In Renaissance Europe, the compulsion to copy Venetian glassmaking styles and techniques was no simple fashion fad. The glass was clearly superior in almost every way.
The glass was called “cristallo” because it was clear and colorless, a quality the Venetians achieved as early as 1440 by making it from quartz pebbles rather than ordinary sand with all its impurities. Most cristallo was elegantly thin while most other glass of the period had thick walls and a yellow or greenish color.
Venetians learned to decorate their glass objects with colored glass canes and fine filigrees and were the first after the Romans to engrave on it with diamond points. They also decorated the surface with enamels and gold as well as using metal stamps and molds.
Perhaps more important, Venetian craftsmen developed the manual skills to assemble all these elements into elaborate pieces of glass such as dragon stem goblets. Some objects in the collection of The Corning Museum of Glass incorporate as many as 12 different pieces in a single object.
All this led many of their wealthy customers to treat Venetian glass as art objects and some accumulated large collections of those objects.
Helped by its large fleet of ships, Venice also led the world in identifying and obtaining pure ingredients such as plant ash from Egypt and Syria. They often bound suppliers to long-term contracts that assured themselves of a steady supply and frustrated competitors.
Ingredients presented significant difficulties for many of the Venetian style glasshouses that sprang up elsewhere in Europe. Many found it difficult or impossible to obtain materials of the same purity and this was reflected in the quality of their glass.
The Venetians tried hard to keep their monopoly on fine glassmaking and they succeeded quite well for the first half of the 16th century. Eventually, however, other regions of Europe satisfied their desire to have their own domestic Venetian-style glassmaking.
Most of Venice’s secrets were embodied in their master craftsmen and the city sometimes imposed harsh penalties on those who tried to take their skills elsewhere.
In fact, at one time, glassmakers trying to leave Venice could be sentenced to a stiff fine and four years as rower on a galley. In a different period, the Venetian government even ruled that anyone who killed such a person would face no punishment.
However, these policies varied over time. The Venetian government sometimes granted selected glassmakers permission to leave temporarily if it did not seem to damage the city’s interests.
In addition to luring away craftsmen, aristocrats from northern Europe sometimes tried to place young family members in Venetian glasshouses as apprentices. However, this practice was banned by the Venetian authorities.
In the end, it was often glassmakers from nearby northern Italian communities such as Altare who carried Venetian-style glassmaking skills to Austria, Spain, France, the Low Countries and England.
Although Venice eventually lost its monopoly, it continued to be recognized by most as the premier source of Venetian-style glass.
Five glassmaking centers in Renaissance Europe were highlighted in the Museum’s 2004 Beyond Venice exhibition. They were Austria, Spain, France, the Low Countries and England, and they had much in common. However, their Venetian-style glass soon took on distinct differences, like local accents of a common language.
In Austria, across the Alps from Venice, Venetian-style glass was first made in a glasshouse at Hall. Later, in 1570, Venice allowed its craftsmen to work in Duke Ferdinand’s glasshouse at Innsbruck, with the provision that their work was not sold outside the court.
In Spain, the demand for Venetian glass surged in mid-16th century and Venetian-style glassmaking, aided by an occasional Italian craftsman, soon spread through Catalonia and its capital, Barcelona. The glass from this region is noted for its heavy use of colored enamel decorations.
The third of these regional centers was France, especially northern France, where the dukes of Orleans had family ties to the Gonzagas of Italy. In time, the French left Venetian shapes behind almost entirely, and their wine glasses took on a distinctive French look.
In the Low Countries, Venetian-style glassmaking began in the 1550s at Antwerp, then the primary seaport of northern Europe. Their glass was generally of high quality but could not duplicate some of the more sophisticated products of Venice.
Venetian glass was imported into England as early as the 13th century. However, the first Italian craftsmen didn’t arrive until the 16th century, and Venetian-style glassmaking began in this area in 1567. The English focused on diamond point engraving and their own taste in glass shapes.
During the Renaissance it was common for noble families to spin a web of alliances through arranged marriages. Often these were celebrated by combined coats of arms on elegant glass objects made in the Venetian style.
An example in the Beyond Venice exhibition was objects memorializing the wedding of France’s King Louis XII and Anne of Brittany in 1498. She was the widow of Louis’ cousin and predecessor on the throne. Some historians believe Louis married her to retain Brittany as part of France.
It was probably also for reasons of state that Archduke Ferdinand I of Austria, wed Anna Gonzaga of Mantua. The Gonzagas were a prominent family that at one point also ruled the duchy of Orleans in France. The marriage took place in 1582, two years after the death of Ferdinand’s first wife.
An even more prominent name in Renaissance Europe was the Medici family of Florence. Catherine de Medici married King Henry II of France after he was crowned in 1547 and both were active in supporting the glasshouses of France.
Non-royals also emblazoned coats of arms on wedding objects. One made for the Behaim family of Nuremburg, Germany around 1500 showed not only the Behaim coat of arms but also images of the archangel St. Michael and the martyred St. Catherine of Alexandria. This combination long posed a mystery for modern historians and experts in glass and heraldry. Then a wedding contract was found, dated July 1495, and it made everything clear. The object was made in Venice to be sent to Germany for the wedding of Michael Behaim and Catherine Lochner.