Thursday, 14 December 2017

The Cosmos Captured in a Venetian Glass Bead - The Murano Glass Museum's Collection

Perle di vetro a lume soffiate, 19th Century
(Venice, Italy) The intricate beauty of Venetian glass beads has fascinated the world for centuries. Worn as jewelry and used to decorate fashion and tapestries, another aspect of the beads is not as well known: they were also used as currency, known as "trade beads."

We have all heard the story about how the Dutch bought the island of Manhattan from Native Americans for a mere $24 worth of beads and trinkets. There is an excellent article called Keep the Change: The Beads that Bought Manhattan by Aja Raden in the Huffington Post excerpted from her book, Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession and how Desire Shapes the World. It's so good, I suggest you read the entire article. Here is a taste:

Perle di vetro a lume, 19th Century
"The fact that the Dutch paid for New Amsterdam in beads is not surprising or even unique. Venetians had used trade beads as currency in Africa and Indonesia for a very long time before any­one ever ventured to the New World. In fact, many of the bead makers in Holland were Venetians. Glass beads were not only lovely, but glass was a rare commodity outside of Europe.
In fact, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, beads were valuable and accepted pretty much as universal currency. They were actually created for that purpose and used kind of like Renaissance-era traveler’s checks. It was just as difficult to trade using unrecognizable foreign currency back then as it is now. And, sure, gold and jewels are welcome everywhere, but the jew­els were mostly coming from those distant lands in the first place, making them ubiquitous and far less valuable to their original sellers than to their European counterparts. And though every­body values gold, it’s heavy, difficult to transport in quantity, and easily stolen.
Glass beads, on the other hand, were easy to transport, easy to standardize for value, and most important, they were rare— and therefore valued—everywhere but in Western Europe. There’s a distinct advantage to trading something more valuable to your customer than it is to you. Glass beads were particularly valuable, one might even say invaluable, rare, and exotic, in the New World, where glassmaking technology didn’t exist and no one had ever seen anything like them."
Perle di vetro rosetta, 19th Century
Which brings us to the exhibition, The World in a Glass Bead, at Palazzo Giustinian, the Glass Museum on Murano, which has perhaps the largest collection of glass beads in the world, consisting of 85 sample cases containing 14,182 beads, plus a whole lot more.

In 1861, Abbot Vicenzo Zanetti, a historian and son of a master glassmaker was granted permission to create the glass museum on Murano inside Palazzo Giustinian. Zanetti had a passion and obsession for Murano glass, and did much to breathe new life into the ancient glassblowing profession, encouraging entrepreneurs and fighting for workers' rights. He also painstakingly collected glass beads produced in Murano and Venice between 1820 and 1890, cataloguing as many as he could find.

About 25 years after Zanetti's death in 1883, some "genius" had the "brilliant" idea to move the collection from the museum into a warehouse, losing the records of the history of the beads.

Perle di vetro a lume a inserzione di murrine, 19th Century
Enter Augusto Panini, who has traveled extensively throughout West Africa, deepening his knowledge of the ancient Mali culture, specifically focusing on glass beads and the role they played in commercial and cultural relations between Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

Last month, I had the good fortune to attend a private dinner at which I met Augusto Panini, who presented the host with a beautiful book entitled Il Mondo in un Perla, or The World in a Bead -- all the gorgeous photos in this post were taken by Augusto Panini -- which provided an in-depth look at the exhibition that opened on December 8th at Palazzo Giustinian.

The World in a Bead by Augusto Panini
Panini spent five years researching and photographing the glass bead collection of Abbot Vicenzo Zanetti, gathering together the history that had been lost. Finally, more than 150 years after Zanetti's death, the glass bead collection is back at home inside Palazzo Giustinian, meticulously catalogued by Augusto Panini, as Venetian glass makes yet another comeback.

The World in a Glass Bead is curated by Augusto Panini and Chiara Squarcina, the Director of the Glass Museum. Squarcina says the title "stems from my own personal view of the bead as a multi-faceted cosmos in which skilled hands, particularly those of women, have communicated a concept of grace and perfection giving rise, each time, to a perfect and ideal world."

The World in a Glass Bead runs through April 15, 2018. Go to the Venice Glass Museum for more information.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

1 comment:

  1. The intricate beauty of Venetian glass beads has fascinated the world for centuries. Worn as jewelry and used to decorate fashion and tapestries, another aspect of the beads is not as well known: they were also used as currency, known as "trade beads." We have all heard the story that the Dutch bought the island of Manhattan from Native Americans for $24 worth of beads and trinkets...

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