In 1739 the Council of Ten, the powerful court of the Venetian Republic, received a peculiar request from a glass blower from Murano. It was well known that those ten judges would face important issues in the city life, including glassware production, so relevant in the industrial past of Venice and then sadly fallen in decadence.
Giuseppe Briati referred to them and asked for the permission to open a furnace in town and no longer on the island of Murano where his father and uncle had been murdered for rivalry! Three years before Briati had already promised he would not compete with the other glass blowers. He specified, he would not try to do anything ordinary and in order to distinguish himself, he asked to be let “… expand the distinct quality of very refined crystal glassware”.
Please don’t forget that since 1291 all glass artisans had been moved to Murano so to protect the city from fires! Formerly known as the island where Venetians had built their villas and for its gardens featuring exotic plants imported from the Mediterranean coasts, since the middle of the 15th century Murano had been the heart of a very important artisan activity for the Venetian economy. It was indeed very risky to move it somewhere else.
And yet, the “distinct quality”, the hope to inject new fuel in the glass art and the idea of renewed profits Venice would never neglect won over safety. Briati was allowed a privilege no one else received: he left Murano and near the Carmini Church in Dorsoduro he opened his factory where, with the help of some sand and minerals, extraordinary creations were born.
Today we can admire his well known works at the Glass Museum in Murano. Among his production, mirrors, furniture with decorative details in cobalt blue or emerald green in glass, there stand out the triumphs or, as they call them in Venice, the “deseri” — from the French word “dessert”. Here one grasps how Briati understood and innovated Bohemian glass art eventually to link it to Venice.
What do we mean by triumphs? Imagine a banquet held at the age of Casanova in the middle of the 18th century in Venice in a luxurious private mansion or in the government palace: unusual food — not seafood, of course that was everyday! — but refined lagoon game, frogs, lake sturgeon, citrus, sorbet and lots of malvasia wine… well, on those tables there appeared these ephemeral crystal architecture wonders, called triumphs!
At the beginning or at the end of a banquet, for the starters and the after dinner delicacies, the triumphs were then very elaborated compositions featuring hundreds of crystal pieces of different dimensions, even meters and meters long. Miniatures of real open air theaters, where colorful and faceted glass pieces were laid over silver shining mirrors reflecting the candlelight of … what else? prestigious flower bunch chandeliers designed, needless to say, by the same Giuseppe Briati as a cheerful Harlequin.
How could you not succumb to such a wonder? Already in the past on the tables ready for banquet there appeared candied sugar made triumphs, often painted, sometimes decorated in gold leaf —as chronicles report the banquet offered in 1574 to the King of France Henry the Third. Or in ceramics or wax. Objects that turned into presents for the guests to take home at the end of the banquet. But the glass triumphs by Giuseppe Briati and Giacomo Giandolin became the Venetian excellence and would be praised by all contemporaries.
Games, countryside horse rides, life in the villa were much beloved themes for the triumphs, as well as history or the ancient mythology inspired by the Metamorphoses by Ovidium. Famous battles. The Carnival. Everyday Venetian life, as hunting in the lagoon and on the mainland, balls, sleighs gliding over the frozen surface of the lagoon in the winter. But above all, gardens with their hedges, labyrinths, columns, balustrades, statues, flowerbeds and fruit trees, pots in fake porcelain (but in fact in milk glass) overwhelmed with colorful carnations and, finally, fountains with water spurts made of very thin, weightless glass threads.
The glass industry got a strong input in the end and those years tell us quite well a very Venetian story: a mix of creativity, search for wonder and of course entrepreneur’s risks.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy