Tuesday March 26, 2024 | by Jana Elsayed

With glorious glass goblets as the focus, Chrysler exhibition traces the triumphant rebirth of Venetian glass in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

In the secretive culture of Venetian glassmaking, craftsmanship became a whispered tale, a dance of techniques kept from prying eyes and kept alive against others determined to steal the techniques, or, later, against onerous taxation that practically destroyed the centuries-old industry. As you step into an exhibition showcasing 50 masterpieces from The Chrysler Museum of Art's collection, fine glassware festooned with imaginary creatures that might have surfaced from the depths of the Venetian lagoon, the fanciful figures could be seen as representations of the powerful techniques emerging from hiding places in and around Murano, the Venetian island where glass remains the focus. These imaginative embellishments of the glassmakers reached their heights among glassmakers laboring to reclaim the glory of Venetian glass in the 19th century as Venice was freed from the yoke of the oppression of the Hapsburg Empire. Knowing the history, these creatures unfurl like the secrets of a captivating story, weaving through the intricate threads of Venetian glass history.

Artisti Barovier (Italian, 1884–1919) or Fratelli Toso (Italian, 1854–1902) Red Dragon Vase, ca. 1900–14. Blown and applied glass Gift of Marjorie Reed Gordon, 2022.21.3

The historical context of the Venetian glass industry's decline and subsequent revival is a multifaceted story influenced by political, economic, and cultural factors. Dr. Carolyn Swan Needell, the Barry Curator of Glass who organized the exhibition, explained in a telephone interview with Glass that Venice's glassmaking tradition faced existential challenges the republic came under the rule of the Hapsburg Empire in the early 19th century. This included tariffs, import taxes, and the abolition of the guild system. This economic suppression stifled the industry, leading to the closure of many glasshouses. 

However, with the cultural renewal of the Risorgimento movement, which led to the unification of Italy with Venice as a member state, efforts to revive the industry began to emerge. Figures like Abbot Vincenzo Zanetti and lawyer Antonio Salviati played crucial roles in this resurgence. Zanetti founded a glass museum and design school in 1861, providing training and inspiration for new glassblowers. Salviati's glass firm, initially focused on mosaic, transitioned to blown glass, contributing to the industry's revival. 

Needell underscores the significance of these grassroots efforts in reinvigorating Venetian glassmaking. The establishment of glass museums, design schools, and new glass houses like Fratelli Toso exemplify the enthusiasm and dedication of local communities to preserving their cultural heritage and driving innovation, she told Glass. This collective endeavor ultimately led to the resurgence of the Venetian glass industry, marking a pivotal moment in its history.

Now, fast forward to the dawn of the twentieth century. A divergence from European trends leads to the era of Art Deco in the 1920s. In the Venetian glass ateliers, animals come to life as molten glass was ideal to create sculpted creatures. Vetro sommerso, a technique where glass layers encapsulate vibrant hues, emerges as a poetic reflection of the lagoon's layered beauty. If you peer closely at the blown glass vessels, a mesmerizing spectacle unfolds. Dragons, dolphins, seahorses, pegasi, swans, and serpents intertwine like the currents of the Venetian lagoon. Gilding adorns these creatures, creating a reflection of the golden sunlight upon the waters. They climb up goblet stems, perch atop bowl rims, and entwine around necks, embodying the mythical allure of the Venetian landscape.

DETAIL: Giuseppe Barovier for Salviati. Granzioli Dragon Compote, ca. 1877–1914, Blown and applied glass. gift: marjorie reed gordon. courtesy: chrysler museum of art

Needell delves into the significance of the fantastical creatures depicted in blown glass vessels, highlighting the absence of explicit historical documentation regarding their selection. In her interview, she noted, "An interesting thing while doing research, no source says why these people were picking these animals." However, she explores potential interpretations, citing examples like the dolphin, which holds ancient roots in Mediterranean culture and mythology. The dolphin's portrayal in Venetian glass art reflects both its classical lineage and its symbolic association with Venice as a maritime empire. Needell emphasizes the importance of considering broader historical contexts, stating, "You can't say that a glassmaker wrote that down and I read it. You have to look at the greater history and the bigger picture." She also underscores the artistic and architectural suitability of these creatures, such as the dolphin's form, which lends itself well to glassmaking techniques and design elements. Ultimately, Needell suggests that these creatures possess symbolic and aesthetic significance deeply intertwined with Venetian history and culture.

Giuseppe Barovier for Salviati. Granzioli Dragon Compote, ca. 1877–1914, Blown and applied glass. gift: marjorie reed gordon. courtesy: chrysler museum of art

"If I had to put it into a sentence, the story I wanted to tell with this material is how the creatures all over the glass attest to the imagination, virtuosity, and technique of the glass makers," she said. By incorporating these creatures, such as dragons and dolphins, into the exhibition, Needell aimed to engage visitors and highlight the playful and imaginative aspects of historical glass art. Furthermore, Needell utilized interpretive labels and contextual elements within the exhibition to provide deeper insights into the Venetian glass industry's historical significance and creative processes. By juxtaposing Venetian glass pieces with non-Venetian artifacts, such as ancient-century Chinese ceramics and contemporary glassware, she sought to enrich visitors' understanding of Venetian glassmaking within broader artistic and cultural contexts. This approach facilitated a multifaceted exploration of techniques, symbolism, and historical narratives, enhancing the overall visitor experience and appreciation for Venetian glass artistry.

Needell outlines the criteria used to select the 50 masterpieces for the exhibition, emphasizing the prevalence of creatures in Venetian glass creations from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. She states, "My criteria were pretty easy... more than half had a creature on them." This focus on creatures was informed by the availability of glass pieces from the same era, with the majority originating from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Needell's selection process was influenced by a major gift of glass to the Chrysler Museum, which largely determined the composition of the exhibition. By prioritizing pieces featuring creatures, Needell aimed to highlight the elaborate, complicated, and often bizarre aspects characteristic of Venetian glass creations from that period.

Artisti Barovier or Fratelli Toso, Pegasus Compote, ca. 1895–1914. Blown and applied glass. gift: marjorie reed gordon. courtesy: chrysler museum of art

Needell discusses how competition between Venetian glass companies like Artisti Barovier, Fratelli Toso, and Salviati & C. drove inventive and fantastical creations in blown glass. She notes, "There's competition going on... the more bizarre and the more over the top, the better." This competitive atmosphere fueled a desire to push artistic boundaries and showcase opulent designs. Companies vied for international recognition, honors, and awards, contributing to a cycle of creative advancement. Needell highlights the role of competition in fostering innovation and the production of elaborate glass creations, ultimately shaping the fantastical nature of the pieces on display.

In this storytelling journey through the annals of Venetian glass, objects become vessels of the time, carrying within them the essence of centuries, the whispers of artisans, and the mesmerizing reflections of the ever-changing Venetian lagoon. The glass, like the lagoon itself, stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of a craft that transcends time and captivates the imagination.

With "Fantastic Creatures of the Venetian Lagoon: 1875-1915," the Chrysler Museum of Art invites audiences to embark on a journey through time and imagination, celebrating the enduring legacy of Venetian glassmaking and the fantastical beings that continue to captivate hearts and minds to this day.

There are programming events to look out for. To learn more, click here!


February 23 - August 18
Fantastic Creatures of the Venetian Lagoon: Glass 1875-1915
Chrysler Museum of Art
Norfolk, Virginia
Exhibition Website

Glass: The UrbanGlass Quarterly, a glossy art magazine published four times a year by UrbanGlass has provided a critical context to the most important artwork being done in the medium of glass for more than 40 years.