Museo del Vetro

Glass Museum

THE WORLD IN A GLASS BEAD. The Murano Glass Museum bead collection 1820 - 1890


Museo del Vetro di Murano – The Conterie
08 December 2017 – 15 April 2018

An extraordinary concentration of technique and inventiveness, the Venetian glass beads, small and precious artefacts of many types and of a rare beauty and boasting many types, have long been a part of Venetian glass-making history and still today represent a lively and important production.

The complex work of cataloguing and studying the bead collections in the Museo del Vetro di Murano, undertaken for the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia by Augusto Panini, one of the leading experts on the subject, led to the publication of the first detailed catalogue of these artistic objects a few months ago and is now the basis for the dazzling exhibition in the spaces of the former conterie in the lagoon museum, open from 8 December 2017 to 15 April 2018.

The world of glass beads is unique: they are decorative objects but were also valuable trading goods exported in large quantities in the nineteenth century to the colonies of West Africa, India and the Americas; sought after and coveted as jewels, in exchange for these glass beads the natives of America agreed to cede the territory we know today as Manhattan.

Venice began producing them around the fourteenth century; one of the first techniques used was speo: using a small amount of molten glass and an iron needle (the speo or spit) turned in the fire of a lamp, the glassmaker would produce a pierced bead. But the technique that became prevalent in the following centuries was the manufacture of beads from perforated or solid glass rod or canes. In the second half of the fifteenth century, the grinding of beads from a multi-layered perforated rod with a star cross-section (rosetta bead) was perfected, and only around the sixteenth century was the technique of lampwork beads rediscovered, which foresaw the use of solid rods.

The Museo del Vetro di Murano’s collection consists of 85 sample cases containing 14,182 beads, three cloth panels from 1863, a gift from the Società delle Fabbriche Unite containing 2015 beads and 266 mazzi di conterie, with 91 bunches of lampwork beads, some of which incomplete, 8957 intact beads and 274 fragments and 492 mazzi di conterie.

The inventory drawn up by Abbot Zanetti has been lost since 1912, and only now has it been possible to attribute many of these beads, clusters and panels to the glassworks in Venice and Murano between 1820 and 1890 and therefore to the master glassmakers, giants of the art and enlightened entrepreneurs such as Giovanni Battista Franchini, Domenico Bussolin, Benedetto Giorgio Barbaria, Antonio Salviati, Pietro Bigaglia and Giovanni Giacomuzzi, who with generosity and a civic sense of duty had donated the best of their new production to the city museum.

Among the articles of the Museum that are now identified are two large panels generically called “Lampworks” that include beads produced by the Franchini family from 1820 to 1860 and in which stand out the inventions of the “brilliant” Giovanni Battista Franchini: from the Perle a Coste di Mellone (Beads with melon ribbing) to the Perle in cristallo animate (Animated crystal beads), Madre perla rosea (Pink mother-of-bead) and Canne lavorate (Handworked rods).

The Venetian civic collections also conserve what seem to be the first millefiori beads (‘millefleurs’) produced in modern times, presumably between 1843 and 1845. In no earlier samples in other European or American museums are there any millefiori beads, which were invented in the Alexandrian and Roman era, and which after the fall of the Roman Empire of the West continued to be made until the fifteenth century in the Middle and Near East.

While the sample panels at Palazzo Giustiniani – comparable to modern glassware samples – do not contain (or very few) rosetta beads ground at the wheel, it is significant that there are a considerable quantity in the collection, and of every size (even very large) and type: beads that are unique in their kind: rosetta beads with layers of aventurine, with inserts of perforated rods, up to ten layers and of wholly unusual colours, the sign of a lively experimentation and technical virtuosity linked to the rebirth of an ancient tradition that had been completely forgotten.

The inventor of the rosetta bead in 1482 or a little earlier was Marina Barovier, who was also involved in the first exports of beads to the New World and Africa between the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century. But after that date there is no evidence of a production of large ground rosetta beads. The revival of this form in modern times seems therefore to date only from between 1882 and 1888, the year of a major order mentioned in the chronicles of the time (251,000 rosetta beads measuring between 13×14 mm and 38×52 mm) and the subsequent lively controversy between the glassworks  about the “paternity” of what seemed to be a new production, but which actually renewed the splendor of a bead invented five hundred years earlier.

However, the kaleidoscopic world of beads was yet to be discovered as Abbot Vincenzo Zanetti well knew: it was he who presented this material in the most prestigious Universal Expositions in the form of mosaic beads, blown beads, lampwork beads, “submerged” beads, Europe and Africa beads, beads with eyes, in spiral, flag, monochrome, feathered forms, with murrine inserts, with eyes, dotted, sinusoidal, comb, wrapped or figural.

It takes little to be seduced by these magical and ancient artefacts whose tradition still survives and is renewed even today.

In addition to the historical collections, the museum in Murano wished to display beads made today by the glassworks on the island, which are the result of a history that has not been lost and represent the evidence of a desire to preserve the mastery and technical skills of this art-form while injecting new stimuli.

A special section thus displays today’s product with works by Mario Cavagnis, Luisa Conventi-GIOIA, Laura Mantoan, S.U.V.-Venetian Beats, Igor Balbi, Renata Ferrari-La Perla Veneziana, Ivan Campagnol, Cristina Sfriso, Lucia Santini, Alessia Fuga, Giacomo De Carlo, Ercole Moretti, Elena Rosso, Manuela Zanvettori, Giorgio Vaccari, ESSE 2, Vittorio Costantini, Alessandro Moretti-Costantini Glassbeads, Matteo Alvise Fusaro-Lav Rossetto Susanna, Amy West, Andrea Canal, Muriel Balensi, Maria Rossana Zanetti, Mauro Vianello, Marina e Susanna Sent, Davide Penso, Antonio Vaccari, Marianna Bottaro, Corte Studiovetro-Corte Alberto & Paola, Francesco Fabris, Yukina Fiorese-Yuki Ebukuro, Le perle di Mauro-Cesarina Mantoan, Perle Maison Lisette Murano, L’Antica perla di Liviana Molin, Urano Vianello and Paolo Darin.

The realisation of an interesting introductory didactic section is the result of a collaboration with “Ercole Moretti” and “Effetre Murano”.


Curated by Chiara Squarcina and Augusto Panini