From a series on design written for ABC Radio National’s Blueprint for Living. This was first broadcast on the 4th March 2023. You can listen to the audio here.
In the mid-1700s a Venetian glassmaker called Giuseppe Briati created a chandelier for a client’s new palazzo on the Grand Canal. It wasn’t the first of its style but it remains one of the most important. The palazzo was the Ca’Rezzonico and the Rezzonico style became a byword for a particular type of chandelier. Its thin metal structure is sheathed in glass with arms radiating out from a central core giving two layers, each with ten candleholders. The glass itself has an otherworldly quality, using both milky and clear glass in its main structure which is interwoven with brightly coloured glass flowers. With such a festive quality, it hangs like a party in a room furnished with lavishly ornamented furniture by master carver Andrea Brustolon, the palazzo now a museum of 18th century Venice.
Briati’s chandelier started a fashion. His family had been glassblowers in Murano for generations after the island became the centre for Venetian glass making in the 1200s when the furnaces of glass workshops in Venice itself were deemed too great a fire risk. Today, Murano glass and Venetian glass are interchangeable terms.
Briati was distinguished by his education. In the 1730s he travelled to Bohemia, Venice’s rival in glass production. In this highly secretive world, Briati picked up new techniques and returned to his own workshop in Murano to change the way he had been making glass. Bohemian crystal chandeliers sparkled like diamonds because the individual pieces were so crisply facetted, refracting light in a myriad ways, but this was not possible with Venetian glass because of its softer composition. Briati introduced potassium nitrate to the process, creating stronger glass that could be shaped easily and more delicately without breaking. He twisted it and used wooden moulds to get different shapes, creating a chandelier that had a new kind of luminosity. It was also substantially cheaper than Bohemian crystal. The effect was almost instantaneous and Briati’s workshop quickly became the place to order not only chandeliers but mirrors and furniture, all decorated with fabulous forms. The chandeliers of the richest homes on the Grand Canal brought lightness to the lives of those less fortunate, too, with Briati’s fortune enabling him to set up an almshouse for widows of glassmakers and provide them with a regular pension.
The tonal range of Venetian glass has always been notable, with metals and mineral pastes giving vivid colour. The addition of gold, for instance, gives a deep ruby and copper, a turquoise tone. A single chandelier, with its many individual pieces, could therefore be as multi-coloured as the client desired. Enamelling and gilding the glass was also possible.
The invasion of the Venetian Republic by Napoleon brought glass production to a halt but by the middle of the nineteenth century it was back. It was perfect for the opulence desired by the new wealth of the middle classes, meaning even a relatively modest home in London or New York might at least have a small chandelier in the dining room.
Venetian glass continues to dip in and out of fashion. For many today Murano glass means the gaudily-coloured glass figurines and ashtrays found in tourist shops throughout Venice. For others, it remains the epitome of truly great glass making, the fluid forms creating extraordinary statements in hotel foyers or private homes around the globe. And Venice, La Serenissima, continues to dazzle the world with the sparkle of its creativity.
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