Liquid Light: 500 Years of Venetian Glass is an entry free exhibition to be held at NGV International. On display March 8 – August 4, 2019, it will showcase the development of glass specifically at Venice.
For centuries now glassmaking has been practiced on the island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon, with the industry itself surviving the many and varied vicissitudes of Venice’s long political and social history.
Where would we be without glass in our lives?
Of all the ‘created things’ in the world perhaps nothing is quite as magical or indeed more enchanting than glass.
The mystique surrounding it only adds to its romance and from industry to technology, the many properties and uses of glass, through research are constantly being extended. The display draws upon the NGV’s extensive holdings of Venetian glass, dating sixteenth – twentieth century.
Interestingly, the first known glassmaking “manual’ in the world discovered to date is from seven centuries before the Christ event.
Instructions on how to make glass contained on clay tablets housed in the first systematically organized library assembled at Nineveh in the ancient Middle East by the Assyrian King known for his bravery and intelligence, Ashurbanipal (669-626).
Two important technical advances in technique were necessary if glass was to have a future. This happened at Rome with the use moulds during the late first century B.C. and glass blowing from the early first century A.D., providing a solution to many problems.
Shaping a mass of molten glass by attaching it to a blow pipe and inflating it was far faster than casting it using a mould. Glass blowers quickly discovered the biggest limitation on the size of any object was now the strength of their arms.
During the period of Rome’s greatness from 753 BC – AD 476 many of the traditions associated with our modern western civilization were established.
The Romans became particularly adept at making glass and took glass as an art form, to high levels of sophistication.
True talent happens when the artisan steps away from the norm and is willing to experiment, as revealed in this glass garland bowl from the 1st century BC.
When colourless glass was invented (through the introduction of manganese oxide) in Alexandria, hundreds of fortunes were made as the Romans began to see its application for architectural purposes as well, which aided commerce up until today, as it does now with works by American glass artist Dale Chihuly, which fetch a premium.
Everything changed when as sole governor, Roman Emperor Constantine chose Byzantium for his capital in the east in 330 A.D., inaugurating it under the name of Constantinople, City of Constantine.
It proved to be a wise move for the city of Rome was severely shaken in 410, when it was sacked by the Visigoths, a wandering nation of Germanic peoples from the northeast. The fall of Rome was completed in 476, when German chieftain Odoacer deposed the last Roman emperor of the West, Romulus Augustulus.
Tradition has it glass workers were among the refugees fleeing northern Goths, Huns and Lombard invaders who went on to help found the city of Venice, which originally consisted of 118 flat islets packed close together. It was on the barren marshy islands of their lagoons early settlers at first cornered the salt trade.
The art of glass making once established, was practiced on the island of Murano nearby to Venice from 982, when the first Venetian glass maker appears in documentary records. He was a Benedictine monk, Domenico, described as a fiolario; a maker of phials. We can only hypothesize the technique used to make the phials was blowing glass, as we have no written proof
Techniques for glass manufacture were refined at Venice, more than anywhere else in Europe. They traded with the Orient and countries who already had an ancient tradition in glass blowing, such as the Syrians and Egyptians.
The conquest of Constantinople in 1204 by a wayward Fourth Crusade became a watershed event, which opened up to Venice the practices of glass producers carried forward from the original Roman workers.
Venetians were the first to make transparent glass since the days of the Roman Empire. They developed their so-called cristallo glass, which was named for its resemblance to natural crystal.
It became famous. Made with soda, it was very ductile and cooled quickly, demanding of the workmen great speed and dexterity, affecting the nature of the glasses made, which were also suitable for engraving.
The workmen of Murano would blow the glass to a bubble thinness and work it into an even greater bewilderment of shapes with beauty of form, inventiveness and creative spontaneity.
The glass artisans of Venice accumulated their singular skills in glass production, so that by the middle of the thirteenth century there were enough craftsmen in Venice to form a guild. By 1291 glassmakers of the Venetian lagoon had distilled their knowledge into unique proprietary production skills.
In the same year the government of Venice banned glass furnaces from the central islands of Venice, relegating them to the island of Murano where the workers more or less became prisoners.
As the fame of the glassblowers of Murano spread, so did the desire by other countries in Europe to discover their secrets. Rigid regulations and harsh penalties were enacted by the ruling Doge of Venice in order to punish those who transgressed the laws, forbidding them to leave the island.
However, it would have the opposite effect. Any trade domination built on a monopoly, especially a monopoly in know-how–is inherently unstable. All trade needs competition to stay relevant.
When Constantinople was conquered by Islam in 1453, glass workers from the East brought additional cultural influences, styles, techniques and traditions fused in the celebrated furnaces of Islam to give glass a unique quality, making their historic glass important and sought after. Glass made in Venice, although luxurious, was also utilitarian. Mirrors, for example, were major revenue producers, beautiful intricate decorative objects exhibiting complex techniques developed by Murano artisans.
By the 1600s rival centres were found in France and Moravia and shifting trade routes began to undermine Venice’s strategic trading advantages.
1600 marks the gradual, long-term decline of its glass industry at Murano.
At a highpoint of its popularity during the seventeenth century the invention of a new style of glass cristallo inspired English and European glasshouses, to emulate their feats and to reach great heights of sophistication in the world of glass manufacture.
Their ‘glasses of lead’ contributed to the invention of the crystal industry, which is still flourishing in Ireland at Waterford today.
The NGV’s collections are especially rich in material from the nineteenth-century revival of the glass industry on the Venetian island of Murano.
The nineteenth century was generally the age of historicism in glass, designed in the classical, rococo, renaissance and gothic revival and in various oriental styles.
Direct reproductions were also popular and the Venetian glass industry was revived as a result of this interest. As a consequence of the Industrial Revolution much of the production was mechanized and there was a strong interest in new technologies.
In 1871, a large collection of Venetian glass was acquired directly by the NGV from Venice by the proconsul to the Kingdom of Italy.
Again in 1874, a further group of works was acquired, selected by Antonio Salviati.
He was the father of the Venetian glass revival and at the time additional nineteenth-century Venetian glass entered the NGV collections from Italian displays at the Melbourne International Exhibition 1880–81.
Venetian glass artists also become key participants of an international Studio Glass movement, by inspiring and helping the influential American 1980s Memphis Group realize their postmodern ideals. But that’s a whole other story for another day.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2019
March 8 – August 4, 2019
NGV International, St Kilda Road, Melbourne