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Venetian Glass

Venetian Glass – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – April 2001
by Sheldon Barr

The Gardner & Barr Venetian Glass Gallery opened in 1992. Initially we sold Venetian glass from the 1920s — wine goblets and generic decorative objects. However, along with the gallery’s stock and trade items we began to acquire intriguing pieces of Venetian glass from both the nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century.

Venetian glass from the 1930s to the present day is well documented. Browsing through the many informative books on the subject, we were able to identify the pieces we found and sell them with an assured provenance and correct value. However, the earlier, nineteenth-century items were impossible to research — there were no texts to consult. We began to search out any scrap of information we could find. What we learned very quickly was that late-nineteenthcentury Venetian glass was totally unappreciated in this country. It was widely believed that the periods production consisted of nothing more than dreary replicasof antique work. It was casually dismissed as reproduction or tourist glass. But we found these exotic and beautifully-crafted objects intriguing and mysterious. Further investigation was mandated.

We soon discovered that the Salviati firm, one of the nineteenth centurys great Venetian glass emporiums, had won twelve gold medals at the international trade fairs that proliferated at the end of the nineteenth century. We learned that this glass, unrecognized and undervalued today, was not only acclaimed and highly valued at the time, but avidly collected by major European, British and American museums. So we traveled to the island of Murano and interviewed Attilia Dorigato, the curator of the Murano Glass Museum and then to London to view the glass collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum where Reino Liefkes, curator of glass, made the museums extensive archives available to us. Finally, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, curator Jesse McNab allowed us virtually unlimited access to the Jarves Gift, arguably the foremost museum collection of nineteenth-century Venetian glass in America. The story began to unfold — and it was a fascinating one.

Somehow we had innocently stumbled onto something incredible — an undiscovered facet of nineteenth century applied art. Lets face it — since the 1950s the nineteenth century’s applied arts have been relentlessly explored and dissected. Volumes have been written on French art-nouveau glass, Loetz glass, Tiffany glass, etc., etc. Yet, until we began to delve into the Venetian production of the period, no one had paid it any attention at all (other than a brief mention in general books on Venetian glass). No one noticed its quality, diversity and significance. Venice produced its own quirky version of the art-nouveau style in the 1880s and early evidence of the art-deco style appeared in the work of the Artisti Barovier in 1895. Our quest for knowledge had yielded astonishing results. My desire to share this knowledge led me to write the book: Venetian glass, Confections in Glass, 1855-1914, (Harry N. Abrams, Inc. New York, 1998). Now in its second printing, the book has become the established reference on nineteenth-century Venetian glass. And (I suspected it might happen) the publication of my book has engendered a new and very healthy collecting category: Nineteenth-century Venetian glass.

A brief history of Venetian glassmaking

With its origins in Byzantium and Syria, glassmaking was one of the Venetian Republics most profitable industries and by far its most-celebrated. At the end of the fifteenth century, with approximately three thousand glass blowers on Murano island, the glass industry had reached its commercial height. The sixteenth century, however, is regarded as its artistic pinnacle. Perfectly proportioned, unembellished vessels defined the production of the period, effectively eclipsing Venices traditional Eastern-inspired enameled and gilded glassware. Venices seventeenth-century glass is often thought of as baroque. It is more playful and less functional than the unadorned glass of the sixteenth century. By the eighteenth century Venices major industries — shipbuilding, the spice trade, and lace, silk and wool production had declined. However, luxury glass, mirrors and beads remained valuable trading commodities and their manufacture continued as Venices fortunes continued to fade. Eighteenth-century glass production reached an unsurpassed level of sophistication and refinement. In 1708-09, King Frederick IV of Denmark acquired a superlative collection. It can be seen today, in all its baroque splendor, in the Rosenborg Palace in Copenhagen.

