where so many exquisite specimens of Roman glass have been dug up. Tradition has it that some glass workers from this town were among the refugees who fled before the Gothic invaders of the fifth and sixth centuries to found the city of Venice on the barren marshy islands of the lagoons. But even if they were, they could hardly have practiced their craft in the isolation of the new community. The first Venetian glass maker to figure in documentary records is one Domenico, who, in 982, was described as a fiolario, a maker of phials. Further members of this trade are mentioned in the next two centuries, and by 1255 there were enough glass craftsmen in Venice to form a guild. Indeed, the city authorities became concerned at the risk of fire occasioned by numerous furnaces, and in 1291 gave orders that the glass factories should be transferred to the island of Murano, where they have remained ever since. Early in sixteenth c., the then Sir Richard Guildford passed through Venice on his way to the Holy Land, he made a visit to Murano to inspect the factories, which were already numbered among the tourists 'sights' of the lagoon.

In the fourteenth century the Murano glass factories are known to have been producing enameled glass, blown glass, and even spectacle lenses. But very few objects dating from this period have survived. Among fifteenth-century works one of the most notable is a marriage cup of enamelled blue glass, which has by tradition been associated with a family of glass craftsmen named Barovier mentioned by Filarete in his treatise De Architetura [written between 1451 and 1464]. Other cups and beakers of the same type are in the Museums of Bologna, Florence, Trento, Berlin, Cologne, the British Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. All are of dark-coloured glass delicately painted with mythological figures, portrait heads, coats-of-arms, or abstract designs of dots and semicircles, in bright enamel. The forms are not unlike those of contemporary silver vessels. At this time the Murano factories seem to have begun the production of looking glasses which soon replaced the polished metal mirrors in use since classical times. They also began to imitate in glass the precious and semi-precious hard stones of which vessels were occasionaly wrought by court jewelers through out Europe in the renaissance period. Most successful of these was the imitation of chalcedony, and a fine ewer in this glass, called vetro di calcedonia, is in the Museo Nazionale, Florence.

The golden age of Venetian glass, both commercially and artistically, began in the early sixteenth c., when the art of making clear 'crystal' glass was discovered. The factories quickly exploited this new process, and soon Venice was exporting to all parts of Europe, cups, bowls, and dishes of a transparency which was then to be rivaled only by rock crystal. . . .

The vessels of crystal glass made in Venice in the sixteenth c. were of elegant form, perfectly adapted to the light weight of their substance and much less dependent on silver patterns than hitherto. Most of the clear glass--valued on account of its clarity--seems to have been left undecorated, but some examples were engraved either by wheel or with a diamond point. The Venetian factories did not, however, give up the production of coloured opaque glass. They continued to produce glass made in imitation of hard stones and indeed developed a new milky-white glass called lattimo, which provided an excellent background for enamel decorations . . . .

The decorations applied to Venetian glass in the sixteenth c. reflect the current development from pure Renaissance to Mannerist ornament. Many of them are, indeed, close in style to those found on contemporary majolica. The forms remained comparatively simple until the end of the century, when a greater sense of fantasy was employed in devising stems for goblets--in the form of dragons, serpents, or sea horses. In the 17th c. objects still more fantastic were produced: lamps in the form of horses, jugs fashioned like ships with reticulated glass rigging, bottles with preposterously attenuated necks; while the greatest ingenuity was applied to varying the stems of cups and reliquaries and the knobs of covered vases. This development may partly be attributed to the exuberance of the Baroque spirit. But it was also, perhaps, occassioned by the need to answer foreign competition. Before the end of the 17th c. crystal glass much clearer than that produced at Murano was being made, often by Venetian craftsmen, in many parts of Europe. . . .

Venetian glass of the 18th c. is principally distinguished for the bravura of its design and for sparkling gaiety of its painted decorations which reflect the styles of the great masters of the settecento. J. G. de Keysler, who visited Venice in the late 1730s remarked: 'The Venetian glass is very pure and ductile when it is fusion; on which account it is more easily melted, and answers much better than any others for works of fantasy.' He commented with admiration on the mirrors, though, he said, those 'of any considerable size are extremely dear, when other looking glasses at present are so cheap', mainly because they were blown and not, like those made in France, cast and ground. The writer also mentions the necklaces and rosaries made of glass beads, sometimes of the form and colour of pearls [margaritini]. Prominent among the other objects made of glass in Venice at this time are the great chandeliers, often ornamented with opaque glass flowers, bunches of grapes, and other fruit which still decorate many a Venetian salon, where they form an excellent accompaniment to the painted ceilings, from which they hang, and the exuberant rococo furniture.

Having produced so many bizarre splendors in the 18th c., Venetian craftsmen seem to have been unable, or unwilling, to keep pace with the change in taste from Rococo to Neoclassicism. Partly as a result of this, partly on account of the dwindling status of the once Serene Republic [now an Austrian possession], the glass factories of Murano fell on hard times in the early 19th c. In about 1820 Lady Morgan commented that the Venetian glass pearl was then 'almost all that remains of that superb arte vitraria which first rendered Europe independent of the sands of Tyre, and established at Venice a manufacture which, in spite of Nature had supplied the world with one of its most brilliant luxuries. The Venetian shops no longer sparkle with girandoles of seeming diamonds, with flowers more brilliant and frail than the blossoms of a Spring shower, which they imitated; and with mirrors, which first replaced the dimness of metal with the reflecting lustre of crystal.' . . . . In the present century several factories have begun to produce wares which unite the best qualities of old Venetian glass--its lightness of weight, its gay brilliance of colour, and fantasy of form - with designs which satisfy the most exacting pundits of industrial art. But these objects fall outside the present chapter. [pp. 257-259]

[L. G. G. Ramsey, F.S.A., ed. The Complete Color Encyclopedia of Antiques. Preface by Bevis Hillier, Editor of The Connoisseur. Compiled by The Connoisseur, London. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc. 1962. Revised and Expanded Edition.]



The contents of this site, including all images and text, are for personal, educational, non-commercial use only. The contents of this site may not be reproduced in any form without proper reference to Text, Author, Publisher, and Date of Publication [and page #s when suitable].