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Venetian Glass, The Cinderella Of The Glass World
When the armies of Attila the Hun chased the Roman glass artists to the marshy islands of Venetia off the coast of Italy, Venetian glass got its start. Those displaced persons, looking for a way to make a living, took the sand and marsh kali or wild spinach, and by experiment and artistry, created a new glass as delicate as apple blossoms and airy and fanciful as thread lace.
Venetian glass was thin where Saracenic glass was thick; clear when Saracenic glass was full of bubbles. Concocted from Venetian weeds and sand, it could be shaped into a perfect glass flower, or into a cup so crystal-clear the black deed of poisoning would shatter it, folks claimed. Its color was so brilliant that its millefiori, held to the light, rivaled the flowers of the fields, its vitro di trina seemed glass inlaid with lace.
Why was this Venetian glass so workable it could be shaped to any fancy? Richness in soda ash seems the answer. It was pliable and easily heat-softened. It could be crimped and twisted; ribbed and inlaid with colored rods or threads; marbled or splashed. It was ornamented with fanciful designs in self-material - winged dragons, poised birds, applied buds and flowers. It was etched like shadow embroidery. It was diapered, or paneled, or swirled with vitro di trina.
GLASSMAKERS' SOAP CLEARED VENETIAN GLASS
The early Venetian glass colors were somewhat somber blues, greens, reds and purples. The early "clear" glass had black specks in it. Then the Venetians learned to wash their sand better, refine their metal oxides for coloring, and use greater care in leaching their plant ashes for soda ash and lime. Also they used glassmakers' soap (oxide of manganese) to clarify the pot full of "metal."
Out of this careful work came the brilliant colors and the clear "cristallo" that helped make Venetian glass famous. This clear glass they engraved with the diamond point of 'the Romans. Later they used the copper and lead wheels of the Bohemians, roughing out the surface of the glass, graving deeper the outline of the design, creating "shadow embroidery" on crystal.
Their opaque milk white glass, called lattimo, latticinio, and lattisuol, was made by adding tin and lead to their batch. From this they shaped vessels, often painted like majolica; also stems for wines, goblets and tazzas; and thread-decorated rods for their filigree, vitro di trina or lace glass.
LACE GLASS AND GLASS OF A THOUSAND FLOWERS
This vitro di trina was made both very anciently and in Roman days. But the Venetian revival of this most dexterous of glass artistry charmed Europe's kings. It became a "must" in court circles.
Vitro di trina, filigree, or lace glass was the fusing of milk white or colored rods or threads into clear glass. The cut rods were stood in grooves around a mold and a gather of clear molten glass was eased down in their midst. The rods, threads, or fancy threaded tubes or canes fused to the "bubble" of molten glass. It was then lifted and blown, swirled, or otherwise maneuvered into a completed vessel with the ribs (threads or tubes) applied or incorporated.
Elaborate vitro di trina used two layers of glass with rods that lay slightly above the surface of the dish. The first layer was made and set aside. The second was made and turned wrong side out over the first so the rods came 'together making panels, often swirled; or they crossed, making diagonal patterns. Both left air spaces between, creating the loveliest of lacy crystal. Sometimes 'these rods or threads spiraled throughout the plate or vase; or the canes, enclosing patterns of opaque or colored threads, ran up the sides of the vessel in panels like insets of lace.
Millefiori or thousand flower glass, "capturing the flowers of the meadows," was a Venetian perfection from Roman mosaic glass. Colored canes were arranged so the ends looked like flower faces. These were heated, fused and drawn out to proper size, then cut in discs which either were gathered on the hot bubble or dropped into a hollow clean glass mold. This was reheated and blown into the finished vessel with walls and base sometimes a solid mass of brilliant colored flower faces.
GILT, AVENTURINE, CHALCEDONY AND ENAMLED GLASS
Gilt glass or gold leaf decoration (rarely silver) was used very anciently. But the Venetians fastened their gold leaf to glass panels, drew in their designs with a penlike tool, cutting the lines deeper where the color must be heavier, and brushed on their coloring to show through the cut lines. Then they added a covering of clear glass, generally fusing the two walls together. This made altar pieces and dishes.
Gilding seme, sometimes called aventurine, was made by laying gold leaf on the hot gather or bubble, then dragging it and working it on the marver until the gold scattered through the crystal, like floating specks of sunshine. In modern times it is made with copper crystals and, for the green aventurine, with chromium oxide crystals.
Calcedonio, later called schmelz, though we know it as marble, jasper, agate, onyx, or chalcedony glass, was made of gathers of various colors worked together on the marver and reheated until thoroughly fused. With the light on them they look like the stones they represent. Held to the light, the colors and glass quality intensify.
Enameled glass was hardly a favorite with Venice. The early enamels often had a higher melting point than the glass, so would not fuse into the glass without melting it to the sagging point. This surface enameling often chipped off, and sometimes the brush marks showed badly. When the artist used palette colors they dulled in the firing. Yet dot decorations of milk white, blue and gold were effectively used.
VENICE CLAIMED INVENTION OF CRACKLE GLASS
Frosted, ice, or crackle glass was the Venetian big moment. Made by plunging the "bubble" into cold water which crackled it, then reheating and blowing it into the finished vessel, it was new and different. Sometimes instead, the bubble was rolled in splintered glass and reheated to incorporate the splinters so the surface was crackled.
Cameo and intaglio glass, the delight of tourists, was made by pressing warm glass into molds which reproduced the ancient cut stones. These were often backed with plaster of Paris to bring out the details. Even today the popular glass beads, which really built Venetian business throughout the medieval world, still move in quantity with tourist, peddler and boat to sophisticated cities and primitive outposts.
S. A. Venini of Murano has used the ancient filigree craft very effectively. A modern jar, some fruits, and a hen and rooster in his crystal show fused-in threads of purple and black. Yet he has given us also his simply-shaped, "massive" Venetian rose-colored opaque bowl, with its sprinkled gold, on a standard of two braceleted wrists, and opened, cupping hands.
Surely no glass artists ever had more dexterity with blow pipe and molten glass than those of Italy. They pinched, pulled and marvered their bubbles into almost ethereal vessels decorated with ribbons, flowers, and winged creatures. They scattered specks of "sunshine" through their crystal, inset it with panels of "lace," coated it with frost, or gave it the glowing colorful beauty of a thousand flower faces. Lucky for us they still send this fragile art glass throughout a delighted, collecting world.