Venetian Glass Mosaics 1860 - 1917

When I first fell for mosaic, in 1989, books on the subject were few and far between. Happily, nowadays they pour off the presses; indeed you might think it would be difficult to find a topic that has not already been adequately dealt with - but here we have a valuable first, a study of the mosaics created in Venice in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Anyone interested in modern mosaic will have heard of the Salviati firm and will have seen their work either in Venice itself or in many buildings all over the world. But this book gives a blow-by-blow account of how it all happened, and what happened meanwhile - and itís fascinating.

Antonio Salviati was a lawyer who moved to Venice in 1851, when he was 35. Doubtless it was the wonderful mediaeval mosaics that inspired him to try and revive the arts of mosaic and glass-blowing. He was aided and abetted by Vincenzo Zanetti, an abbot and glass historian, and Antonio Colleoni, a pharmacist, both from the island of Murano, which is where the first factory was set up. The first task was find out how to manufacture smalti and gold and silver tesserae. The man who did it was called Lorenzo Radi, from a long line of glassmakers. Honour his name.

Unsurprisingly, the first commission was to restore mosaics in San Marco. Which is where we raise several eyebrows, because Radiís colours were more garish than the originals, and damaged sections were replaced with modern copies, and Salviati didnít use the traditional direct method but the reverse method, producing mosaics as flat as a pancake. Ouch. I am happy to report that it was John Ruskin and the British who howled at these outrages, and in due course a more sympathetic approach was adopted. However Salviati never abandoned his belief in the reverse technique, because it saved time and money and meant he could manufacture everything very efficiently on Murano.

Foreign commissions started flowing in - for a palace in Egypt, the Albert Memorial, St. Paulís Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the Opera in Paris, the Victory Column in Berlin... Salviati displayed his mosaics at every possible exhibition in Europe, opened a bigger factory in Murano and a shop in Oxford Street, and so on and on. By 1870 the firm had agents in Vienna, Florence, Rome, Milan, Trieste, Paris and New York. Then came a palace revolution - his partners, who had put up most of the money, found him to be unacceptably arrogant and financially untrustworthy, and fired him. They even deleted his name from the title of the firm.

So what did he do? Started another firm of course, with a smalti factory on Murano and a showcase palazzo on the Grand Canal. So now there were two mosaic firms based in Venice, and they were deadly rivals...

If you want to know what happened next, treat yourself to a copy. You will have gathered that this book is a tremendously good read, but I should also mention that one of the joys of this excellent volume is that whenever Sheldon Barr discusses a mosaic, thereís an illustration of it, nearly always in colour, in long shot and close-up. Venetian Glass Mosaics 1860-1917 is superb in other words. Highly recommended.

Paul Bentley

Price: £39.50

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