The Murano Glass: A Thousand-year-old tradition

Prof. Cristina Beltrami
Freelance Art Historian

DATE: 23rd August 2019
TIME: 09:00 – 10:00 am
LOCATION: Don Orione Foundation, Venice

To be provided.

Free-lance art historian. Associate Tutor on Exhibiting the Contemporary at the Warwick University; in 2019 she has been co-curator of the exhibitions Maurice Marinot. The glass (Stanze del Vetro – Fondazione G. Cini, Venezia, March-July 2019) and Corrado Balest (Fondazione Levi, Venezia, January- March 2019). She has recently been appointed for the scientific coordination of the exhibition de Chirico (Palazzo Reale, Milano, September 2019 -January 2020). After a PhD at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice on the Italian XX century Heritage in Uruguay; she has worked on Futurism at the Archivio del Novecento in Rovereto (Mart Museum) and then she has discussed a second PhD at the Verona University on the Presence of the sculpture at the Venice Biennale (under press, 2019).

Interested in the cultural exchanges between France and Italy, from 2012 she has the licence – Qualification de maître de conférence – to teach Art History in the French Universities. She has published a lot of scientific essays and books, the most recent: Maurice Marinot. The Glass (catalogue of the exhibition, Skira, Milano, 2019); Venice, Art and Light in French Literature: 1831-1916, in From darkness to light. Writers in Museums 1798-1898, edited by R. Mamoli Zorzi and K. Manthorne (Open Books Publisher, 2019) and The Venice Biennale and the Murano Glass Market (1895-1930), in Studies in the History of Collecting & Art Markets, curated by M. Tavinor and C. Ricci (Brill ed. London, scheduled for the end of 2019).

The Venice Biennale and the Murano Glass Market (1895-1930)

The first Biennale in 1895 had no decorative arts section, in contrast with other European exhibitions which often showed industrial art, as did the National Exhibition in Venice in 1877. This was obviously unfortunate for the Venetian glass makers and an economic loss for the Murano factories. They decided to organize an independent exhibition, the Mostra vetraria, which confirmed that Murano was still concerned with imitating 19th century work. It showed a basic dichotomy between the desire of the Murano producers to be “modern”, as testified by the Cup with spiral stemby the Artisti Barovier, and the commercial demands of a tourist market wanting reproduction antique glass.

The Mostra vetraria should not, however, be considered as an opponent of the official Biennale; the proof is that the Murano Municipality announced a price of 2.500 lire to be distributed at the exhibition at the Giardini, and it is clear that the Murano glass producers did not want to discourage the wide public from coming to Venice for the International Art Exhibition. It is also true that the vaporetto line to Murano was not very clearly indicated in the Biennale catalogue.

From the second year, Murano factories started to make use of the Biennale catalogue for advertising. The first name to appear – in an elegant French – was the Salviati company promoting its gallery in Bernardo Palace on the Grand Canal; the next was the Testolini Brothers with a shop in St Mark Square and the last was Pagliarin & Franco, also on the Grand Canal. They were generally offering a mix of glass and different objects (silver, ceramics, furniture) in imitation antique style as demanded by a generalist public.

Mosaic work was also a classic offer from the Murano manufactures: in 1899 the Biennale catalogue ended with a list of six Venetian artisans producing mosaics. While in 1899 Pagliarin & Franco advertised a foundry on the Grand Canal, Seguso Zanetti & C stressed that Murano was “close to Venice”. A photo included at the end of the 1899 catalogue by the Gregory & Pauly shop gives a clear idea of the exhibition: a mix of sculptures, furniture, armour and some Murano chandeliers hanging from the ceiling in a mid-19th century setting. In this third year glass was still banished from the official exhibition; it appears indirectly, as in the


case of the huge chandelier suspended under the cupola of the entrance and shown on the cover of the “Tribuna Illustrata della Domenica”.

The situation was not different in 1901, when Murano glass was absent even from the advertising in the catalogue, but the success of the 1902 Turin Exhibition, with the Italian consecration of art nouveau glasses by Emile Gallé, the Daum brothers, Tyffany, Philippe Wolfers and some Scandinavian makers, changed the Biennale’s perception. In 1903 it introduced a section dedicated to the decorative arts.

