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The finest glassware of the Renaissance was made by artisans on the Murano island in Venice, and their techniques were intensely guarded. The Corning Museum of Glass in New York recently launched an online resource called the Techniques of Renaissance Venetian Glassworking, which shares research, 360-degree artifact views, and glassworking videos by artist and scholar William Gudenrath to unravel some of those secrets.
There’s a lot of lore about Venetian glass artists being sentenced to death if they left the area, as they’d potentially spread the unique approaches to the fragile art that resulted in vessels and objects of unrivaled thinness and purity. That purity was so revered, Venetian glass got a reputation as a poison detector. The consequences were a bit more nuanced and changed over the centuries, although often serious. According to the Corning, 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.” In other eras, some glassmakers were given temporary leave, although this was highly restricted.
Gudenrath deciphered some of the techniques by recreating Venetian objects at the Corning. He didn’t start from scratch, though. Although Napoleon closed the Murano glass factories in 1807, the medium underwent a 20th-century revival, and there’s still expert glassmaking in Venice today. Contemporary artists also continue to experiment with Venetian traditions. In the Corning’s recently opened Contemporary Art + Design Wing, Fred Wilson’s “To Die Upon a Kiss” (2011) has a Murano glass chandelier with dark colors draining from its filigrees, while Javier Pérez’s “Carroña (Carrion)” (2011) considers the decline of Murano’s industry with a broken ruby-red chandelier swarmed with taxidermied crows.
Yet some of the finer details of how certain embellishments were created were lost. Gudenrath writes that since the relocation of the workers to Murano in 1292 was part of the protection of trade secrets, in “such an environment, it would be surprising to find any detailed written descriptions of glassworking processes.” There is, he adds, “only one such document from that period. It is a wonderfully precise narrative that explains how to create enameled decoration on glass vessels. ”
Even if you don’t know the difference between a filigrana and a colored frit, Gudenrath’s videos recreating 25 museum objects from the 16th to 18th centuries are mesmerizing, ranging from a relatively simple two-handled cup to an elaborate dragon-stem goblet. In the video below, you can see one of his demonstrations, in which he blows and molds the incredibly delicate orbs of a reliquary, the art of which was as precious as the saint bones it was designed to hold.
The Techniques of Renaissance Venetian Glassworking is available online via the Corning Museum of Glass (1 Museum Way, Corning, New York).