23 June, 2006

30. Art and kitsch

These Venetian glass beads are typical of the kinds of traditional glass product that are in many of the shops around the main tourist thoroughfares in Venice. In terms of quality and style they fall midway between the most sublimely beautiful – and very expensive - handblown art glass pieces, and the ugliest, tizziest, and most vulgar glass products you can imagine, such as stale urine coloured ornate chandeliers with hundreds of dust-catching dangly bits.

Venetian craftsmen were the first to discover how to make glass mirrors, and for several centuries, Venice was the main producer of glass in Europe. Glassmaking was an important part of the Venetian economy, and skilled artisans were forbidden to move away from Venice, to prevent them taking their trade secrets to competitors in a rival city-state. It was such a respected craft that glassblowers, unlike any other tradespeople, were even allowed to marry into noble families.

As the glass trade grew, and as the city of Venice grew, the danger of fires spreading from the furnaces of the glassmakers and destroying the mostly wooden city was increasingly real, so a decree in 1291 moved all glass manufacturing to the island of Murano, about a mile north of Venice across the lagoon, where their descendants and many of the tourist-oriented glass entrepreneurs still live and work.

The best Venetian glassware is exquisitely original, and the product of centuries of skill development and techniques handed down from generation to generation. But wherever you get this many transient visitors, traditional crafts become corrupted by the need to meet the demand for affordable tourist souvenirs, so that is what many of the glass factories now concentrate on. As a result, the worst glassware produced in these islands is about as bad as glassware can get – pure kitsch.

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