Although glass sales in this new section were rather unsatisfying(limited to a glass wall, Two roosters by Giovanni Beltrami) the exhibition signalled the arrival of Liberty style in Venice. The public was welcomed in five little rooms: a vestibule, a reception room, a lecture room with a library, a fumoir and a space for the press with mail and telegraph facilities, all designed by Raffaele Mainella.

Mainella made use of local crafts: he entrusted the fabrics, the ironwork and of course the “fragile crystals” to “the principal factories of the town [that] have made their contribution in terms of refinement and grace to the decoration of these rooms”. Thefumoir had a complex lighting system with a jellyfish design. The press room is noted in the catalogue for its “fluidity of lines” with a “huge colourful mosaic glass wall”. From an old picture of the space we also recognize some pieces of blown Murano glass that were not included in the catalogue but were a part of the decorative project. This synchronic ornamental undertaking had the concept of creating a unique work of art while also promoting local manufacture on the international luxury market. That year the advertising in the catalogue also started to be in English, a sign that the glass market was widening.

In 1905, the Ventian painter Ettore Tito collaborated with the Società Venezia Murano to create some lamps for room 23, dedicated to local artists (Sala del Veneto). The next room, number 24, was lit by some lamps from the Fratelli Toso, another historic Murano glass factory.

It is clear that in its first years the Biennale was more a showcase for objects produced by foreign artists than a sales medium for Venetian products. It is also clear that ceramics generally had


wider commercial success than glass, in particular works coming from Hungary, for example the Zsolnay pottery that was widely sold at the 1905 Biennale. This was replicated at the 1907 Biennale with the huge success of the Galileo Chini ceramics, when neither the catalogue nor the sales register mentioned any Murano glass. In the next two years the Murano factories even disappeared from the advertising. The impression is that many of the foundries were producing a florid style to please the less sophisticated tourist market and were less interested in being part of the Biennale.

From 1905 to 1910 Murano seems to have been quite detached from the Biennale, as local manufacturers pursued an autonomous path passing from specialized exhibitions in Murano to the production of f;orid mosaics. Venetian mosaics had a prestigious background connected with the ancient tradition of Torcello and Saint Mark and was prominent in important European sites such as the Vittoriano in Rome, the Victory Column in Berlin and the Albert Memorial in London, whose mosaics “[…] give a note of gaiety to the grave atmosphere of the foggy London”. The English market was particularly promoyed by Sir Austin Henry Layard [Leard] (1817-1894), an English politician and diplomat with a passion for the arts, who in 1866 founded the Compagnia Venezia- Murano specializing in mosaics.

Moreover from 1908, more than in the Biennale glass experiments were being shown shown, and sold, in the Ca’ Pesaro Exhibitions, which were more flexible and allowed artists to blur the lines between painting, sculpture and decorative arts. This Venetian Secession represented the first attempt to relaunch a modern Murano industry, with the reinterpretation for example of the “vetro murrino” shown at the first exhibition in 1908 by Giuseppe Barovier. At the same time the Fratelli Toso also presented some artistic glass and Vittorio Toso Borella showed a vase decorated in gold, and both had great commercial success.

Fratelli Toso was the foundry chosen by Hans St Lerche (1867- 1920) to create his glass designs (mostly unique pieces), which were presented at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1911 and the following year at the Biennale. The catalogue described a “[…] free application of Nordic fantasy to traditional Venetian material”. The Norwegian artist had his first contact with Murano in 1907, when he collaborated with the Stanza del sogno, being already well


established in the Italian art system, as proved by a long article published in 1906 in “Emporium” by Vittorio Pica. In 1912 Pica again underlined that the 10th Biennale was a consecration for the artist, whose glass production could be compared to the famous work of Emile Gallé, Tiffany and Karl Koepping. In 1912 Lerche sold a total of 63 artistic glass objects to Italian and foreign collectors, according to articles by Pica and also Ugo Ojetti.

It was in general a good year for glass sales, thanks also to the “tower goblet” (Calice del campanile) by Vittorio Toso Borella (1878-1915) celebrating the reconstruction of the San Marco bell- tower which had collapsed in 1902. The goblets, modelled on Renaissance glass shapes and entirely decorated with glazes imitating the San Marco mosaics, were produced in an edition of 43 and sold immediately.

