In Venetian arts and crafts

Stained glass windows in the history of Venice

Stained glass windows in Venice have been known since the end of the 13th century, after glass blowers moved their furnaces to Murano. Florence, Rome, Assisi, but also Padua, Treviso, the Istrian peninsula and Dalmatia bought glass from Venice for their churches.

Very much connected to huge gothic cathedrals, stained glass windows were a vehicle for the mendicant orders, such as Franciscan and Domenican preachers, to express their mysticism. Glittering in the light, the figurative glass art would illuminate the dark and bare architecture of  gothic churches. On one side the poverty driven constructions in stone and bricks, on the other side the presence of God visible through this Bible in glass.

Geometrical stained glass windows: the “rui”

The interesting thing is that very little of this art featured in Venice itself. In Venetian churches, civic or private buildings, stained glass windows would mainly feature geometrical rather than figurative elements. You will have certainly fallen in love with the “rui”, haven’t you?

“Rui” (old and modern) at Stefano Bullo’s workshop in Murano

Circular, thin discs, transparent and slightly colored — either green, purple, blue and yellow — became very popular. They are called “rulli” or “rui” in Venetian, like rollers. It is blown glass that once you move the pipe on the other side of the glass blob, then you can work on its opening, making it larger and then quickly rotate till it becomes flat.

“Rui” at Stefano Bullo’s workshop in Murano

You will always see the mark left by the pipe in the center of the disc. Beautiful compositions held by some lead regular structure are to be admired everywhere in Venice. 

A window in the Doge’s palace in Venice featuring the “rui” glass discs

The stained glass window at the Church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo

Apart from few earlier works at the Frari church or at the Miracoli church, it was not until the beginning of the 16th century though, in the blooming of Renaissance, that a unique masterpiece in figurative stained glass was created at the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice.

Designed in Murano for the vast majority — although some pieces reveal a German origin—, this work dates back to 1510 and is the result of a long collaboration between the glass master Giannantonio Licinio da Lodi and Bartolomeo Vivarini. Some parts have been in the past attributed to Cima da Conegliano, while Gerolamo Mocetto is the artist that took care of the lower part — and signed it. 

Detail of the dragon killed by St Theodore and signature of the artist, Stained Glass Window at the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, 1510

The restoration of the stained glass window at Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice

After over two years of restoration, this huge stained glass window has now recovered its majestic beauty. Over 17 meters of height and 7,50 meters of width, it is composed by 66 panels (and 81 smaller parts with no lead frame). All in all, over 7000 pieces of glass were detached and taken care of, around 1400 pieces were catalogued, both recto and verso, to start with.

Mary and St John the Baptist, Stained Glass Window at the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, 1510

A winged lion, symbol for St Mark, Stained Glass Window at the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, 1510

MiBACT financed the restoration work for a total of 600,000 euros, while the workshop was under the care of the Sovrintendenza Belle Arti in Venice. The Segretariato per il Veneto arranged the Invitation to Tender.

I had the pleasure to interview Diego Perissinotto who runs the company Sirecon that actually restored the window with a team of five people. 

Between ballots, hailstorm and pigeons

In the past, stained glass windows risked to be damaged by bad weather and … bad behaviour. In 1368 the Great Council threatened to punish those people who broke glass windows throwing ballots with their bows: “cum archis ballotas, rumpendo fenestras vitreas”

Today, when hopefully no one would ever think of throwing anything against five hundred year old glass windows, there are different problems.

Not just the team at Sirecon had to carefully dismantle the glass window that was literally collapsing onto itself. They also had to remove any restoration work done before that was no longer protecting the work. An amazing, patient work, indeed. 

St Jerome, Stained Glass Window at the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, 1510

St George, Stained Glass Window at the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, 1510

Already during the last restoration in 1980, it had been noted that the best preserved glass pieces had a sodium based composition, while the ones in worse condition revealed a potassium based composition, which means typically northern European. 