In May of 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte, on the final leg of his brilliant Italian campaign, needed gold to pay his troops. He (and the rest of world as well) believed Venice to be unimaginably rich, so, vowing to be Venices Attila, Napoleon anchored the French fleet off the Lido and provoked the terrified citizens. By then the eleven hundred year old Venetian Republic was not only weak and vulnerable, but (unfortunately for Napoleon) no longer wealthy after a century of wasteful extravagance. Venice surrendered without a fight. Napoleon demanded all the gold and silver ceremonial objects from the churches — even the treasury of the Basilica of San Marco was not spared. On his orders a portion was melted down. The sale of the resulting twelve hundred pounds of gold and silver realized 29,223 ducats — enough to pay the soldiers.

Deprived of its sovereignty and with its remaining Empire divided up, Venice was at first dominated by the French Republic, then Austria, then the French Empire and finally by Austria, which gained control of Venice for the second
time after Napoleons defeat at Waterloo and the subsequent fall of the French Empire in 1815. The successive foreign occupations lasted nearly seventy years.

One of the more obvious results of the political and economic turmoil which followed the demise of the Republic was the near destruction of the glass industry. However, in the mid-1850s, after nearly sixty years of destructive foreign domination, the destitute Venetians had to jump start their economy. To that end they set about the resurrection of several dying handicrafts which had been a source of great wealth and pride to them in the past, including: mosaic work, lace making, and, of course, glassmaking.

It is to Antonio Salviati, a lawyer from Vicenza, Vincenzo Zanetti, a Glass scholar (and priest) and Antonio Colleoni, the mayor of Murano, that we owe the salvation and resurrection of the Venetian glass industry. When viewed objectively, it becomes clear that the production of the period was not at all stagnant. Soon after recovering the endangered techniques, the glassmakers went on to invent new ones in a systematic, research-based fashion. As evidenced by surviving contemporary catalogs, new forms and techniques were introduced at regular intervals.

In 1862 Salviati took part in the extremely important and influential International Exhibition in London. Venice remained under Austrian control but Salviati, flaunting the popular Venetian political attitude of the time, exhibited under the Italian flag. Chalcedony vessels (glass imitating stone) dominated the firm’s blown glass presentation. Very little glass in other colors was shown. For £14 London’s South Kensington Museum bought a superb creation: a gilt-metal-mounted chalcedony vase. Anxious to increase awareness of his work in Britain, Salviati donated two additional examples of chalcedony glass to the museum.

It is likely that Salviati first met Sir Austen Henry Layard at the London exhibition. Layard was the renowned archeologist who had discovered and excavated the ruins of Nineveh in Assyria. He was also an unabashed lover of Venice and things Venetian — and he was rich. Their meeting proved crucial for Salviati and the revival of the Venetian blown glass industry. In 1866, after nearly seventy years of foreign domination, Venice became part of the Kingdom of Italy and the opportunity for bold economic expansion arrived. Zanetti, Colleoni and Salviati fervently believed that the revival of the blown glass industry on Murano would be a great financial success. However, extensive investment was necessary and the three Venetians lacked capital.

Salviati went to London and approached his friend and supporter Layard who, along with other similarly-inclined Englishmen, including the historian William Drake, immediately agreed to invest in the blown-glass project. In 1866 Salviati and his investors established the London-based Societa Anonima Perazioni Salviati & C.Soon, with Zanetti supervising, Salviati’s glass blowers began to create an astounding variety of fine copies of the antique glass of Murano. Their success was immediate; the legions of wealthy tourists pouring into Venice desired nothing more than to return home with a glass souvenir evocative of Venices fabled glory days. Salviati opened his first London showroom at 431 Oxford Street in the summer of 1866.In 1867, just one year after the new furnaces were fired up, Salviati presented the firms initial production at the Exposition Universelle de Paris. The Salviati exhibit was anchored by two large, pyramidal glass cases filled with a vast assortment of blown-glass objects. An idea of the rich and diversified range of the new production can be obtained from Zanettis description of the Salviati contribution. There were: glasses, chalices, amphoras, cruets, vases, delicately tinted vessels harmonious with combinations of filigree and reticello, bands of enamel graffito, dazzling with aventurine, ruby, aquamarine, and opal, with borders, flowers, butterflies, serpents, dolphins, swans, initials, masks.

