Wednesday, 6 April 2011

History: Venetian Glass (Part 2 of 3)

15th & 16th Century

The Renaissance, from 1400 to 1640, had a profound affect on Italy, and Murano in particular. At the start of the 15th century it is recorded that the island of Murano now housed 3,000 glass blowers. This was in part due to another influx of fleeing craftsmen following the siege of Damacus in 1400, to be followed by the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks. With this new skill base Venetian glass makers adopted another borrowed process, which had its origins in Syria. This was the ability to apply enamel and gilding to glass, which in turn influenced the creation of new dark coloured glasses to offset this externally applied decoration.

Some years prior to this discovery in 1441, the Grand Council’s declarations of 1271 were re-written and extended in the Mariegola dell’arte dei verieri da Muran. The legislation now covered all the phases of glass making - from production through to sale, as well as taxation, and the formalising of the relationship between owners, glass masters and other workers in the factories

Then, at the mid point of the century, Angelo Barovier produced what was to become known as vetro cristallo or cristallo veneziano. This was a pure, bright, completely transparent crystal glass. The impact this discovery was to have on the design and appreciation of stem glassware, goblets, dishes and bowls across Europe was unparalleled. The clarity of this glass brought its own magic but its chemical make up allowed for light and elegant designs, which up until to this point would have been near impossible to achieve with any regularity.

An early example of Venetian cristallo glass dating from 1580

As technical achievements in glass brought change so to did changes through exploration, trade and politics. By the end of the century the Portuguese, or more specifically Vasco da Gama, had circumnavigated the Cape of Good Hope reaching India and returning to Lisbon. Over time this new route had the effect of rendering ancient land based trade routes across the North African Sahara largely obsolete. The Gulf of Guinea, on the west coast of Africa, became the new commercial centre for sea borne trade, with the Portuguese, then Spanish, Dutch and English ships unloading glass beads with which to barter. Some 40 years later in 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, which in time brought trade and colonisation to the Americas.

Vasco da Gama (c 1460 to 1524) Christopher Columbus (c 1451 to 1506)

Man-made glass was a largely unknown quantity in many of the new countries that these routes would open up. When combined with the high intrinsic value that Africans and Native Americans placed on decorative items, European merchants were set to make vast profits trading glass, metal, and porcelain beads for natural resources. This would give rise, to what can only be described as a Golden Age for glass bead production across Europe, centred on Venice and Bohemia, from the early 16th century to the close of the 18th Century.

In 1592, in order to meet this new market growth, the Venetian authorities allowed the glass factories to once again expand beyond Murano to many of the other islands in the lagoon of Venice, but in turn the ban on glass makers emigrating outside of Venice was extended to cover the whole Republic. To give an indication of this uplift in production, it is known that in 1525 Venice had 24 glass works but by 1606 the register of glass bead producers alone had reached 251. By 1764 over two million pounds of beads were being made yearly in Venice alone. It has also been estimated that over 100,000 different Venetian trade bead designs were commissioned in Murano during this 200-year period, each with their own colour variations. Below you will see some examples spanning this production period.

1. Seven Layer Chevron. Late 1400s
2. Seven Layer Chevron. Late 1400s
3. A Speo. Late 1600s
4. French Ambassador. 1850s
5. Baule Face. Late 1800s
6. Black Decorated. Late 1800s
7. Cornaline D’Aleppo. Late 1800s
8. Tabular. Late 1800s
9. Large Chevron. Late 1800s
10. Square Edge Floral. Late 1800s
11. Yellow Black Swirl. Late 1800s
12. Millefiori. Late 1800s

Most bead output was destined for Africa, with ships having been loaded with beads for ballast, returning with spices, ivory, palm oil, and gold. This trade was to take on a more sinister nature as the price of African gold became less competitive when compared with gold from America. The rulers of Ghana, Benin and the Ivory Coast were therefore encouraged to supply a human cargo from the African interior to provide much needed workforces for the colonial powers.

Driven ever onwards, the 16th Century saw Venetian artisans gain even greater control over the colour and transparency of their glass, mastering a variety of new decorative production techniques. In 1527 Filippo Catani patented zanfirico or retorti filigree, which saw fine milky white canes included in transparent cristallo glass and twisted as a spiral. This was taken a stage further with latticinio in which rods of opaque glass, usually white or gold, were incorporated in the body of the clear glass vessel and worked in lattice patterns.

Venetian mould blown latticinio ewer late 16th century in vetro a retorti with gauze cable and threads and a Venetian latticino lobed drinking vessel, both late 16th Century. (Source - Christies)

Calcedonio, a method of simulating marble and other stones was also introduced. Ghiaccio, or ice glass, was developed around 1570. This being clear glass with very fine internal cracks. As the quality of glass improved diamond engraving also became possible, originating first in Prague but then quickly picked up in Venice. The glass makers of Murano had responded well to new levels of demand and were producing more elaborate designs and more technically accomplished glassware products. Venetian mirrors and chandeliers were also in great demand. Visits from crowned heads, popes and the leading businessmen of time were the norm.

However, by the end of the 16th century Venice had lost its monopoly on transparent glass, as demand for Venetian glass became such that a number of glass makers began migrating across European cities - one such glass maker of note being Jacopo Verzelini who was given licence in London in 1575 by Queen Elizabeth I.

An engraved glass goblet from 1586 produced in the London glasshouse of Jacopo Verzellini 1522 – 1606. (Source - British Museum).

Merchants who had experience of commerce with Murano also set up their own factories in France, Germany, Belgium and Austria, run by Muranese expatriates, producing their own versions of Venetian glass or à la façon de Venise, meaning in the Venetian style. They were modifying classic Venetian designs and techniques to suit local tastes and the raw materials available to them. One such individual being Wolfgang Vitl who in 1534, at the request of Emperor Ferdinand I, opened one of the earliest glasshouses producing à la façon de Venise glass in northern Europe. This workshop employed both Venetian glassblowers and local craftsmen to produce these imitations, which were larger and more robust than the originals they were copying, but ultimately less expensive than importing them from Venice. Such was the importance of this enterprise that Vitl succeeded in persuading the Emperor to grant him the sole right to produce colourless glass across the Hapsburg territories for 20 years.

17th Century

In 1630 the plague, which had been ravaging populations across Europe since its arrival in Europe in 1348, forced the Venetian authorities to relax their employment laws to ensure that they had the skills and manpower to continue to meet demand. Italy proved particularly susceptible to the plague in part due to the fact it had a different political structure to other European countries. Composed of city-states, each city was left to manage with the devastation of the plague on its own. While they often attempted to work together, the loss of life had a much greater impact on each city than it did on centrally organized nations such as France. In Venice, eighty thousand lives were lost in just seventeen months. On the 9th November, for example, five hundred and ninety-five people died. These enormous fatalities greatly affected the city and in turn glass production, shipbuilding, lace, wool and silk making. By the time that the plague had run its course, politics in Venice had been forever altered and the Republic was in decline.

To add to Venice’s political and commercial troubles, in 1662 Christopher Merrett translated a treatise called the L’Arte Vetraria written in 1612 by Antonio Neri. The subject matter was glass making, and in particular the lead glass used in Venetian enamels, glassware and imitation precious stones. This paved the way for the production of English lead crystal glass by George Ravenscroft. The son of a merchant with close ties to Venice, Ravenscroft was the first to produce clear lead crystal glassware on an industrial scale. With the cultural and financial resources necessary to revolutionise the glass trade, his work allowed England to overtake Venice as the centre of the glass industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. With the aid of Venetian glass makers, in particular is partner Seignior Da Costa, and under the auspices of the Glass Sellers Guild, Ravenscroft sought to find an alternative to Venetian cristallo. By 1673 he had overcome all production issues and was granted a protective patent. This gave rise to an intense production of glasses, cups, plates, cups, jugs and bottles all made from lead glass.

