by Roderick Conway Morris

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Artisan Glassmakers and Twists of Fortune

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE, Italy 8 February 2011
with filigree in white, aquamarine and ruby,
by Pietro Bigaglia, made around 1845-48.



The invention of glassblowing in the first century B.C. put cheap glasses on Roman tavern tables throughout the empire, and bottles and pickle jars on the shelves of even the humblest homes.

Along with many other comforts and conveniences, glass utensils, and indeed glass window panes, all but disappeared in the West with the empire's collapse. When glassblowing was revived on any scale in the second millennium, Venice took the lead.

But trying to hold on to that advantage was no easy matter. And over the centuries Venice's glass industry experienced changing fortunes. The story of these ups and downs, of decline and revival, is related in ''The Adventure of Glass: A Millennium of Venetian Art,'' at the Correr Museum .

The exhibition marks the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the Glass Museum in Murano by Vincenzo Zanetti. The exhibits include pieces from the museum that have never been shown before and additional rarities from private collections.

The first documentary mention of a Venetian glassmaker is found on a deed of donation in 982 to the Benedictine monastery on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore by a Domenico. He is referred to as a fiolario, or bottle maker.

Glassmaking at this time was almost entirely utilitarian. But, as an introductory section demonstrates, this region during the centuries before the final fall of the western Roman Empire was one of the most important centers for sophisticated glass. Among the most elegant examples are a type of large, rounded jar or olla, originally used to contain food but later employed as funerary urns (although seemingly only for women and children).

Altino, on the northern shores of the Venetian lagoon -- whose inhabitants were to flee to Torcello in the seventh century A.D. to escape successive barbarian invasions -- was a major port in imperial times and has yielded significant finds of Roman glass. These and the latest research into them are the subject of the parallel exhibition ''Altino: Glass of the Venetian Lagoon'' at the National Archaeological Museum of Altino, which itself recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.

By the time of a decree in 1292 that forbade the operation of glass furnaces in Venice, Murano was already the de facto headquarters of the industry. The makers of beads for necklaces and rosaries, who used small furnaces with a lesser risk of starting fires, were exempt from the ban. But over time the Murano glass furnaces also began to produce ever more elaborate types of beads, which came to be known as perle, or pearls.

From the late 15th century onward, Venetian beads not only achieved the largest worldwide distribution of any of Murano's glass products, but also remained the most consistently in demand. The second section of the exhibition offers a panorama of these beads, from large pearls with intricate, colorful designs that traveled the trade routes of Africa and served both for decoration and currency, to the tiny monochrome beads used to trim women's clothes, bags and accessories in the 19th- and 20th-century Europe and in the Americas.

It has been estimated that over 100,000 types of beads were developed in a vast range of color combinations, using the full gamut of Murano's glass-making techniques. In 1764 the island's workshops sent 1,040 tons of the pearls overseas. In 1868, when the industry was still struggling to re-establish other forms of glassmaking, 3,662 tons of beads were exported.

Murano's great age of technical innovation spanned the mid-15th to the mid-16th century. It began around 1450 when, by refining the primary materials in an almost alchemical process, Angelo Barovier created a miraculously clear crystal glass. Barovier went on to develop lattimo, or milk glass, which imitated the pure opaque whiteness of porcelain, and calcedonio, which reproduced the effects of chalcedony, agate and malachite.

The discovery of milk glass made it possible in 1527 for the brothers Bernardo and Filippo Serena to weave in intricate patterns threads of this opaque glass into crystal glass. The technique gave rise to reticello (mesh) and retortoli (twisted) filigree glass.

At some time, around 1550, ice glass was first created by plunging hot crystal glass into cold water and then reheating it, which produced light-refracting pieces that appeared to be composed of jagged ice.

Classic examples of all these techniques, which raised glass to the status of an applied art form and consolidated Murano's primacy for a century or more to come, make for an absorbing display in the central rooms of the exhibition.

In the 1670's, Murano was challenged on two fronts with the appearance of a brilliant potassium glass in Bohemia and of a sparkling lead glass in England. Unlike Venice's soda glass, potassium and lead glass lent themselves well to engraving and cutting when cold, and became fashionable throughout Europe.

The 18th century was a period of decline for Murano, although distinctive Venetian products such as milk glass and avventurina glass were still sought. The latter, characterized by exotic one-off colored patterns, took its name from the fact that every piece was made using an unstable vitreous paste that contained tiny copper particles and, hence, was an adventure with an uncertain outcome. And, as the process often ended in failure, avventurina glass was a costly enterprise.

Murano's glass industry collapsed along with the rest of the Venetian economy with the fall of La Serenissima, or Venetian Republic, in 1797. Its recovery was delayed by the English blockade during the Napoleonic wars and then hampered by half a century of Austrian rule, when Bohemian-style imports from the Habsburg heartlands (including cut-glass goblets depicting scenes of Venice) were favored, and tariffs on raw materials further disadvantaged Murano.

During a lapse of nearly two generations, the knowledge of highly complex glassblowing processes was lost. In the 1830s, the bead producer Domenico Bussolin began the first steps of recovery by reviving the filigrana a retortoli, or twisted filigree, technique. The impetus for this renaissance was driven in part by the growing demand for antique pieces. This type of filigrana became familiarly known in Venetian as zanfirico, reflecting the local pronunciation of the second name of Antonio Sanquirico, a leading purveyor of fake antique glass works that he commissioned to sell in his shop near the Rialto bridge.

But appreciation of the possibilities of applying traditional Murano virtuoso techniques to modern designs was slow in coming. Daniela Ferretti, the Correr exhibition's designer, deftly makes this point with her arrangement, in the manner of a Giorgio Morandi still life, of four-mesh filigree bottles and vases. They were made around 1845-48 by Pietro Bigaglia. Expensive to produce in small quantities, they found no market and were donated by Bigaglia to Murano's new glass museum in 1861.

Indeed, as the final sections of the show illustrate, it was only during the 20th century that artists and designers discovered the rich potential of the ancient skills of Murano's glass masters in the creation of contemporary works.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024