Nineteenth Century Venetian Glass
Venetian glass of the 19th century can be a challenge to the modernist mind. Vessels, compotes and wine stems dripping with grotesque fantasy animals and wilted swans seem in utter contradiction with the modern masterworks that were to come from Murano’s most well-known 20th century furnaces. But the wide range of artistic glass produced on the island of Murano between 1860-1900 actually has a lot to offer, even though its aim was to re-envision the past rather than to create something entirely new.
In order to appreciate Venetian glass from the 19th century it helps to understand life in Venice during this period. The Venetian Republic was finally conquered in 1797 (it stood for 1100 years) when Napoleon Bonaparte sailed into the Venetian lagoon, looted the city and took Venice for the French. In 1815, after much intrigue, the French ceded Venice to its hereditary enemy, the Austrians, who occupied Venice until 1866. Occupied? That’s right—Venice was overrun by Austrian soldiers and bureaucrats who entrenched themselves in the city and enacted a series of laws, policies and tariffs designed to cripple the Venetian economy.
The wide range of artistic glass produced on the island of Murano between 1860-1900 actually has a lot to offer, even though its aim was to re-envision the past rather than to create something entirely new.
After centuries of war, the Austrians also sought to “modernize” Venice, which meant dismantling Venetian infrastructure and culture at every level. For example, after the Doge was driven from power, the Austrians painted the Palazzo Ducale in garnish tones of yellow and black—the Austrian national colors—but this was only the beginning. Many of Venice’s most famous architectural monuments were literally whitewashed, the economy was bled dry, and except for the construction of an iron train bridge that connected Venice to the mainland, it was in no way modernized. In fact, the opposite took place—while the rest of the world was reaping the benefits of the Industrial Revolution, Venice was under house arrest and became an impoverished backwater.
Meanwhile, the once great art glass culture of Murano was reduced to the production of simple utilitarian objects and glass trade beads (the Austrians controlled the Bohemian glass industry, so shutting down Murano was good for business). However, this oppression backfired—fine art glass blowing continued in secret, and the survival of Murano glass became synonymous with resistance to the occupation as Venetians fought to reclaim their culture.
Over the next two decades not only did Salviati become famous for his large scale architectural mosaics, his talented craftsmen were able to recreate all the known glassblowing techniques from the renaissance and the ancient world— a truly amazing accomplishment.
Into the teeth of this conflict stepped a young lawyer from nearby Vicenza. Dr. Antonio Salviati, a budding entrepreneur obsessed with traditional Venetian culture, was appalled by the condition of St. Mark’s Cathedral whose ancient glass mosaics were literally falling off the walls. With the support of a group of powerful local citizens, Salviati established a new glassworks on Murano capable of producing high quality glass tesserae for the restoration of the cathedral, along with fine blown glass. By 1859 Salviati had gathered a talented group of glassblowers and technicians culled from Murano’s ancient families, and with the departure of the Austrians in 1866, foreign investment capital flowed into his fledgling company allowing it to grow and flourish. Over the next two decades not only did Salviati become famous for his large scale architectural mosaics, his talented craftsmen were able to recreate all the known glassblowing techniques from the renaissance and the ancient world— a truly amazing accomplishment.
This obsession with masterworks from the past is key to understanding Murano glass of the 19th century; the moment when skilled craftsmanship became a point of civic pride, and reinforced the idea that Venice was becoming a new kind of city, one which ignored the modern world and kept alive traditions and fantasies of the past. During the last decades of the century, Venice became something like the world’s first theme park. Dedicated to the glory of its own past, tourists and money flowed into the city and Venetian glass became lavish, ornate, and even garish.
Perhaps it was the rise of Art Nouveau which forced things to change. Venice was not paying attention to international art and design trends, and culturally and artistically it was being left behind. It was not until the 1890s when forward thinking Venetians realized that their city was failing to attract the kind of well-heeled tourists it needed in order to survive. With this in mind, the first Biennale of Venice was organized in 1895 and everything, including Murano glass, began to change.