Salviati encouraged his workers to surpass the achievements of their ancestors. While the glass produced by the new company was heavily influenced by antique Murano glass, the distinctive, nineteenth-century flavor of the fantasy glass that was to become the hallmark of Salviatis later production was already evident in the profusion of fanciful serpents and an extraordinary technical bravura. The firm won a gold medal, three silver medals and four honorable mentions.

In 1872, reflecting a growing animosity between Salviati and his British partners, the name of the company was anglicized to The Venice and Murano Glass and Mosaic Company Limited (Salviati & Co.) In 1873 the firm exhibited and triumphed at the International Exhibition in Vienna. Thirteen of the firms glassmakers won medals.

The relationship between Salviati and his British partners continued to deteriorate and in 1877 the British bought out Salviatis shares. Salviati soon opened a new factory on Murano which he named Salviati Dott. Antonio. The two companies exhibited in the Italian section of the Paris International Exhibition of 1878. Contemporary critics found their displays too similar.Milan’s 1881 Industrial Exhibition took place at the pinnacle of the glassmaking revival. All the important glassmaking factories including Salviati Dott. Antonio, the Compagnia Venezia-Murano, Fratelli Toso and Francesco Ferro & Figlio took part. Salviati, acutely aware of the promotional value of the Great Exhibitions, exhibited a vast array of mosaics, chandeliers, candelabra, mirrors and blown glass. There were historically accurate copies of gilded and enameled fifteenth-century vases and goblets, paleochristian glass inspired by objects found in the catacombs of Rome, selections of feather-weight, sixteenth-century-style essential glass, the so-called modern production laden with glass swans and dolphins, and beautifully-crafted mosaic glass vessels. Salviati also exhibited a large fountain designed by an independent Italian artist, the painter Luigi Gasparini.

Completed only two days before the exhibition opened, the fountain was an intriguing combination of glass mosaic and blown glass. With this fountain two new, but fully-developed, Venetian glass icons made their debut ? elaborate winged dragons and fabulous hybrid beasts (in this case hippogriffs.) Soon these new animal motifs would supersede the pretty swans and dolphins on Muranos glassware. The same vases and goblets that had once been adorned with the
benign creatures now sported winged dragons, hippogriffs, winged horses, griffins and other incredible beasts. With unbridled enthusiasm, Venice finally joined the artistic quest the rest of the world had been pursuing. Succumbing to outside influences and breaking completely with her past, the ancient city credited with inventing virtually every known glassmaking style and technique, was at last able to contribute a significant and unique body of work which can be regarded today as the true Venetian expression of the Art Nouveau style.

At Muranos 1895 Esposizione di scelti artistici ed oggetti affini (Exhibition of Selected Art Glass and Allied Wares) the Artisti Barovier (formerly Salviatis master blowers, now independent,) eschewing their animal-laden art nouveau creations already well represented in the Salviati shops display, presented their own selection of essential vases reproduced from sixteenth-century examples. They won a Diploma of Honor for these and were awarded a gold medal for their art-nouveau items. They also exhibited a remarkable series of extremely fragile goblets with thin, oscillating spiraling or segmented stems which had no antique precedents. These 1895 goblets, stunning in their simplicity,
are the true harbingers of the minimalist, less-is-more, design-by-subtraction discipline of the future. The best place to see nineteenth-century Venetian glass is at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art displays a few pieces in its Nineteenth-Century Decorative Art Galleries. There is of course, the Gardner & Barr Gallery in New York and my book Venetian Glass, Confections in Glass, 1955-1914. At this moment in time there is no serious attempt to forge nineteenth-century Venetian glass. The Venetians, of course, continue to make their traditional product. However, these variants are heavy-handed and for the most part will not be confused with genuine period pieces.

The Gardner & Barr Gallery today specializes in collectible Venetian glass from the 1850s to the 1950s. It is open Monday-Saturday from 11:00 AM to 6:00 PM. It is located at 213 East 60th Street. New York, NY 10022. 212 752-0555, FAX: 212 355-6031, E-mail: Log on to: and follow the link to Gardner & Barr Gallery for more information.

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