Venetian glass

Editorial Staff

Editorial Staff Art

  • Fazzoletto (handkerchief) vase designed by Fulvio Bianconi (1915–1996) for Venini and Company, Murano, c. 1950. Glass, height 11 inches. Photograph by courtesy of Glass Past, New York.    Right: Fazzoletto vase designed by Bianconi for Venini and Company, Murano, c. 1950. Glass, height 7 ¼ inches. Gardner and Barr photograph.

  • Pair of footed vases made by Salviati Dott. Antonio, Murano, c. 1880s. Glass, height of each 9 ½ inches. Photograph by courtesy of Gardner and Barr Gallery, New York. 

  • Vase made by Fratelli Toso, Murano, 1895–1915. Mosaic glass, height 7 inches. Gardner and Barr photograph.

Among the many humorous stories about the composer Gioacchino Rossini is one concerning the visit of a young tenor to his Paris flat. After the tenor capped a Rossini aria with a particularly blockbusting high C, the composer pointedly excused himself to go and check on the condition of his antique Venetian glass. Rossini was one of many collectors of Venetian glass confectionery, a group that had also included generations of European royalty and nobility from England’s Henry VIII to that most acquisitive of eighteenth-century treasure hunters, Augustus II (the Strong), elector of Saxony and king of Poland.

From the thirteenth century Venice had held a monopoly on glassmaking in Europe, and its products—often extravagantly colored, enameled, and gilded—were treasured luxuries. Venetian glass is, in fact, more properly called Murano glass, after the island where the glasshouses were relocated at the end of the century, in part because their kilns constituted a fire hazard to the city, but also to keep the glassmaking process a secret by isolating the makers on their own well-guarded island.

Venetian glass was primarily made by crushing and melting a variety of white quartz pebble (made of pure silica) gathered from the River Po and mixing it with soda ash (sodium carbonate) derived from burnt seaweed. Because this soda glass remained soft and malleable as it cooled, it was ideally suited to blowing relatively small thin-walled vessels that could be stretched, twisted, and otherwise worked into a great variety of beguiling shapes. It could also be painted with enamels or elaborately embellished with thin strands and blobs of molten glass, often in contrasting colors, to form the handles, stems, and floral and animal motifs that give these pieces their distinctive character. By adding oxides of copper, manganese, and cobalt the glass could be colored various shades of blue, turquoise, and red, all of these combinations known as early as ancient Egypt. Other metallic ingredients, such as gold chloride for ruby glass, were introduced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Venice, by the late eighteenth century, though still an independent state, had declined as a sea and trading power, glassmaking being the last relic of its former glory. The ensuing domination by Napoleonic France and subsequently Habsburg Austria threatened even this. Austrian occupation of Lombardy-Venetia was particularly damaging, for the Habsburgs were determined to promote the luxurious glass of Bohemia and destroy Venice’s production by placing ruinous tariffs on both the raw materials that Venetian glassmakers had to import and the finished products they exported. By 1859 Venice’s glass industry was virtually extinct.

That year, however, the tide turned. A Venetian attorney named Antonio Salviati, goaded into action by the neglectful decay of Venice’s architectural mosaics, founded the firm of Salviati to produce colored glass tesserae for restoration work. The unification of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861 freed Venice’s glass industry from Austrian oppression, and thereafter Salviati, joined by other makers including Artisti Barovier and Fratelli Toso, fostered a complete revival of Venetian blown glass.

Initially, the goal was to reproduce the designs of antique specimens, but in time Salviati and his colleagues began to encourage their masterful workers to unleash their creative impulses, and Venetian glass of the 1880s shows the revival of old styles as interpreted by exuberant nineteenth-century sensibilities. Several of these firms flourished well into the twentieth century.  During the 1950s Murano workshops also produced glass reflecting modernist trends in simplified forms and ebullient color combinations. Glassmaking in Murano is again a viable industry.

Some techniques

Four pieces from New York galleries illustrate several aspects of Venetian glass over a period of roughly seventy years after the great revival.

