Expert Reveals Top Secret Venetian Glassblowing Techniques from the Renaissance
Throughout history, some artists, craftsmen and chefs have carefully protected and concealed knowledge about their processes or recipes. One such art was glass-blowing in Venice, where the process was a closely protected state secret for years.
Glassblower and researcher William Gudenrath, of the Corning Museum of Glass in New York State, has researched and investigated Venetian glassmaking for many years and has an extensive website where he reveals, for no charge, the techniques and history of the craft through many articles, videos, and photos.
“The Techniques of Renaissance Venetian Glassworking [website] is an investigation of the probable working practices of some of the most skilled artisans of all time: the glassblowers of Renaissance Venice. To my knowledge, this topic has never before been explored in a thorough and systematic way,” Mr. Gudenrath wrote at the site.
He said he wants to disseminate knowledge of and appreciation for glass objects made on the island of Murano in Venice from around 1500 to 1700, what he calls the golden age of Venetian glass. “Venetian glasshouses enjoyed a pan-European monopoly in supplying luxury glass to royalty, aristocracy, and other wealthy and powerful individuals,” he wrote.
William Gudenrath blows a small cup with two handles in this video.
Some of the videos at the site show early glassblowing techniques he reconstructed, from around 50 BC through the Middle Ages.
While today glassblowers use proper lighting, methane furnaces, electric kilns and good ventilation, years ago they used wood-fired furnaces, metal blow-pipes and tongs to fashion their wares. Metal blow-pipes and tongs are still in use, as you can see in the many videos of Mr. Gudenrath demonstrating various techniques at his Web pages at the Corning Museum of Glass website.
Mr. Gudenrath narrates more than 40 demonstration videos on the website. He shows how to make 25 key objects’ in The Corning Museum of Glass collection and adds 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 says in a press release at the museum’s website.
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Mr. Gudenrath is, of course, a glassblower and a scholar, lecturer, teacher, and resident advisor at the museum’s studio. “He has devoted decades to the careful study of historical glassworking methods, with a strong emphasis on Venetian glass objects of the 16th-18th centuries, spending countless hours at his own glassblowing furnace attempting to recreate telling features noted in original objects,” the press release states.
Dragon-Stem Goblet, Venice, Italy, 1630-1670. (Photo courtesy of the Corning Museum of Glass)
Venetian glassblowing techniques are among the most difficult to master. Some glass artists study Venetian glassblowing to refine their skills “even if their work bears no relation to Venetian glass of any period,” the press release states. “Not well known, however, is how Venetian objects of the Renaissance were made, as the Venetian government carefully kept secret the processes behind the technically-confounding glass coming out of Murano.”
Mr. Gudenrath’s series sheds light on the secret processes.
Ancient Origins explored the ancient history of glassmaking in this article. It stated that the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder attributed the discovery of glass to the Phoenicians, but archaeologists have suggested that glass was first produced either by the ancient Mesopotamians or the ancient Egyptians. The oldest man-made glass objects, for instance, were mainly non-transparent glass beads, found both in Egypt and Mesopotamia.
These objects are dated back to around the middle of the 4th millennium BC. During the 3rd millennium BC, glass was used in Mesopotamia to produce glazes on pots and vases. Like the Phoenicians in Pliny’s account, this discovery is believed to have been made by chance. It has been suggested that calciferous sand managed to find its way into an overheated kiln, combined with soda, and formed a colored glaze on the ceramic vessels.
Egyptian vases with the name of Ramesses II. (Public Domain)
The earliest known glass factory, however, was not discovered in Mesopotamia, but in Egypt. This factory, which has been dated to the middle of the 13th century BC, was discovered at Qantir, in the Eastern Nile Delta. During the 13th century BC, this was the city of Piramesses, the capital of Ramesses II. It was at this site that glass-making equipment and material were identified.
While these civilizations’ glassmaking techniques are very ancient, Mr. Gudenrath explores inflating very hot glass, a process that does not go back as far in history, to 50 to 40 BC in Palestine. The earliest known inflated glass objects were discovered in 1971 in glass refuse from a workshop in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem.
“These finds still stand as the earliest reasonably closely datable evidence of glassblowing,” the website states.
Featured image: This piece of glass, a footed bowl, was blown about 1500 in Venice and enameled in the late 19th century in France. Source: Corning Museum of Glass
By Mark Miller