In Focus

Italian Glass: A Brief History and Guide for Collecting

Have you recently contracted glass fever? We can help.

Words by
Capsule
Published on
November 22, 2022
Lot 24, Vittorio Zecchin for M.V.M. Cappellin, Pale Amethyst Soffiato Vase
Lot 24 | Vittorio Zecchin for M.V.M. Cappellin, Pale Amethyst Soffiato Vase
Capsule

With its intricate history and idiosyncratic language, the world of Italian glass can feel overwhelming. In advance of Capsule’s 20th Century Italian Glass sale, we provide a brief overview of glass production in Italy and answer some key collecting questions.

Murano: “The Glass Islands”


The Italian glass making tradition is millenia old, dating to antiquity. Although Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures created glass objects, historians trace the beginnings of glass as an art form to the Roman Republic, when ancient artists were creating simple vessels by coating solid cores with molten glass. Venetian or Murano glass, terms that are today nearly synonymous with Italian glass, draws heavily on these Roman forms. However, its discrete beginnings are much later, dating to around the 10th century. 

Though the glass industry was once based in the city of Venice, fear of fire galvanized the Venetian Republic to order artisans to the nearby islands of Murano in the year 1291. It is said that glass makers were forbidden from sharing their knowledge of the medium with mainlanders, resulting in a unique “pressure cooker” environment that encouraged innovation. For nearly 1000 years, Murano has been revered as the center of the glass making world. Today, there are around one hundred glass factories on the islands, many of which are owned by families who have been in the business for generations.  

Murano glass is all about luminosity: “Lightness is key to recognizing Venetian glass tableware," says Usha Subramaniam of Christie's auction house in New York. "It weighs half of what you'd expect. Colors tend to be pale and admit a lot of light, with the exception of a more intense blue and red." Although many experts agree with Subramaniam’s characterization of this aesthetic throughline, Murano glass varies wildly in style.

A Brief History of 20th Century Italian Glass


Much of this variation in style can be understood as chronologically directed. That is to say that, like most other types of art practice, aesthetics simply evolved over time. Capsule’s earliest pieces date to the turn of the century, when a sense of historicism ruled production. Designers and blowers were primarily concerned with reflecting old-fashioned methods of design. These early 20th century pieces can be understood as references to the past, even as far back as antiquity. 

Lot 8, Vittorio Zecchin for M.V.M. Cappellin, Green Soffiato Pitcher
Lot 8 | Vittorio Zecchin for M.V.M. Cappellin, Green Soffiato Pitcher
Capsule

As modernism began to develop, this preoccupation with history started to see change. “Soffiato” glass, characterized by simple clean lines and spare designs, became all the rage. Interestingly, just as they appeared to viewers in the 1920s, these objects appear distinctly modern to contemporary audiences. A stunning example of such work is lot 8 in the December sale, a green Soffiato pitcher designed by Vittorio Zecchin for M.V.M Cappellin.

From left to right: Lot 60, Tomaso Buzzi for Venini, Laguna Vase;  Lot 21, Carlo Scarpa for Venini, Sommerso Perfume Bottle with Stopper
From left: Lot 60 | Tomaso Buzzi for Venini, Laguna Vase; Lot 21 | Carlo Scarpa for Venini, Sommerso Perfume Bottle with Stopper
Capsule

In the 1930s, glass artists began to interrogate the idea of glass itself, seeking to push the boundaries of the medium. This experimentation often took the form of cased glass, opaque in appearance, which beat back against the characterization of glass objects as being transparent and luminous. Lot 60, a stunning Laguna vase designed by Tomaso Buzzi for Venini, and lot 21, a Sommerso perfume bottle and stopper, illustrate this experimentation beautifully. Though these new methods constitute a huge stylistic leap, the forms being blown often emulated those of ancient Rome and Etruria, proving that reverence for Italian glass history persisted. In the 1940s, French-inspired styles, often characterized as being heavy or masculine, enjoyed popularity.

