Venetian Glass Beads: A Subtle Commodity

The image of Venetian glass is generally associated to glassware, but a more subtle kind of glass items worked in the lagoon city had been not less important and enduring: glass beads. On the contrary, if glasswork in Venice had suffered periods of crisis, it had been beadwork to provide some respite during emergency times, for example the first decades of the 19th century.

Since the later Modern period Venetian glass beads have been commonly known as conterie, a word that recalls the time when the bigger ones were sold not by weight but by number and so ‘counted’. Before, conversely, they had been more precisely distinguished into three main sorts, corresponding to different ways of execution.

A first type known as seedbeads (conterie in the strictest sense or margarite as they were called in Venice afterwards) were already regularly produced both in the isle of Murano and in the city of Venice in the 14th century. They were tiny, monochromatic beads fabricated chopping thin hollow glass tubes; in a next step the small cylinder-shaped beads thus obtained were refired for smoothness and to improve their colour and gleam. Their use was manifold, and they were employed to create jewels but also to decorate clothes and textiles as parts of embroidery patterns or for other ornamental purposes. They were produced and sold in hundreds of thousands as were their as traditional but bigger counterparts named paternostri. These were made using perforated cane too and their size and shape reminded of the original use as rosary grains (paternostri being the contemporary word for rosaries). They could be found in any colour or rounded shape as inventories suggest, for example not only spheres, but also olivette, peretti or more (meaning olive, pear or berry shape, respectively).

Previous success of simple one-colour grain beads grew larger as a result of the innovations in their production techniques during the second half of the 15th century, that marked a true turning point: Venetian beads became a global commodity traded and exchanged from the East to the West in every continent and crates of paternostrami began to plough the oceans and to be used as currency by European merchants, especially in Africa and the Americas. Venetians had found a method to create chevron (rosetta) beads, arranging hollow tubes from layers of thin canes in different colours, in order to obtain, once chopped and grinded, eye-catching zigzag and floral motifs. Thus, loved and highly valued by Africans, those small objects produced in Venice played a crucial role in the Age of the First Globalization, despite their apparent unimportance.

The third and last group of beads was also the product of another technical innovation, when during the first half of the 17th century lampworking was perfected and artisans started to create single beads from glass rods, melting them (with the use of a torch) on copper tubes, to create the hole. Besides seed and chevron beads that continued to be produced and successfully traded, this development increased market opportunities even beyond the past. Though more time consuming to be created, the new perle a lume gave complete freedom to the fantasy of the beadmakers resulting in an uncountable range of designs. Increasingly complex patterns became “classics” such as mosaic and millefiori (a technique known since the Roman period but reinvented by Venetian masters) or wedding cake (fiorato) and foil beads, enhanced by delicate strings of golden sparkling glass and colourful enamels. Lampwork allowed to blow single beads too, thus having the opportunity to reproduce in those grains the elegance of the filigree method. Wound beads, immediately loved, became an occupation mainly for women, who could work on them at home, and female labour played a fundamental role in economic life of the city till the first half of the last century, when still a large part of the female population was employed in the field. In the end, despite their apparent ordinariness, the history of Venetian glass beads is closely linked not only to the history of the city but of the world. Glass industry was among the more long-lasting and all-around industries on the lagoon and for centuries contributed substantially to the city's connectivity to the world.

Trade beads, Venice – 19th century, V&A (London), Museum no. 4552:1-1901. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

Glass beads, Venice – 17–18th century, V&A (London), Museum no. 4551:3-1901. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum

Chevron beads, Venice – 17th century, The Corning Museum of Glass (Corning, NY), Museum no. 62.3.9. Image © Corning Museum of Glass

Chevron bead, Venice – 17th or 18th century, The Corning Museum of Glass (Corning, NY), Museum no. 66.3.10 A. Image © Corning Museum of Glass

A string of millefiori beads, Venice – 19th century, Corning Museum of Glass (Corning, NY), Museum no. 73.3.81. Image © Corning Museum of Glass

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