From Historicism to Modernism

The Barovier family and the rediscovery and evolution of murrine and mosaic glass

by Jim Oliveira

1921 is often cited as the year Modernism came to Murano. This date, of course, coincides with the opening of the Venini glassworks. And while it is true that the Venini company was modern in every sense of the word, a compelling argument can also be made that the Barovier family, one of the oldest and most traditional glass-blowing families on Murano, was actually the first to introduce a Modernist style and aesthetic to Murano glass, and at a much earlier date.

Unique and Important Mosaico vase by Artisti Barovier, 1918–19. Photo by Wright

But what defines modern? For Venini it initially meant Soffiato glass — thinly blown, transparent glass in pale gem-tone colors, elemental geometric forms inspired by models present in paintings from the high Renaissance, vessels stripped of almost all ornamentation in accordance with the aesthetics of quasi-functional simplicity.

In order to appreciate the contribution of the Baroviers one has to understand what was happening in Venice during the 19th century. From 1814 until 1866 Venice was under occupation by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which effectively shut down glass blowing on the island of Murano. During this time, many of the techniques developed by the Venetians over the previous thousand years were nearly lost.

Transparenti vase, model 5673 by Carlo Scarpa, 1926. Photo by Wright

When Venice was finally liberated and annexed into the kingdom of Italy, glassmaking re-emerged on the island of Murano. The story of Murano’s rebirth is both compelling and complex and features a cast of larger-than-life characters including Dottore Antonio Salviati, a lawyer from the nearby town of Vicenza. Established in 1859, Salviati’s nascent glassworks would become the chrysalis from which the entire industry would emerge. Salviati’s ability to bring together the island’s greatest blowers and designers and focus them on the rediscovery and re-production of models and techniques from antiquity, would profoundly influence the future history of glass-art worldwide.

It is here at the turn of the century, with Salviati, that we first encounter Historicism — a concept that is very difficult for the 21st century mind to accept. In Historicism, the highest goal in art is to copy the past and while today this seems counter intuitive, it made perfect sense to the 19th century mind. One should remember that the 19th century was an age of great archaeological excavations, and that the emerging industrial technologies of the day were eager to demonstrate their ability to equal the accomplishments of the past. Today we think of ourselves as technically superior to all that came before us, but this attitude simply did not exist until the end of 19th century.

A period photo of a 1960s Intarsio vase by Ercole Barovier

Historicism, in terms of Murano glass, meant that Salviati and his partners encouraged Murano’s best glassblowers to re-discover all the lost techniques of the past — a nearly super-human feat which the Muranese craftsmen actually accomplished within two short decades. Credit for this must be given to the inquisitive, talented and innovative members of the Barovier family, along with visionary glass technicians Lorenzo Radi, Vincenzo Moretti and Luigi dalla Venezia, just to name a few.

Moretti made an especially important breakthrough, as he re-discovered the ancient technique of murrine glass, and created the first A Murrine vessels in almost 2000 years. Murrine are, of course, slices of glass canes that can be arranged into patterns, heated, and then fashioned into a diverse array of shapes. This technique is so important to artistic glassmaking that it would be impossible to imagine glass art today without it. The fact that Moretti, through long trial and error, was able to resurrect the art is an incredible feat of human ingenuity. Between 1871 and 1878 he perfected this technique, and while working for Salviati his A Murrine vessels made of slumped glass became recognized internationally as masterworks. In fact their quality was so fine that they were deemed indistinguishable from ancient examples. This quote from La Voce di Murano, 15 May 1878 expresses both the public’s admiration for Moretti’s work and the raw spirit of Historicism: “something absolutely new in the true sense of the term, or, to be precise, a perfect imitation of ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine glassmaking.” (Dorigato)

During this same period, brothers Giovanni and Antonio Barovier, along with Antonio’s three young sons, Benvenuto, Benedetto and Giuseppe were also working for Salviati in his vast machine of Historicism. Of all the Baroviers, it was young Giuseppe whose artistic, aesthetic and technical mastery of glassmaking was the most apparent. By 1871, Giuseppe and his brother Benvenuto had mastered the art of blowing vessels made of murrine, which came to be known as Mosaico. Unlike the hand cast, slumped vessels of Moretti, the blown mosaics of the Barovier could be shaped to any form, and at any size. And while this technique was first developed in the 16th century, the Baroviers would take it to new and astonishing levels inspiring generations of glassblowers to come.

But was this the breakthrough? The moment when Historicism was left behind and Modernism embraced? History is seldom that absolute. However the vast talent, wild imagination and deft experimentation of the Baroviers was certainly responsible for derailing, or at least diverting Salviati and his quest for historical accuracy. By the late 1870s the Baroviers were making a wide variety of glass vessels with no parallels in history, and Salviati actually encouraged this. However, Salviati’s British partner, the Honorable Sir Austin Henry Layard, excavator of Nimrud and Nineveh in Assyria, was livid, and in short time the two companies separated.

The Baroviers, however, continued to innovate and thrive. In 1896, Giuseppe and his brothers left Salviati and established their own firm, Artisti Barovier. By then Giuseppe was recognized as the greatest master blower in Murano and his ability to execute extraordinary glass in any style was legendary. During this period the Baroviers produced a wide variety of glass including baroque fantasy objects, historically based vases from all eras, and delicate, elemental monochrome vessels that presaged Zecchin’s Soffiato glass for Venini in the 1920s.

Above: Period advertisement for the Mostra dei Fiori, Venice, 1914; Giuseppe Barovier at the Mostra dei Fiori, 1914; below: A Murrine Floreali vase for Mostra dei Fiori by Giuseppe Barovier, 1914. Photo by Wright

But by the turn of the century, most Murano glass was beginning to look dated and old-fashioned; while the rest of the world was embracing Art-Nouveau, Murano was still focused on its own traditions. Meanwhile, the Baroviers were continuing to experiment and produce more and more vivid and inventive mosaic glass vases which were beginning to express the international style. Ranging from floral to pure geometric abstraction, these vessels were a true break from the past. Floreali vases made specifically for the famous Mostra dei Fiori flower show of 1914 are a good example of this new aesthetic — stylized, hard-edged leaves sparingly arranged on matte black or blue backgrounds create a feeling of plant-based abstraction and express a kind of proto-modernity.

1914 was also the year in which the influence of Secessionism was introduced at Barovier. In that year, two young artists influenced by Gustav Klimt, Vittorio Zecchin and Teodoro Wolf-Ferrari, approached Giuseppe Barovier and proposed a challenging series of objects and vessels to be executed in Mosaico glass, but in the Secessionist style. Rising to the challenge, Guiseppe worked after-hours at the Barovier furnaces and created what many consider to be the first masterworks of Murano glass in the 20th century.

By the end of the First World War, Giuseppe, Benvenuto and Benedetto were ready to pass the family firm to the next generation, and in 1919 the company was re-organized as Artistica Barovier. By that time, Benedetto’s sons Niccolo and Ercole had become important partners in the company. Initially not interested in glass as a profession, Ercole completed his classical education before deciding to join the firm. Assuming the position of artistic director in 1926, he would become the most prolific and accomplished designer of Murano glass in the 20th century, and would go on to design thousands of models for the company before his retirement in 1972.

Rare and Important Mosaico vae by Nicolò Barovier, c. 1924. Photo by Wright; Period photograph of a similar osaic vase designed by Nicolò Barovier, 1920–1925

Many of Ercole’s most significant designs were in fact based on the Mosaic technique pioneered by his father and uncles. Series such as A Spina, Egeo, Rotellati and Intarsio have all become icons of postwar modern design — with their highly structured patterns of vividly colored tesserae, they are the direct descendant of the Mosaic technique, and examples of Ercole’s prescient ability to adapt ancient techniques to the moment in which he was living.

So perhaps it was the Baroviers who first introduced Modernism to Murano, but in an organic, vibrant and mutable style, one that made the break from Historicism with vivid colors, dynamic patterning and visually complex technique.

Laguna vase, model 3619 by Tomaso Buzzi, 1933–35. Photo by Wright

By way of contrast, Venini’s glass was, from the very outset, minimalist. Whether we are discussing the Soffiato of Vitttorio Zecchin, the Pulegoso of Martinuzzi, the Laguna of Tomaso Buzzi, or the Bollicine of Carlo Scarpa, we are describing various incarnations of minimalist glass design. It is only with the mature work of Carlo Scarpa at Venini that we see a true break from the minimal, with the inclusion of glass rods, canes and murrine — some of Scarpa’s most profoundly modern work — all of which were, to some degree, influenced by the Baroviers. The same is true for Paolo Venini, especially with his most important series — the Mezza-luna, A Punti and A Mace Murrine vessels. As for Bianconi, Venini’s most important postwar designer, all of his most influential work is based on the technique of blown murrine and tesserae, even when housed in Venini’s sleek, minimal forms.

In the end Modernism came to Murano by a long and circuitous route, one which may have found its ultimate expression in the furnaces of Venini but also passed through the realm of the Baroviers, and the world of art, design and glass is better for it.


Find several masterworks by the Baroviers in Wright’s Important Italian Glass auction on January 24th 2019. The complete sale listing is available online. All lots from the auction are on view in New York at 507 West 27th Street, NY 10001, January 11th-24th, Tuesday-Saturday 10am-6pm or by appointment.