From left to right: Lot 80, Ercole Barovier, Spina Bowl; Lot 47, Fulvio Bianconi for Venini, Spicchi Vase
From left: Lot 80 | Ercole Barovier, Spina Bowl; Lot 47 | Fulvio Bianconi for Venini, Spicchi Vase
Capsule

The postwar period is perhaps the best-known era in Italian glass making. After the second world war, Murano glass became an expression of the jubilance that permeated the zeitgeist. This intensely optimistic spirit can be felt in objects made as late as the 1960s and 1970s, such as lot 5 in the upcoming sale: an effervescent Grata vase made by Ludovico Diaz de Santillana for Venini. Like artists of other mediums, glass makers were inspired by what was happening in world art. Modernist movements like Abstract Expressionism inspired colorful and often fanciful designs, such as lots 80, an exquisite Spina bowl by Ercole Barovier, and 47, a Spicchi by Fulvio Bianconi for Venini. Though ancient techniques were still being used in the creation of these objects, they are distinctly forward-looking.

Building a Smart Collection


The primary concern of collectors entering into the glass space, particularly the Italian glass landscape, should always be buying items that are correct. Experts advise purchasing objects from their initial years of production to ensure authenticity.

Although many encourage collectors interested in investment pieces to buy simple modern shapes signed by important makers, the well-curated glass collection is a varied one. Though big-name designers and furnaces may turn heads, glass enthusiasts also pay attention to work created by smaller glass houses. Because they produced fewer objects, designs from these houses are in some cases more scarce on the market. These lesser-known names are incredibly important to Murano glass history and offer an opportunity to collect at a lower price point. Capsule’s December sale is a fabulous opportunity for this sort of broadly-considered collecting.

Of course, as is the case with most other types of artwork, two key factors in determining the value of glass objects are rarity and condition. Some designs were limited to around one hundred pieces, a level of scarcity that greatly impacts value. Other one-of-a-kind pieces are the ultimate in terms of rareness and therefore, in some cases, in terms of value. Condition is also always of importance, particularly with more delicate sculptural pieces. That being said, the joy of using some glass objects, especially tableware, is not to be understated. New York designer and collector Marjorie Reed Gordon says "The joy of having Venetian glass on my table… far outweighs my fear of getting a chip."

As is said about art collecting in general, Sheldon Barr of Venetian glass gallery Gardner & Barr points out that “the best advice is always to buy what you like.”

Names to Know 

    

With hundreds of furnaces populating the Murano islands, each boasting their own collaborations with a slew of designers, myriad names make up the landscape of Italian glass. Here, we’ve compiled a few houses and designers that a glass fanatic should be familiar with. 

A sampling of the Venini objects offered in Capsule's sale.
A sampling of the Venini objects offered in Capsule's sale.
Capsule

Venini

Paolo Venini, originally a Milan-based lawyer before entering into the world of glass, is credited with ushering in a new era of Murano glass making. His company, which he established in 1921, became known for its ability to bring new life to ancient styles through collaborations with first-rate contemporary designers. His success coincided with a boom in American tourism as well as a related American interest in Venetian glass, which was often made to order and imported for department stores. This exposure made Venini a household name not only in Italy but across the world. Capsule’s 20th Century Italian Glass sale includes over twenty examples of designs executed at the renowned house of glass.

From left: Lot 71, Ercole Barovier, Spira Aurata Vase; Lot 66, Ercole Barovier, Barbarico Bowl for Barovier & Toso
From left: Lot 71 | Ercole Barovier, Spira Aurata Vase; Lot 66 | Ercole Barovier, Barbarico Bowl for Barovier & Toso
Capsule

The Barovier family opened their business in the year 1295, just four years after the glass industry moved to the islands of Murano. This near 800 years of glass making makes Barovier the oldest house still producing glass today. Around 1920, Ercole Barovier began his 50-year reign as artistic director of the company. Designs created under Ercole’s direction are some of the most revered in the house’s history. When looking at examples from the period, such as lots 71, an alluring Spira Aurata vase, and 66, a remarkably unique Barbarico bowl, it is not difficult to see why. In 1942, the company was renamed Barovier & Toso to reflect their merger with the firm of Ferro Toso.

