While everybody knows that Murano glass is synonym for luxury, are we all aware that it could even be used as money? We are not talking about vases, chandeliers, mirrors or goblets though. We are talking about tiny glass beads!
This story, pretty feminine, has more nuances than a rainbow. It’s poetical, conflictual, rich in invention and imagination. It’s an old story, which however became more interesting after the discovery of the New World.
Glass beads were produced pretty early in Venice. It was in 1338 that some Paternostreri shipped their beads used for rosaries from Venice while in 1470 the glass cane was invented opening up potential new creations. The so called “conterie” by which one refers to the tiny, monochrome glass beads have instead been documented since the 14th century.
But after the discovery of America…
In 1528 the art of the bead makers in Venice was recognized by the Venetian Senate and the guild started its activity. In 1604 a group of artisans producing the Paternostreri and the Margariteri (it sounds like daisy flowers) was allowed to run a separate guild. And finally, in 1672 the artisans producing glass beads with the lamp working technique detached from the Paternostreri and would run their own guild… Well, yes, not what I call sense of unity, but surely it shows how the techniques had evolved with a wider offer 🙂
Just to give you an idea: in 1780 in Venice and Murano there were 26 factories producing the conterie beads and 900 laboratories for the lamp working artisans. Here is from Giovanni Grevembroch, La supialume (the glass bead maker):
The weird aspect about this production however was that it was directed to the foreign market. Created to be exported, these colorful beads were called “trade beads” or also “aggry” or “slave beads”. They would be brought abroad to ease up social and economic transactions between worlds that didn’t share the same value system or didn’t know currency. So it ended up that Venetian beads were likely offered to native Americans by Christophorus Columbus in San Salvador! Moreover, glass beads decorating clothing, shoes, hairstyle in Arabic countries, Malaysia, Africa (Etiopia, Abyssinia, Red Sea) and the Middle East (Syria) and the Far East (Tartars, Chinese Mandarines) were exclusively coming from… Murano.
Here are some photos from the collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London:
And the most famous Rosetta beads:
As for the conterie beads, have a look at this inventory catalogue sample that I found at a friend’s home:
I wish I could show you how tiny they are… like the head of a needle… They were exported in meters of strings, usually cotton or linen, and the “impiraperle” or “impiraresse” would be the ones threading them all…
When in 1880 John Singer Sargent portrayed the “impiraresse”, the bead stringers in Venice while working, it was indeed a time when the production of the “conterie” involved a lot of women in Venice, especially in Castello and Cannaregio.
While these tiny beads were made in Murano, the stringers were all in Venice. All women. And the more they produced, the faster they were, the better pay they received, which however was always “una miseria”, i.e., almost nothing. Often because the man in the family would not be employed all the time, these women would then accept the job and while taking care of the children or while children were asleep, they would work.
The needles were their own, special ones, 18 centimeter long of seven different sizes. The sessola was the wooden scoop where the beads lay and then with around 40 up to 60 steel needles kept in their hand as a fan they would pick up the beads. The “impiraresse” due to their social life were able to organise themselves for strikes and protests and most of the literature described them as a Venetian Carmen, wild, dangerous and passionate 🙂
To end this first part on the Venetian beads maker then, here are a few lines from a piece the impiraresse would sing when working:
La senta cara mistra
I lavori xe cativi
La sentira i sospiri
Co la li tira su.
Lavoro diese aghi
Zogo la plavoleta
Sentada in caregheta
Par farme zo un mazzon.
No so se sia l’amor che me consuma,
No se sia dal tropo lavorare,
In quanto al lavorar, lavoro poco,
Sara l’amor che me fa consumare.
which translated by Lucy Segatti:
Listen dear teacher (mistra was the lady they had to report their work when done)
The work is hard
Listen to the sighs
That we draw.
I work with ten needles,
And my beads
Balanced carefully on my knees,
To make a bunch of strung heads.
I don’t know if it is love that consumes me,
I don’t know if it is the long hard work,
As for the work, I don’t work much,
It must be love that consumes me.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy
Perle e Impiraperle, ed. Arsenale, Venezia 1990
Gianni Moretti, Ercole Moretti, Arcari editore, 2011