If you’re not careful you might miss it; your gaze passing through the glassy surface to fix on a point beyond. This however, would have made this objects sixteenth century Venetian maker very happy, for whom the achievement of absolute clarity in clear glass was tantamount to the perfection of his art.
Historians such as Reino Liefkes , Paul Hills and W. Patrick McCray identify in their respective works certain landmarks in the history of the city of Venice’s glass production and technological advancements that endow certain glass objects with characteristics which mark them as specifically Venetian. One such development, highlighted by these authors are the advancements made in the clarity of the glass produced, a development often titled as the production of cristallo and attributed the Angelo Barovier around 1450. Hills highlights how with the introduction of a special soda known as Allume Catino into the production process glass makers were able to avoid the yellow or greenish tinge which the presence of iron oxide impurities had previously left upon the finished glass and produce a glass which reached ‘the perfection of transparency’ which mimicked the more precious rock crystal. In addition Reino Liefkes states that the development of cristallo stretched the creative possibilities of the medium, as the clearer glass could be more easily manipulated and blown very thin – a feature however which inevitably left the cooled glass with inherent instabilities, making it remarkable that pieces such as this survive for us to enjoy in museum collections around the world today.
The development of this ethereal quality in the city’s glass products has long been part of Venice’s mythologized narrative, yet the identity of this object is more complex than its crystal clear skin might suggest, its story stretching beyond the Venetian lagoon. Made in Venice between 1550 and 1600, this a mosque lamp, now held in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It is 23.7 cm tall and 18.1 cm at it greatest width. With a round bulbous body that tapers to a narrower waist before flaring out to a broad rim, this object takes the form of a typical lamp used to burn oil in mosques. Whilst a foot has been added, to aid it to stand in a stable manner, loops added to the outside of the body also allow the lamp to be suspended from chains, often in groups, from a metal frame.
From the thirteenth century, Syria and Egypt were celebrated as the glass producing centres of the medieval world; enamelled glass from both of these locations was imported across Europe as a luxury product. Objects from this period are also represented within the V&A collection, a number of ornately decorated mosque lamps contrasting the colourless sheen of their sixteenth century descendant. However by the fifteenth century the glass industry in Islamic world had entered into a decline and with quality waning people looked to Venice for the production of the best pieces, including mosque lamps. In 1569 Grand Vizier Sokullu Mehmed Pacha in Istanbul placed an order for 900 Venetian glass oil lamps, the drawings which accompanied can be found today in the Venetian state archives. This lamp was perhaps one of them.
In some ways we might find the production of these objects, made by Venetian Christian craftsmen for use in Islamic religious practice, somewhat juxtaposed. Yet perhaps this can be seen to reveal the true nature of the state of Venice during this period. Whilst the portrayal of serene and dedicated Christian piety was central to the image the early modern Venetians wished to project, when weighed up with an excellent opportunity to make profit, the shrewd business minds of this city of merchants seems to have taken over. If indeed the craftsmen knew that these lamps had a religious purpose, differences in faith appear to have been put to one side in favour of the establishment of a beneficial trade relationship.
If we look a little closer however, into the manner in which this clear glass was produced, it is possible to challenge the narrative which suggests that the baton of glass-making excellence was passed over to Venice in the fifteenth century. Whilst it is true that Venice certainly did rise to dominance in terms of finished glass products, if we examine the ingredients used to produce this typically Venetian crystal finish a very different story is revealed. Francesca Trivellato highlights how the expensive ashes of sea shore plants were imported from Syria and Egypt, and Sicily, Spain and Malta for use as fluxing agents in the glass making processes. Indeed Reino Liefkes states that the guild of glass makers specifically forbade the use of more local plants because the quality would have been poor. Contemporary authors such as Agricola have credited the quality of these imports with the clarity achieved in the finished glass for which Venetian glass makers were so celebrated for at the time, so it would appear that what has long perceived as a particularly Venetian achievement in the arts was very much reliant on techniques and materials brought in from elsewhere in the world.
In addition to this, we might also ask whether this lamp was even intended to remain in the colourless cristallo style which was so celebrated in Venice. The historical context notes available on the V&A online collections catalogue state that this particular mosque lamp has traces of ‘cold’ (unfired) gilding across its surface suggesting that this could have been a ‘blank’ which would have been exported from Murano to Egypt where further, more elaborate decoration would then be added by local craftsmen. It could be argued that this would be more in keeping with the highly decorated styles of mosque lamp which appear to have been preferred in earlier centuries.
If this was the intention, we can never be certain yet it is interesting to think of this mosque lamp as a liminal object, sitting in history at the meeting point between two cultures and resistant to the labels of a static identity. Crystal clear but clouded with questions still to be asked.
 Paul Hills, Venetian Colour: Marble, Mosaic, Painting and Glass:1250-1550, Yale University Press, (New Haven & London, 1999), p.114
 Ibid, p.114.
 Ed. Reino Liefkes, Glass, V&A Publications, (London,1997)
 Francesca Trivellato,‘Murano Glass: Continuity and Transformation 1400-1800’ in Ed. Paolo Lanaro, At the Centre of the Old World: Trade and Manufacturing in Venice and the Venetian Mainland 1400-1800, CRRS Publications, (Toronto, 2006)
Hannah Lee –
Hannah did her BA in History at Oxford University where she specialized in cultural history of the Renaissance. Her research interests include the material histories of trade and currency and gender. She is currently working on a dissertation which focuses on the material portrayal of Africans by Europeans in sculpture and jewellery.
© Hannah Lee, 2013. All Rights Reserved.