If there were a skills test in glassblowing, the ultimate exam would probably be flawlessly executing a 17th- or 18th-century Venetian goblet. In Venice, those that reach the pinnacle of skill in this form (and who have achieved full technical knowledge about glassblowing) are recognized with the title “Maestro,” but, here in the U.S., the highest award is when a member of the small pantheon of American glassblowers such as a James Mongrain would be impressed enough with your finished “cup” to say “Hey! You’re really good!”
Back in the 1960s and 70s, the only way to learn Venetian techniques was to break into a Venetian glass factory, or convince one of the rare ones that let foreigners visit, such as Venini, to allow you to pay a call, possibly make something with their team. Even then, it was impossible to see the full suite of skills through which the maestros achieved the delicate glass they made. That didn’t happen until the late 1970s, with the emergence of Pilchuck as an international crossroads of glass, and the arrival of traditionally trained Venetian maestri Lino Tagliapietra and Pino Signoretto.
But what if you didn’t want to travel to Stanwood, Washington, or join Lino’s team, or follow him from workshop to workshop? What if you were a collector or scholar who wanted to know more about the process? The only choice until now was to fight some 18-year-old student at a GAS Conference for a premium viewing spot to watch a demo, where there was no way to appreciate the intricacies of what the gaffers and their teams were actually up to.
On February 1, 2016, the inner workings of high-level glassblowing have suddenly come out of the shadows, thanks to a remarkable new digital initiative by the Corning Museum of Glass, which has just released a new website dedicated to all of those people who just want to know how these works were made (Disclosure: the author and Bill Gudenrath both served on the board of UrbanGlass in the 1980s and 90s). I was given the opportunity to test-drive a Beta-version of The Techniques of Renaissance Venetian Glassworking prior to its recent release, and want to give details about the best ways of using it, as well as to give congratulations and credit to the site’s creator and initiator—The Corning Museum’s resident expert on Venetian glass William Gudenrath.
Why is The Techniques of Renaissance Venetian Glassworking such a watershed? Because this online textbook is the first of its kind. Presented in a clean, easy to use, and beautiful-to-look-at interface, it holds an astounding amount of information. This initiative could represent an exciting new model for the future, potentially revolutionizing glass education. Also, it addresses an audience larger than just scholars and makers, making it accessible for all those that appreciate the beauty and complexity of these works. Among its features are the opportunity to view some of the masterpieces of the Corning collection, and then watch them being recreated by Gudenrath, whose breadth of skills and technique would have qualified him for Maestro status had he not devoted his career to his historic research and the development and operation of the museum’s Studio program.
When using the Website, there are a few important things to remember. First and foremost, when watching the videos, remember that Gudenrath works in an unconventional manner, without the teams that normally would be involved in the Venetian factory. When he himself began his glassblowing journey, he decided to go it alone, and developed a whole suite of techniques that allowed him to recreate glass solo despite the fact that to this day, the glass maestri of Murano work through a highly developed system of hierarchies that rely on a range of personnel as assistants. Gudenrath also points out early in the Introduction section of the Website that historic Venetian glassworkers didn’t have the equipment and tools that we’ve grown accustomed to, and that he saw no reason to mimic those primitive ways. He is comfortable with the way he creates the work and is confident that the fundamental formation techniques remain the same.
The Website offers different pathways tailored to different interests. For instance, if you want to get down to the nitty-gritty and just see how a work was made, you need not go any further than the right side of the Home Page and hit "The Visual Guide to Objects and Techniques." There you are given a choice as to whether you want to study the works by Decorative Techniques, Form(Profile) or by Structural Complexity. Whichever way you choose, you will find the work you want.
At this point you will have a few options. You can examine the object that was photographed from the museum collection, with some even offering the opportunity to spin the object 360-degrees to view it from all angles. You can hit the Transcript prompt, and a verbal description will drop down for you to read. And, finally, you can watch Gudenrath skillfully recreate the works as they may have been done centuries before. As an added bonus, there are links to images of similar works from within the collection.
Additionally, several of the works focus on a particular decorative element. These videos are extremely useful in understanding how the works were made. And if further research is needed on a specific technique in the work, you need only hit the line above the image to refer you to other pieces with the same qualities you are looking for.
Finally, I suggest doing a read of the history of Venetian glass to fully appreciate this period of glassmaking, where both technique and aesthetics advanced in leaps and bounds. The Website makes it easy as each period is covered in great depth, with a simple click to advance to the next period of development. These pages are filled with images and illustrations to give a complete understanding of this period of glass history. It also asks and answers important questions on continuity, mainly, are maestros of the 21st Century working in an unbroken tradition that started in the 16th Century?
The thoroughness of The Techniques of Renaissance Venetian Glassworking makes the user want far more. We need to thank Gudenrath for coming up with the idea and the Museum for backing it so completely. I can only hope that it will be used as a template for distilling the essence of all the periods, techniques and styles in glassmaking.
“This is my investigation into the probable working practices of some of the most skilled artisans of all time: the glassblowers of Renaissance Venice,” says Gudenrath, in a prepared statement about the project. In total there are 40 narrated demonstration videos illustrating the most important steps in the recreation of 25 “key objects” in The Corning Museum of Glass collection, as well as 10 additional techniques. “With no detailed contemporaneous descriptions of the maestros’ working methods, the objects alone must tell the story of how they were made,” he adds.
Gudenrath has been teaching classes in his approach to Venetian glassmaking techniques at The Studio of The Corning Museum of Glass for years. For this, the 20th anniversary of The Studio he and his wife, Amy Schwartz, started in 1996—there’s no better way to commemorate this milestone than the release of this unique and much-needed Website.
To see the site in action, visit The Techniques of Renaissance Venetian Glassworking here.