British Museum blog

Venetian glass

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Sex and the City looks at the role Venice in Shakespeare’s England.


Dora Thornton, curator, British Museum

In the mid 15th century, Venetian glass workers perfected a wonderful new medium: Cristallo or crystalline glass. It’s called Cristallo because it has the clarity and transparency of rock crystal. Unlike rock crystal, however, it can be moulded and blown into fantastic forms and shapes. It can also be decorated, as this goblet is, with beautiful brightly-coloured enamels and gilding to make a really splendid object to hold in your hand, admire and drink from.

The making of Cristallo was a very closely-guarded trade secret. The glassmaking guilds in Venice controlled not only their workmen, but the trade and import of the raw materials for their industry. There are many materials needed to make this goblet and Venice dominated the trade in those precious commodities.

To make the glass body (known as “metal”) for this object you would need ingredients from all over the world: plant ash imported from Syria; a special kind of river pebble from the River Ticino in northern Italy; and manganese as a decolourant. Analysis in the British Museum by x-ray fluorescence of the enamels used to paint the woman on the glass indicates that the striking cobalt blue is likely to come from the Erzgebirge mountains on the German/Czech border. We can also tell that the white colour, which is made from tin oxide, has probably been made using tin imported from Cornwall or Brittany. The gold, heavily used all over the rim and for touching up details and for the arms, is probably from Africa.

Questions remain about this particular glass. We do not know for certain that it is Venetian, made on the island of Murano in the lagoon. It may have been made by Venetian glassmakers who had set up a glasshouse elsewhere, as happened throughout the 1500s. It belongs to a group of rather heavy glasses all of which have full-length enamelled portraits of men and women and German-style arms. Enamelling like this was less fashionable in Venice from the mid 1500s but continued to be admired in Northern Europe. Was this glass made in Venice for a German, Swiss or Austrian customer (I have not yet been able to identify the arms) as a kind of souvenir of the city? The way the woman is presented is a picture-postcard stereotype of the beautiful Venetian lady or courtesan. Or was the glass made in a German or Austrian glasshouse by a Venetian emigrant, or by a native craftsman working in the Venetian tradition? Either way, when we’re looking at this goblet, we can not only marvel at the highly-skilled craftsmanship involved in its creation but also the extensive global trade networks that were fundamental to its production.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Sex and the City

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on

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  1. Maria Antonietta says:

    I am Italian and I do not understand why the author does not make the video visible to me and to Italy: I feel a bit disappointed!

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