A sampling of objects designed by Carlo Scarpa offered in Capsule's upcoming sale.
A sampling of objects designed by Carlo Scarpa offered in Capsule's upcoming sale.
Capsule

Carlo Scarpa 

Although Italian architect Carlo Scarpa is better known for his work on designing modernist spaces like the Gallerie dell’Acccademia in Venice, his earlier collaborations with glass makers earned wide acclaim. In 1926, he began working with M.V.M. Cappellin glassworks before moving to Venini as an artistic consultant in 1932. While there, he developed several enduring techniques, such as the “bollicine,” a style characterized by small bubbles present in the glass, and the “mezza filigrana,” very thin glass embedded with swirling lines. Scarpa’s experiments with glass, which were fueled by a deep interest in Italian cultural heritage, are thought to be some of the most innovative of the 20th century

Lot 40, Yoichi Ohira, Sculptural Vase for De Majo Murano
Lot 40, Yoichi Ohira Sculptural Vase for De Majo Murano
Capsule

Yoichi Ohira

One particularly exciting highlight from Capsule’s sale comes from Italian-trained Japanese glass artist Yoichi Ohira. The sculptural vase (lot 40), made for renowned glass making studio De Majo, is exquisite: it illustrates the grace and sensibility to light that makes Murano glass so desirable. Ohira moved to Venice from Japan in 1973 to study at the Academy of Fine Arts where he developed a deep love for the medium. In 1987, just a year before creating this spectacular piece, he was awarded the prestigious Premio Selezione by the city of Murano. His style possesses a deep reverence for traditional Italian glassmaking while simultaneously filtering the practices through a radically different cultural lens, making it beautifully unique. 

From left: Lot 56, Tomaso Buzzi for Venini, Laguna Vase; Lot 78, Tomaso Buzzi for Venini Vase; Lot 60, Tomaso Buzzi for Venini Laguna Vase
From left: Lot 56 | Tomaso Buzzi for Venini, Laguna Vase; Lot 78 | Tomaso Buzzi for Venini Vase; Lot 60 | Tomaso Buzzi for Venini Laguna Vase
Capsule

Glass designed by celebrated Italian architect and interior decorator Tomaso Buzzi is highly collectible. He took on the role of artistic director at Venini in 1932, where he drew on a variety of influences, ranging from Surrealist to Etruscan art, to create a series of innovative designs. Though he was only with the firm for two short years, his impact on the oeuvre of Venini and on Italian glass making at large is tremendous.

Resurging Popularity

Despite obstacles posed by the pandemic and by recent surging gas prices, Venetian glass is experiencing renewed interest. In December of 2021, The New York Times reported on Murano glass’s resurgence in popularity. The aesthetics associated with this localized glass production have recently served as inspiration for contemporary designers. Brett Heyman, the designer behind accessories line Edie Parker, Susan Korn, the designer behind the hotter-than-ever Susan Alexandra line, and partners Breanna Box and Peter Dupont, the designers behind the glassware company Heven, all point to the storied history of Murano glass as a heavy influence. 

The market is also seeing an increase in Murano glass sales in parallel with this cultural relevance: Tirath Kamdar, head of luxury at eBay, told The Times that Murano glass sales jumped 200% on the site between 2020 and 2021.

A new generation of designers is taking over production on the Murano islands, poised to usher in a new era for Venetian glass. No longer interested in the insularity that once characterized the community there, this class of internationally-minded designers are ones to watch. As Brooklyn-based glass artist Andrew O’Hughes said, “glass, by nature, has a certain mystery… but Murano is the deepest, most soulfully mysterious of them all.”

Pre-bidding for Capsule’s 20th Century Italian Glass sale is available now. Live bidding begins December 1st at 1:00 PM.

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