The 1912 sales report shows decorative arts starting to become an important source of income: 303 works of painting, 26 sculptures, 328 engravings and 302 pieces of decorative art including 106 pieces of glass.

This success was repeated at the 1914 Biennale when Toso Borella, having won a golden medal at the Glastpalast Exhibition in Munich, sold 10 “artistic glass pieces” and Lerche sold 14 vases.

The year before Munich had been the setting for an important exhibition, in the Art Hall in Winahager (Prannenstrasse) of three Venetian masters who satisfied the Secessionist sensibility of the Bavarian audience: Vittorio Zecchin (1878-1947) and Teodoro Wolf-Ferrari (1878-1945) presented not only paintings but also the result of their collaboration with the blower master Giuseppe Barovier. German critics talked about a Murano Renaissance, comparable to the original one. A similar choice of glass was shown by Zecchin and Wolf-Ferrari at the 11th Biennale in 1914; this was the official consecration of the “murrini”. They sold 11 artistic glass objects, including one bought by the Venice Chamber of Commerce for its collection.

At this same Biennale Umberto Bellotto had a solo exhibition of his wrought iron work, and although they were not listed in catalogue, we can guess that some Murano glass objects were present, as testified by an old photograph of the room in which an elaborate goblet can be seen on the table. A bowl kept by the iron in the


background is perhaps made of glass too. Bellotto sold 26 works, partly bought by the Venice Chamber of Commerce and some by the School of Decorative Arts of Venice as examples for the students. One piece was also sold to Antonio Fradeletto (1858- 1930), one of the original promoters of the Venice Biennale.

These interesting experiments in glass were unfortunately interrupted by the war which halted the influx of buyers and sales of Murano glass. Already in November 1914 an article in the local newspaper mourned that the artistic factories of the town were abandoned because of the “[…] absence of foreign people”. As a solution it proposed a direct sale of glass, without mediators, called “vampires”. In this way the different products could be sold at lower prices and would be more affordable for Venetian people. Of course it was not a realistic solution because the Venetians’ buying capacity could not sustain the entire economy of local industries.

Murano survived by producing glass in a revival style that maintained a basic market, and at the first post-war Biennale (1920) Lerche presented a selection of glass, bronze and various other objects in zoomorphic shapes, blurring the lines between design, decoration and sculpture. His presence at the Biennale came after the great exhibition of January 1920 at the Galleria Pesaro in Milan, where he presented 149 works – mostly glass – with a gratifying introduction by Vittorio Pica. We can imagine that something similar would also have been shown four months later at the Venice Biennale: some unique pieces in which he melded Murano glass techniques with iron work. Lerche also had a big success with local artists who bought his work: in 1920 Umberto Bellotto paid for a Lerche vase and another was taken by Glauco Gambon. Lerche’s glass pieces were the only Murano products offered at this Biennale, but during the summer of 1920 the Galleria Geri Boralevi presented the work of some “dissidents”. Vittorio Zecchin was among them with two mosaics (Sphinx andVictories) created by S.I.A.M. Murano, and Anna Balsamo Stella, the daughter of Balsamo Stella, presented 15 glass objects (basins, cups, plats, vases and a pomegranate bottle) produced by S.A.I.A.R and the Ferro Toso & C.

This younger generation of artists, curious and receptive to decorative arts, stimulated and saved the Murano economy after the war.


In 1920 Vittorio Pica wrote that thank to numerous exhibitions the public’s taste had become more mature and educated and buyers’ choices were more refined, so that the foundries now had to satisfy a more sophisticated market.

That was clear for Paolo Venini, a lawyer from Milan where he had met Giacomo Cappellin who ran a shop selling copies of antique Murano glass. In 1921 they founded a new factory in Murano, the Cappellin-Venini & C, and asked Vittorio Zecchin to be the art director, hoping to build up an international market based on the new modern style.

They offered vases and glass objects in simple shapes using a blowing technique (the so called Soffiati) that made them very light, and inspired by 17th century Renaissance painting like the famous Veronese, based on Veronese’s Annunciation in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice, or a vase with double handles based on a detail in the Portrait of the Merchant Georg Gisze by Holbein (Staadliche Museum, Berlin, 1532).

