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The Legend of Bohemian Glass:
A Thousand Years of Glassmaking in the Heart of Europe

by Antonin Langhamer

This book offers a comprehensive overview of the history and traditions of Czech art glass. Divided into 12 chapters, the book details the evolution and development of glassmaking as an art form from the earliest times, when the first glass beads appeared in central Europe, to the present.
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LATEST ARTICLE_______________________________________

The Colorful Elegance of Venetian Glass
by Bob Brooke


The decorative glass industry in Europe began in Venice. The Venetians established a highly developed industry with a vast export trade which virtually dominated the rest of Europe until the middle of the 17th century. All subsequent development in European glass grew from the Venetian tradition.

By the 13th century, Venice had become a great trading nation with a flourishing glass industry, but Venetian glass didn’t reach its peak until the first half of the 16th century.

Venetian, like Roman, glass was a light and thin-walled soda glass, made from raw materials obtained by the Venetians through their trade. It consisted of soda ash, imported either from Spain or Egypt, and white pebbles from the Po or the Ticino Rivers together with lime in the form of powdered marble or crushed sea shells to give this very delicate substance added stability. By the end of the 10th century there were glassworkers in Venice making simple glass objects such as bottles and flasks, possibly with the help of craftsmen from Byzantium or Syria where there were well-established glass industries at this time.

During the 13th century, the glass industry became a monopoly in the Venetian Republic. In 1292, glassmakers established factories on the island of Murano to avoid the risk of fire in Venice, itself. At that time, glasshouses by law had to be no less than 15 paces from any building. The law also rigidly controlled the establishment of glasshouses elsewhere. Venetian glassworkers originally belonged to a guild system and were virtually prisoners of the state with very restricted freedom of movement. They were forbidden to emigrate from Venice on pain of death. The export of glassing materials and of cullet, or broken glass, was also forbidden so as to keep glassmaking within the Republic. However, by the 16th and 17th centuries there were glasshouses based on the Venetian pattern had been established elsewhere in Europe.

By the 14th century, Venetian glassmakers weren’t allowed to leave the Republic. Anyone caught exporting professional glassmaking secrets was put to death. Many craftsmen took this risk and set up glass furnaces in surrounding cities and as far afield as England and the Netherlands. By the end of the 16th century, 3,000 of Murano island's 7,000 residents were involved in some way in the glassmaking industry.

Early Venetian glass was simple—jugs, carafes and bottles—but in the 15th century, with the great impetus of the Renaissance, glass became one of the most elaborate art forms of the period. It wasn’t only brilliant in color but also elaborately decorated. Venetian glassworkers could produce blue, green, purple and opaque white glass. Some of the glass to imitate semi-precious stones, such as onyx, agate and chalcedony.

Enameling on glass first appeared in Venice in the mid-15th century. Glassmakers created objects with dark backgrounds of colored glass to display the beauty of the enamel decoration, which they painted in fusible enamel and fired by baking in a small oven. This was an Islamic technique of the 13th and 14th centuries, but it probably developed independently in Venice from the use of enamel on metalwork. The decoration on enameled glass had similarities with contemporary Renaissance decorative motifs. Artisans used it not only in a pictorial fashion but also in colored spots of enamel, giving a gem-like effect comparable with the decoration on contemporary goldsmiths' work. Venetian glassmakers primarily used enameling, in its pictorial form, for the decoration of goblets and chalices, often commissioned to commemorate a betrothal or a marriage.

WATCH A VIDEO:  Blowing Glass on Murano Island in Venice

It was in the 16th century that the Venetian glass industry reached its peak. There was enormous prosperity and the export of glass from Venice dominated Europe. Glass became not only a highly desirable luxury, but also a great status symbo. Glassmakers sent their finest pieces to the princely courts and rich merchants' houses of Europe. Connoisseurs collected a great number of the pieces, using them as display objects to flaunt their wealth.

Venetian glass of the 16th century was fanciful and fantastic, much lighter in design and far less massive in shape and size than glass of the 15th century. Glassmakers blew the glass more thinly. Glassmakers invented a glass similar in appearance to rock crystal, called cristallo, which became an instant success. Refined by the use of manganese, cristallo was the most famous glass made in :Venice. It could not, by law, be sold by pedlars or stall-holders. Glassmakers used little surface decoration and colored glass at this time. Instead, they applied the enamel decoration onto a clear ground, mostly for the export market.

Venetian cristallo was so fragile that it couldn’t be refired for decorative purposes because of the risk of distortion. In the 16th century, glassmakers put a greater emphasis on elaborate shapes and decorative borders, stems and handles, applied to the glass itself. The only other form of decoration they used was diamond-point engraving-–never very popular in Venice and rarely figurative, as in English glass of the time. Cristallo was used to great effect to create fantastic and elaborate articles, such as the magnificent nefs, or boat-shaped ewers, which graced the tables of renaissance Europe. Objects such as these were highly desirable, not only for their beauty, but also for their originality and for their air of fantasy which is very much in keeping with contemporary design.

The Venetians also produced latticinio, a reticulated, filigree, or lace-glass, first mentioned in its most elaborate form in 1540. This glass incorporated an opaque or colored glass thread in a complicated and difficult process. In its most complex form as lace-glass, it produced elaborate objects for display. Another elaborate form of glass which appears in 16th-century Venice was ice-glass, also known as crackle glass.

By the end of the 15th century, Venice’s glass industry was beginning to decline.

Throughout the 16th century Venetian domination was constantly being eroded by the proliferation of glasshouses in Eastern Europe and Asia making Venetian-inspired glass. Plus, public tastes had changed while the designs made on Murano had mostly stayed the same and the low wages paid to glassworkers caused many to seek employment elsewhere.

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