In the fifteenth century, on the Venetian island of Murano, a revolution in the manufacture of European glass was unfolding. There is archaeological evidence of glassmaking on the island of Torcello in the Venetian Lagoon as early as the seventh to eighth centuries; however, in the mid fifteenth century Murano glassmaker Angelo Barovier produced a new glass formula. This glass, named cristallo for its resemblance to rock crystal, was characterised by an impressive clarity and high light transmittance, which stood in marked contrast to the brown or green tinge that typified glass made elsewhere in Europe at the time.
Liquid Light: 500 Years of Venetian Glass draws upon the National Gallery of Victoria’s extensive holdings of Venetian glass, ranging in date from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. The NGV’s collections are especially rich in material from the nineteenth-century revival of the glass industry, following a significant acquisition in 1874 and a large purchase of works from the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880–81. These works form the centrepiece of the exhibition but are complemented with important examples from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, as well as masterworks from the twentieth century by glassmakers whose heritage stretches back for centuries.
A form of soda glass, Venetian cristallo was manufactured, according to historical glassmaking treatises and from two raw materials: quartz (sand or pebbles as a silica source) and plant ash as a flux (binder) and stabiliser. The plant ash employed on Murano was derived from coastal-growing plants such as Salsola kali and Salicornia, and mainly comprised soda ash (sodium and calcium carbonates). Manganese oxide was also added to the glass to reduce the yellow-green discoloration caused by iron impurities, which improved the clarity. The plant ash was sourced from Egypt, Syria and, since the sixteenth century, from Spain.1Marco Verità, ‘Secrets and innovations of Venetian glass between the 15th and the 17th centuries: Raw materials, glass melting and artefacts’, Atti, Instituto Veneto di scienze, lettere ed arti, CLXXII:1, 2014, pp. 53–5. The Murano cristallo industry was thus in part a byproduct of Venice’s domination of maritime trade routes in the Mediterranean. The Serenissima Government sought to restrict access to the vital plant ash to protect Murano’s monopoly on the new glass and its secret formula was heavily guarded. Cristallo glass quickly achieved high demand throughout Europe.
A footed dish with enamelled decoration dating to the early sixteenth century exemplifies the luminous clarity achieved by the Murano glass masters. The armorial decoration executed in coloured enamels is an indication of the elite context in which this work was originally conceived. The new Venetian glass was a desirable luxury commodity and it was collected voraciously by ruling elites in Renaissance Europe. Patrons and artists began to produce sophisticated designs for glass forms and decoration, which were sent to Venice for production by the Muranese masters. The fashionable grotesque style (fantastical decorations of animals and humans morphing into plant motifs) of the late-fifteenth century derived from the newly discovered Roman wall paintings excavated in the Domus Aurea, Nero’s palace, inspired Venetian glassmakers to push the possibilities of their very pliable material to produce ever more complex and sculptural grotesque glass objects.
The desire to possess fine glass of the Venetian type prompted glassmakers elsewhere in Europe to attempt to emulate Venetian cristallo. A period of instability in the Venetian glass industry in the mid sixteenth century saw a number of Muranese glassmakers immigrate to northern Europe, establishing Venetian-style glass factories in France, England, the Netherlands and the Tyrol. Glass made in Venetian style was known as façon de Venise and emulated the forms and decorations of Murano glass.2Jutta-Annette Page, Beyond Venice: Glass in Venetian style 1500–1750, The Corning Museum of Glass, New York and Manchester, 2004.
A German or Dutch façon de Venise goblet of the early seventeenth century with its double serpent stem embodies the flamboyant grotesque decoration fashionable throughout Europe.
The 1670s saw new glass formulas introduced in England and Bohemia that would radically affect the Venetian glass industry and cristallo manufacture throughout Europe. Bohemian potash-lime glass (Weissglas in German) was cheaper and more brilliant than cristallo and was capable of being cut and wheel engraved like rock crystal. Such engraved decoration usefully hid the visible impurities that characterised this type of glass. By the end of the seventeenth century Weissglas had supplanted cristallo as the standard glass in the German-speaking world, France, Spain and Scandinavia.
Almost simultaneously, a glass formula with a high lead oxide content was perfected by the English entrepreneur George Ravenscroft. This new glass was highly refractive, softer than both soda-lime and potash-lime glass, and was nearly flawless. The new glass quickly transformed the English glass industry and lively export trade with the Continent further eroded Venetian dominance in European glass.
The Muranese glassmakers struggled to formulate effective responses to these challenges. Exuberant baroque forms with an abundance of colourful floral decorations and charmingly buoyant enamel decorations could not hide the essential conservatism of the eighteenth-century Venetian glass industry. Attempts were made to emulate Bohemian glass in an effort to compete more effectively in export markets; however, to no avail. When Napoleon’s armed forces occupied Venice in 1796 it was the beginning of the end of the Serenissima Government. By May 1797, the Venetian Republic ceased to exist, becoming an Austrian possession. The abolition of the ancient guild system and the imposition by the French and Austrians of tariffs and taxes spelt the end of the struggling Venetian glass industry. In 1807 Napoleon closed the glass factories. The glassmakers who had once dominated Europe’s luxury glass trade were reduced to creating glass beads and simple glassware to secure a livelihood.3Rosa Barovier Mentasti, Il vetro veneziano, Milan, Electa, 1982, pp. 179–83.