The synergy between the three – the taste of Cappellin, Venini’s business sense and Zecchin’s knowledge of blowing techniques – yielded the most innovative results in Murano design of the first half of the 20th century. They transformed public taste, abandoning a revival style and embracing modernity, and traced a new path for all the Murano glassmakers. They signed the contract on November 1921, exhibited their glass in the Cappellin shop in Milan and before Christmas they had completed sold out. Of course the Biennale was now an unmissable opportunity to show their wares. The 1922 Biennale established the new glass produced by the Cappellin-Venini & C and included an elegant advertising page in the catalogue.

The exhibits clearly focused on the idea of each piece being not a work of art but a useful object and explored the field of modern design. At the same time Vittorio Zecchin, who saw himself as an artist, had a solo exhibition in room 18 showing some of his work independently: some tapestries, a glass wall (Nocturne), some glass objects embellished with glaze and gold, and other “decorated glass objects”, far from the new sensibility of Venini’s designs.

The 1922 exhibition also featured some singular cases with a


different use of glass: one was Guido Cadorin’s the Summer, a mosaic fountain created in collaboration with Angelo Gianese and presented in a passage. Something similar must have been presented in the summer 1919 at the 9th Exhibition of Palazzo.

At the following Biennale Murano glass was prominent, starting at the vestibule with lights produced at the Cappellin-Venini & C factory by the master Nane Seguso following Zecchin’s design. Their presence at the Biennale was preceded by huge success at the first Monza Biennale in 1923, entirely dedicated to decorative arts, where they presented some new glass. It was welcomed as the real saviour of Murano glass, leaving behind the “[…] bizarre complication of forms, of curls, of filaments and of spirals” according to Roberto Papini in “Emporium”.

At the 1924 Biennale Zecchin, who was hailed as “[…] one of the most exquisite artist at the moment in Italy” also showed some works of his own: a glass plate with golden decorations, a“corsair boat” and a glass wall produced in collaboration with Pietro Chiesa, the founder of the Fontana Arte, and titled The storm birds(Gli uccelli della tempest). These pieces were closer to Zecchin’s Secessionist aim than the glass work made in collaboration with Capppellin and Venini.

In the passage between rooms 14 and 15 the Biennale displayed a solo exhibition of the successful artist Umberto Bellotto, mixing wrought iron, ceramic and glass.

Guido Balsamo Stella is another name connected with the revival of engraved decoration, which was still popular with buyers He sold four pieces to the local Istituto d’Arte Industriale. One vase with three figures was bought by Umberto Bellotto; two pieces (a vase showing a detail of the lagoon and a crystal cup presentingLeda and the swan) were sold to Carlo Nasi; and another cup by Borella was sold to the Società Adriatica di Elettricità (Susan and the Elders).

From the 20s the inclusion of Murano glass at the Biennale was no longer a question of money but of image. The buyers were increasingly international: Cappelin-Venini & C sold one vase (a “green vase in blown glass”) to Umberto Bellotto and the other eight to international clients. Venini’s advertising of 1924 reflects its international connections, with shops in Amsterdam, Buenos


Aires, London and Paris.

From then on Murano glass objects were an important part of Venetian exhibitions, increasingly accorded the dignity of art and not just seen as part of furniture decoration.

The 15th Biennale in 1926 came after some crucial events for the Venetian glass market. Cappellin-Venini & C exhibited at the Decorative Arts Exhibition in Paris in 1925 and its great chandelier was bought by the Parisian Musée des Arts Decoratifs. The sculptor, Napoleone Martinuzzi, became director of the new Society Vetri Soffiati Muranesi, created in June 1925, hoping for help with its promotion from Gabriele D’Annunzio. It was a when the displacement of some factories outside Italy risked causing both artistic and financial damage for “[…] all the organism of personnel, transport and importations of money that could be lost”. It became clear that Murano must be saved not only because of its history but also for economic reasons, and the Biennale organisers must have had this in mind when they suspended the extraordinary chandelier Ametista by Napoleone Martinuzzi in the coupole hall in 1926. This was a huge work created by V.S.M Venini & C – now separated from Giacomo Cappellin – employing seven different masters. Napoleone Martinuzzi, the artistic director of the new Venini enterprise, also presented a gorgeous fountain and two large blown vases in room 14. The fountain was quite unsaleable but made a strong impact. Vittorio Pica was particularly flattering about Venini, which he acclaimed as “[…] one of the traditional Italian industries that has followed the artistic tendencies of our time, but kept the historic characteristics.” He also pointed out that examples of its blown glass were held by many important international museums.