Cleaning, restoring, integrating whenever it was considered necessary the several broken pieces, Sirecon also took care of the metal support, and placed a counterwindow on the outside to protect the stained glass window from aggressive weather conditions, such as hailstorms. Also pigeons will no longer affect the ancient pieces.

Finally, Sirecon discovered that the grisaille work had been lost in some parts, such as the cherubs’ faces, but they noticed the graffito on the glass was still there. In this way, they were able to recover the original drawing of those faces, literally reappearing from the past.

Stained glass windows in Venice nowadays

But what happened of this art in Murano? I grew very fascinated by what we can describe as “backlight glass painting”. I started reading about the masters of Murano in the recent past, especially Angelo Fuga and learned more about the “rui” and stained glass windows nowadays.

Stefano Bullo and his company in Murano

It was indeed quite enlightening to talk with Stefano Bullo in Murano. Now running the company of stained glass started by his mother in 1984, Stefano Bullo has a solid preparation acquired at the Fine arts Academy in Venice. His art has featured at palazzetto Tito for the Bevilacqua La Masa Foundation, too. He is proud to say that stained glass is the result of a collaborative act of creation.

As in the past, also nowadays making stained glass windows is a very complex process.

Restoring ancient stained glass windows at the workshop run by Stefano Bullo, Vetrate artistiche, Murano

Artistic stained glass windows at the workshop run by Stefano Bullo, Vetrate artistiche, Murano

Different artistic techniques are required in order to find the balance. On one side, you need the idea or sketch. On the other side, you need to fuse, compose the different panes, paint them, re-heat them, create the lead frame and mount the whole work. He showed me the brushes for the grisaille and the different machines, the one to fuse the glass, the one to prepare the lead.

Shaping the lead frame at Stefano Bullo’s workshop in Murano for stained glass windows

Brushes to prepare the “grisaille” effect on stained glass windows at Stefano Bullo’s workshop in Murano

At Stefano Bullo’s workshop, preparing a modern stained glass window with the old technique, Murano

He explained to me how he makes grisaille (and his work features in the church of Santi Maria e Donato in Murano), the cost of the materials, the way to deal with different thickness of the glass pieces and such… 

Stefano Bullo’s stained glass art at the church of Santi Maria e Donato in Murano

Grisaille technique on glass windows at the workshop run by Stefano Bullo, Vetrate artistiche, Murano

A collaboration with Lino Tagliapietra

Bullo works with architects and designers. He also works with glass artist Lino Tagliapietra who started thinking of stained glass works right because of COVID19 and the subsequent lockdown. Lino could not get back to his furnace, and so, he started bringing to Stefano’s workshop some glass “murrine” on a wheelbarrow. Long discussions followed, creating together. 

I love thinking these new glass windows by Lino Tagliapietra would not be there without the pandemic and cast a powerful rainbow illuminating our lives from within, just like those thousands of glass panes in ancient gothic churches.

Lino Tagliapietra, Stained Glass, Montague Gallery, San Francisco, 2021, photo by courtesy of Lino Tagliapietra Inc.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

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Showing 4 comments
  • Ann Keller

    Bravissimo Luisella!
    I love this article about glass! I have always liked the Rui but never knew a name for them or how they were made. Is it possible to buy them individually? That would be such an interesting souvenir to have.

    We have a lot of wonderful stained glass in Ireland too. Check out the work of Harry Clarke, our most celebrated artist from the early 20th century. I think you would find his work interesting. He did illustration work as well so look for the glass work, especially Bewleys Café windows, st.Mary’s in Dingle and the Honan Chapel in Cork.

    • Reply

      Dear Ann, thank you for reading and leaving this beautiful commentary! And thank you for the your suggestion, I will surely look at Clarke’s work. It will be for sure illuminating 🙂 Grazie!

  • Jill Kerby

    What a wonderful article, Luisella! Once again, you’ve captured the artistic and technical passion and skills behind EVERY stained glass window ever created. ☘️

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