George Ravenscroft lead glass mould blown Roemer drinking glass dating from 1677. (Source - Wilfred Buckley Collection V&A)

18th & 19th Centuries

The 18th century saw the seeds of decay start to grow in Murano. Worker unrest at the closure of furnaces saw unemployment increase. As shown the decline in the importance of Venice as a trading and political power also meant it was less able to police its restrictive rules designed to protect its glass industry. Occupation by the French under Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797 and then the subsequent transfer of Venice to the Hapsburg Empire in 1814 brought the Venetian Republic to an end.

Glass production in Murano suffered enormously under Austrian rule as regulations were introduced which overtly favoured the other major glass making in the Empire, namely Bohemia. This saw Bohemian crystal, thicker, heavier and often engraved, grow in popularity to the point of rivaling Murano glass’ popularity the century before. Taxation of raw materials, limited markets, and the abolition of the Guild in 1805 saw a sharp decline in the number of furnaces - down to 24 in 1800 which further shrank to 13 by 1820. Master glass makers were now scattered across Europe and the remaining Murano producers chose to focus on the decorative beads, small bottles, and trinkets needed for overseas colonial trade.

This decline did not bottom out until the mid 19th century with the establishment of a new family glass furnace on Murano, called Fratelli Tosco in 1854. This was followed by the arrival on the island of an industrial lawyer by the name of Antonio Salviati in 1859 who set up another furnace. Fratelli initially focused on utilitarian everyday glassware, whilst Salviati focused on producing glass tiles for both the repair of Venetian mosaics and the creation of new ones. The master glassblowers who gravitated towards these two firms were among the many who had kept the glassblowing traditions alive, maintaining the art of their fathers and grandfathers, rediscovering the ancient glass making techniques, including Lorenzo Radi, who had devoted considerable efforts in the 1850s to resurrecting some of the sophisticated glass making techniques from Murano's first heyday in the 1400s. This steady reversal in fortunes was further aided by Vincenzo Zanetti who developed the Glass Museum of Murano, which in reality was more of a school which alongside the new furnaces slowly began reintroducing lost glass blowing techniques.

The output from the Salviati factory gained international recognition at both the London World Exhibition in 1862 and the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1867, in large part due to Antonio’s marketing abilities. At the London event his firm captured international attention with its prize-winning display with Salviati boldly using the occasion to present products in calcedonio glass, a medium that Radi had revived in 1856.

Salviati Calcedonio glass carafe from 1856

This recognition of artistic merit was paralleled by commercial success, and the firm soon inaugurated a sales office in London in 1868. These initiatives opened new markets for Venetian glass beyond those in the Hapsburg Empire. Eventually, Venice was freed from the Austrians in 1866 and became part of the Kingdom of Italy, and gradually the glass making industry of Murano began to expand commercially and many new innovative firms were established such as Fratelli Barovier and Francesco Ferro & Figlio.

Beyond drawing on the centuries old traditions of glass making in Murano, including the rediscovery of murine, a glass making technique from Roman times, new influences were needed to re-inspire the industry. The Murano glass workers were constrained by the fact that they had always worked within an artisan tradition rather than an artistic one. This inspiration needed began with the art nouveau movement at the end of the century, but was further fuelled and redirected by the avant garde reaction to this movement within the European art world. These new ideas and innovations from across Europe were evident for all to see at the 1895 Venice Biennale.

The official poster from the 1895 Venice Biennale

This had the effect of stretching the ideas of the glass makers, who began to form informal groups to discuss and exchange artistic ideas. One such group, associated with Cà Pesaro and the Bevilacqua La Masa Foundation, included a number of artists who would bring new design ideas to the Murano glass makers. Prominent among them being Vittorio Zecchin, Napoleone Martinuzzi, Hans Stoltenberg-Lerche and Teodoro Wolf-Ferrari. The scene was now set for the 20th century to be a new Golden Age for Venetian glass.

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