First, is a pair of footed vases by the firm of Salviati Dott. Antonio that dates from the 1880s (see p. 62). Each vessel was mouth blown from gathers of “metal” (as molten glass is called) into a ribbed mold. It was then heat-softened again and the neck and rim shaped and crimped with various tools and pincers. The triple-knopped amber-tinted stems would have been assembled from separately blown elements, and the handles and wings worked up from crimped and twisted rods of molten amber glass. The pair sells for $2,500.

Second is the mosaic (or millefiori) vase by Fratelli Toso illustrated on this page. Its restrained lines and uproarious colors look surprisingly modern, but the vase actually dates from about 1900 and represents one of the more complex processes revived from sixteenth-century glassmaking. Long glass canes of two or more colors were first arranged in bundles and heat-fused. The fused bundles—one mainly red, one mainly green—were heated again and then pulled like taffy to form long thin striped rods with a flowerlike pattern at each end (the handles are formed of short, thinly stretched lengths of these rods). Disks sliced from the rods are called murrhine (an ancient Roman name for a semiprecious stone), each slice bearing its polychrome floral pattern. The slices were arranged on a marble slab (called a marver) and kiln softened again. Then a heat-softened sheet of clear glass was fused over the slices and the mass arranged into a bubble, which was mouth blown into the vase shape—the clear outer layer revealing the dazzling pattern beneath. The vase is priced at $1,800.

The most recent pieces under discussion here are two undulating fazzoletto (or handkerchief) vases from the 1950s designed by Fulvio Bianconi for Venini and Company (see p. 62). For these a sheet of glass is softened in the kiln and gently worked by hand into a shape resembling a linen handkerchief falling through the air. The first, in the collection of Sara Blumberg and Jim Oliveira of Glass Past (www
.glasspast.com), represents the incamiciato (literally “coated” or “plastered”) technique, in which two or more layers of opaque and transparent glass are overlaid, producing varying degrees of interior color throughout the body of the piece. It is priced at $2,800.

The other is a dark green iridized fazzoletto vase from the Gardner and Barr Gallery (www
.gardnerandbarr.com), its iridescence achieved by exposing the still-warm finished glass to fumes of metallic chloride. This vase is $2,000.

Although these examples represent high style “entry level” works for new collectors, Sheldon Barr, who with his partner Tom Gardner has a knowledge and love of this material that represents several decades of collecting and research, observes that “prices range from one hundred dollars for a small generic goblet or bowl to thirty-five or fifty thousand dollars for major pieces of late nineteenth- or twentieth-century glass from major companies or artists.”

Foraging in the field

Quality of workmanship and condition are essential points in the field, according to Barr. “There are no real problems discerning fakes or reproductions of Venetian glass from the late nineteenth century through about 1915, because fakes are always crude and sometimes aged with insoluble fake dirt. Pitfalls present themselves in mid-twentieth-century glass, where you can be fooled by the many reproductions and re-editions of important pieces.”  Barr also points out that late nineteenth- through early twentieth-century Venetian glass is almost never marked, but you do find the occasional paper label. Except for a few companies like Venini, mid-twentieth-century Venetian glass is rarely signed.

Homework

As with most areas of serious collecting, your safest moves are to read books by experts (Barr has written several) and buy from reputable dealers and auction houses. Until you train your eye and your fingers by plenty of hands-on study, it is best to avoid Internet auctions.

The Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, and the Museo Vetrario in Venice are prime sources for research, as are the collections of nineteenth-century Venetian glass in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and the private Museo Barovier e Toso in Venice (e-mail barovier@barovier.com for guided tours). 
Reputable dealers are also happy to contribute to connoisseurship. In addition to Gardner and Barr and Glass Past, other dealers include two specialists in Venice, Alessandro Zoppi at his Antichita Cesana (phone: +33 041 522 7789) and Galleria Rossella Junck in Venice (www.rossellajunck.it).

Caring for your collection

Though blown into vases, ewers, decanters, and wine glasses, most Venetian glass hollowware is by nature too fragile for actual use. The fanciful shapes, with their bubble-thin walls and intricate workmanship are really vitreous sculptures that only look like utilitarian vessels. Barr advises that “if your new acquisition is dirty, wash it in nonionized water, place it in a vitrine, and never touch it again. Colored glass does not fade so do not worry about light. However, direct sunlight can get very hot and cause glass to crack. Avoid it.”