It was not until Venice became part of the newly unified Kingdom of Italy in 1866 that Murano glassmaking experienced a revival. The cultural renewal associated with the Risorgimento (patriotic resurgence movement) saw many Italian nationalists strive to restore and revive traditional Italian industries. In the 1860s Abbot Vincenzo Zanetti founded a glass museum on Murano, together with a school of design to train young workers in the art of glassmaking.4Attilia Dorigato, ‘XIX century Murano glass’, in Aldo Bova, Rossella Junck and Puccio Migliaccio (eds), The Colours of Murano in the XIX Century, Arsenal et Junck, Venice, 1999, p. 10. Antonio Salviati, a lawyer from Vicenza who gave up his profession in 1859 to devote his time to traditional glass industries, also played a key role in the revival of Murano glassmaking, collaborating with Zanetti to encourage a new generation of Muranese glassworkers to recreate many of the traditional glass techniques that had been lost with the early-nineteenth century collapse of the industry.
The renewed interest in the Muranese glass tradition coincided with the design reform movement in progressive artistic circles across Europe. The reformers sought to improve aesthetically impoverished manufactured household goods by providing examples of good historical design as models for contemporary productions. In 1866, Salviati founded the Compagnia Venezia Murano with British diplomat and archaeologist Austen Henry Layard with the aim of recreating admired sixteenth and seventeenth century Murano glassworks in European museum collections. The new firm achieved great commercial success across Europe and the United States – every piece of glass exhibited by Salviati at the Paris 1867 Exposition Universelle was sold.5Sheldon Barr, ‘Venetian Art Nouveau Glass’, Magazine Antiques, February 2000, p. 317.
However by the early 1870s Salviati was feeling constrained by Layard’s insistence that reproductions of historic glasses should dominate the firm’s production. Salviati’s workers, having recovered the elaborate techniques of their forbears, were eager to exercise their own creativity, producing new and innovative glass forms. In 1877, Salviati parted ways with his English business partners and founded his own firm to pursue the production of modern Venetian glass art.6Reino Liefkes, ‘Salviati and the South Kensington Museum, in Aldo Bova, Rossella Junck and Puccio Migliaccio (eds), The Colours of Murano in the XIX Century, Arsenal et Junck, Venice, 1999, p. 15–17; Attilia Dorigato, ‘XIX century Murano glass’, in Aldo Bova, Rossella Junck and Puccio Migliaccio (eds), The Colours of Murano in the XIX Century, Arsenal et Junck, Venice, 1999, p. 11.
Other firms also appeared, producing modern glass employing revived Venetian techniques, and the combined success of the various Muranese glass manufacturers at international exhibitions around the world cemented the new supremacy of Venetian glass among connoisseurs.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, the Venetian glass industry again found itself experiencing a period of stagnation, its production dominated by the extravagant technical tours de force favoured in the 1870s and 80s but which now seemed out of touch with modern design trends. In the period following the First World War a new generation of glassmakers began to take Venetian production in new directions, embracing the simple forms of Art Deco then in vogue. After the disruption of the Second World War, Venetian glassmakers, armed with an unrivalled repertoire of technical expertise, once again embraced innovation in order to save their industry, this time by undertaking collaborations with external artists who provided the design vision, to be executed by the highly skilled Muranese glass masters. Abandoning entirely the conceit of producing functional objects, Venetian glass now became a vehicle for pure artistic expression with artists and glassblowers producing in tandem some of the most significant art glass of the twentieth century.
In more recent years the focus of Venetian glassmaking techniques has shifted to the United States where a number of leading American practitioners continue the time-honoured practices through a contemporary interpretation. Collaborations between Muranese workshops and outside artists continue but despite these successful partnerships the Venetian glass industry has struggled to maintain its identity in the twenty-first century amid the rising tide of cheap imports. Once again the wheel turns for this great Venetian industry and its future remains an open question.
Marco Verità, ‘Secrets and innovations of Venetian glass between the 15th and the 17th centuries: Raw materials, glass melting and artefacts’, Atti, Instituto Veneto di scienze, lettere ed arti, CLXXII:1, 2014, pp. 53–5.
Jutta-Annette Page, Beyond Venice: Glass in Venetian style 1500–1750, The Corning Museum of Glass, New York and Manchester, 2004.
Rosa Barovier Mentasti, Il vetro veneziano, Milan, Electa, 1982, pp. 179–83.
Attilia Dorigato, ‘XIX century Murano glass’, in Aldo Bova, Rossella Junck and Puccio Migliaccio (eds), The Colours of Murano in the XIX Century, Arsenal et Junck, Venice, 1999, p. 10.
Sheldon Barr, ‘Venetian Art Nouveau Glass’, Magazine Antiques, February 2000, p. 317.
Reino Liefkes, ‘Salviati and the South Kensington Museum, in Aldo Bova, Rossella Junck and Puccio Migliaccio (eds), The Colours of Murano in the XIX Century, Arsenal et Junck, Venice, 1999, p.15–17; Attilia Dorigato, ‘XIX century Murano glass’, in Aldo Bova, Rossella Junck and Puccio Migliaccio (eds), The Colours of Murano in the XIX Century, Arsenal et Junck, Venice, 1999, p. 11.