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In the 1955 film Summertime, Katherine Hepburn's character finds romance with Venetian antique dealer Rossano Brazzi, and it was then that American viewers fell in love with Venetian glass. "Everybody's grandmother went to Venice and bought some," says New York designer and collector Marjorie Reed Gordon. "Then, they put it all away to be used on some special occasion and so nothing ever got broken. That's why there is so much around." Today, moderately priced Venetian glass goblets, tumblers, decanters, candlesticks, plates, bowls, and small art objects line the shelves of flea markets, estate sales, thrift stores, and small antique shops all over America. "I find it everywhere-sometimes, for under $100," says Gordon, "and I don't store it away. I use it every night."
Shapely, sparkling, and reflecting the magic of light on lapping water, Venetian glass is too much fun to keep behind cupboard doors. These pieces are a carnival of delicate, sea-washed colors, twisted spirals, and contrasting stripes. Graceful sea creatures and shells dominate traditional Venetian glass imagery-a nod to the city's watery history.
The History of Venetian Glass
Glassmaking has been a part of that history since the tenth century. The industry had declined by the early 1800s but revived in the 1860s when Venice officially became part of Italy and every region was called on to manufacture products for the collective good. Ancient formulas and techniques were reintroduced and, by 1878, Venetian glassmakers were the toast of Paris' Exposition Universelle. The world loved their delicate, translucent creations, made with the traditional Muranese sodium-based formula rather than the quick-cooling, lead-based formula used in making crystal. Lead glass hardens in eight minutes, so designers have to resort to cutting, etching, or painting to decorate the glass after it cools. Venetian glassblowers, unlike their colleagues in northern Europe, had 22 minutes before the glass hardened, which gave them plenty of time to complete more complex designs.
Another era of glassmaking began in 1921 when Paolo Venini, a Milan trained lawyer who had fallen under the spell of Venetian glass, started a glassworks on the island of Murano, home of the industry since the thirteenth century. Venini's genius was in his use of first-rate designers who adapted ancient styles. His company began to revive classic sixteenth-century Italian shapes and to create its own elegant silhouettes. The 1920s were also the era of the great American tourist consumer, fresh from reading John Ruskin's The Stones of Venice and eager to stock up on mementos of the voyage. Even those who stayed stateside could buy themselves a memory: the United States imported masses of Venetian glass, much of it made to order for department stores.
Glass production continued even during World War II, although output was greatly reduced. After the war, the industry headed in a new direction. The aesthetic of Venini and his colleagues had become increasingly modern, and by the late 1940s designs by artists such as Ercole Barovier, DinoMartens, Carlos Scarpa, and Fulvio Bianconi had taken center stage. Influenced by abstract expressionism and other modern art movements, these designers constructed glass sculptures in strong, contemporary shapes and bright colors. In recent years, they have become sought-after works of decorative art in making headlines at international sales. While more traditional glassware was still made in the decades after the war, the most talented and experienced maestri (glassblowers) turned their attention to the new designs.
A generation later, collectors are taking another look. "Lightness is key to recognizing Venetian glass tableware," says Usha Subramaniam of Christie's auction house in New York. "It weighs half of what you'd expect. Colors tend to be pale and admit a lot of light, with the exception of a more intense blue and red." Designs and colors were used again and again, so that a goblet from the 1920s may look much like one made in 1950.
It doesn't matter if you can't date a piece; the trick is to learn to recognize quality. "Forget dates, forget signatures. Develop your eye," says Sheldon Barr of Gardner & Barr, a New York shop where a pair of Venetian-glass goblets would once sell for between $200 and $500. As to the question of whether a piece is Venetian glass at all: "Venetian glass isn't crystal, so it doesn't 'ping' when you tap it," says Barr. "Complicated shapes and patterns like zanfirico [in which a glass rod is twisted to form a spiral] do add value, but the best advice is always buy what you like."
Heavier, sculptural pieces like glass fruit come in every color known to man and display bubbly textures and striations of contrasting hues. Here, value is harder to measure and is based squarely on eye appeal. Condition always counts. "It's hard to find delicate shapes like swans and dolphins in perfect condition," says Howard J. Lockwood, a New Jersey dealer. "If a piece isn't perfect its value decreases."
Collectors interested in investment should look for simple, modern shapes signed by important makers. Postwar pieces by Venini, for example, were acid-stamped on the bottom (with age, unfortunately, such signatures tend to look like smudges). One trick collectors like is using a signed piece to identify similar but unsigned pieces. Venini tumblers in red, blue, yellow, and purple stripes can be found for "practically nothing," says Lockwood, who fondly recalls the day he picked up a 1954 Martens bowl in a thrift shop for $15.
Whether you buy for investment or just to set a gorgeous table, Venetian glass can be found "all over the country, especially in areas like Chicago, New York, or Florida with old, wealthy populations who took the 'grand tour,'" according to Usha Subramaniam. While grateful that their predecessors seldom unwrapped their Venetian treasures, today's collectors do not follow suit. "At dinner parties we let everyone choose their own goblet," says New Jersey dealer Caroline Schmitt. "They get people talking-about art, Italy, about beauty."
"One of my clients buys only single candlesticks in every color," adds Barr. "She marches them down the center of the table. It's absolutely gorgeous." Gordon says, "Venetian glass was born to serve champagne. It has an extraordinary luminosity in candlelight, in sunlight. I mix and match it, and I've never set a table where people haven't said, 'Fabulous.' It's so opulent you need less of everything else-like flowers." And if after a little champagne someone crashes a goblet into a candlestick? "The joy of having Venetian glass on my table," she adds, "far outweighs my fear of getting a chip."