The Venini art director Vittorio Zecchin continued working beside Giuseppe Cappellin in the Maestri Vetrai Muranesi Cappellin & C and they decided to present some glass walls (like this galleon), still inspired by a Venetian Renaissance idea that was not much appreciated by the critics or the market. In room 16 Balsamo Stella showed his engraved glass, but fashion had changed and he sold just one piece, with a Dolphin motif.

Referring to the 1926 exhibition in his illustrated book, Ugo Nebbia decided to restrict his comments on decorative art to “arte vetraia” (the art of glass), the most interesting part thanks to the “ […]


gentle and refined modernity” of Balsamo Stella, the warm tones of the glass walls by Vittorio Zecchin and the “superb” chandelier of the vestibule.

Mosaic was also an important Murano product, directly and indirectly promoted by the Biennale. In 1928 Brenno Del Giudice designed the new cafeteria, an elegant space with a wide bar completely covered in mosaics produced in Murano by Gianese &C, with bottles and vases created by Martinuzzi. Brenno Del Giudice also created a little pavilion at the Giardini decorated with green transparent glass by Martinuzzi for Venini. The same year Martinuzzi presented his invention, “pulegoso” glass produced by a special technique that keeps numerous air bubbles inside the material; it is very fragile even if its appearance is very strong, in line with the aesthetic of the time.

At the same exhibition Giò Ponti, an important name in Italian design and architecture, presented some vases made in Murano (room 33). He was also the responsible for the round room in which four wall mirrors by Venini surrounded a sculpture by Antonio Rubino.

Ponti was seduced by the “glass sculptures” created by Martinuzzi and presented at the 15th Biennale. He started to employ glass in his animal sculptures with some commercial success. If Carlo Alberto Felice, the critic of “Domus”, perfectly understood how the Martinuzzi offer was in line with current international taste, Ugo Nebbia was still critic with the choice of Martinuzzi-Venini.

Also in 1928 Nicolò Ercole Barovier took on the challenge of creating three-dimensional animals, called Plastica di vetro: one of them, Rhinoceros, was sold to Gino Rebajoli of “Emporium”.

Mosaic as an object was also shown by Vittorio Zecchin (room 31) together with his tapestry; and engraved objects were shown by Balsamo Stella who sold a cup and a vase titled Constellation to Gino Damerini.

But the main protagonist of the 1928 sales was once again Venini with eight pieces sold, including a “glass bowl in a special green” (Ciotola di vetro verde speciale) bought by Ogo Ojetti. His management strategy, which catered to modern tastes, was successful, as reflected on the last page of the 1928 catalogue


where Venini advertising showed his worldwide market included south America and New York.

The disastrous New York crash of 1929 and the following three years of recession had repercussions on the Murano glass market and the 1930 Biennale clearly attempted to boost the local economy. In rooms 16-18 the Istituto Veneto, in a deal with the Biennale, presented the work of small local industries with particular attention to jewellery. Murano glass was prominent, with works by Balsamo Stella in the rotunda and 33 glass pieces by Martinuzzi displayed in the paintings and drawings room: for the first time a vase was treated as a piece of sculpture. (nn. 8-16)

Perhaps thanks to local support for the Murano economy glass sales were higher than ever. The Chamber of Commerce bought 82 glass pieces, some by Venini (some malachite and other works in a veiled green), others by Ferro Toso, and two Springs by the Vetreria Artistica Barovier. The Barovier foundry was famous for its glass animals, in particular a widely reproduced pigeon, and one piece was bought by the countess Nerina Volpi di Misurata who also wanted two Gazelle pieces by Ferro Toso and a vase by Venini.

Glass sculpture became more and more widespread, to the point where in 1930 Ugo Nebbia included comments on artistic glass work in the sculpture category. He also underlined that glass should have its own section, a proposal that became reality at the 1932 Biennale with the creation of the Padiglione Venezia, in which Murano glass was prominent.

It was the start of a new story for the Murano glass market.

Cristina Beltrami