Museo Correr

Museo Correr

THE ADVENTURE OF GLASS. A millennium of Venetian art

Glass pearls

Towards the end of the 15th century, when Venetian beads arrived in West Africa, they were not a novelty. Indeed, they were the continuation of millennial traditions, related to tribal customs, religious ceremonies and magic propitiatory rites, evidence of which is lost literally in the mists of time. There are existing testimonies of apotropaic and miraculous healing rituals associated with the use of antique glass beads in Europe in the Middle Ages.

Saharan beads. In various locations in the Sahara desert, including Mauritania, Algeria, Mali and Niger, high quality beads made of carnelian, agate, quartz. and amazonite have emerged. Of excellent workmanship, they are linked to the presence of populations of farmers and animal breeders at the time of the wet Sahara, between 10,000 and 2,500 BC. Testimony to their presence is described in thousands of cave paintings found in rock shelters in the mountainous regions of the deserts of Algeria, Libya, Niger and Chad.

The period of the great empires. Starting from the 6th to 7th centuries of our era, migrations occurred from east to west bringing together the Nilotic people with those who had left the Sahara because of desertification and who had settled along the banks of the Niger River. After the 12th century the Arabs, who had Islamized the southern coasts of the Mediterranean, began their penetration further south, also attracted by the gold and salt wealth of the Sudanese Empires*. Once conversions had occurred, trade between the Mediterranean and the Southern Sahara assumed important proportions and Middle Eastern and European goods, including glass beads, were traded in large quantities for gold, ivory, salt and slaves. For this reason, in graves in Mali, Mauritania and Niger of this period, glass beads from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, India and continental Europe have been uncovered, having arrived in these places via the silk roads, and the gold and amber trade routes.

The Serenissima. The Serenissima inserted itself into this International game of Risk towards the end of the 15th century, unloading her merchandise into the warehouses of Constantinople, Alexandria, Tripoli, and Tlemcen (Algeria) from where, with the trans-Saharan caravans, it would arrive at the courts of the most important African kingdoms. Testifying to this commercial trade between Venice, the Middle East and North Africa are the relics of numerous Venetian merchant craft shipwrecked along the Dalmatian and Croatian coasts, between the 15th and the 17th centuries, loaded with windowpanes, glasses, plates, vases and beads produced mainly on the island of Murano.

The colonial period. The discovery of America upset this scenario and ocean shipping trade eventually replaced the trans-Saharan, clients being the British, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese, and the places of destination no longer the Saharan cities of Timbuktu, Walata and Gao, but the headquarters of the kingdoms of the Gulf of Guinea in Ghana, Togo and Nigeria. The Sudanese gold, no longer competitive, was replaced by palm oil, ivory (both natural and worked) and, above all, slaves, especially for the colonies overseas. The cargo of the merchant ship sunk at Gnalic is proof that Venice’s maritime trade continued even after the discovery of America and, thanks to the Venetian diplomatic skills in concluding trade agreements with the sultans of Istanbul and the south coast of the Mediterranean, they were still transporting their goods to ports in North Africa. The great success of the Venetian glass industry also depended especially on its great ability to adapt production to demand, catering to the tastes and needs of differentiated target markets. It is estimated that the types of glass beads, produced in Venice for export to Africa and overseas, exceeded 100,000 and, at its height, the overall production of the twenty-two most important Murano glassworks was 19,000 kg of glass beads per week.

Krobo people. In the mid-20th century, with the end of the European colonial period in Africa, the commercial fortunes of Venetian glass began to stagnate. Venetian beads, which had picked up the baton of Islamic beads, replicating the patterns and colours essential to African tribal-religious traditions, in turn, became rare and hard to find. So began, or rather, intensified, local production of beads of “recycled” glass in Ghana with the Krobo people, who revisited the same archetypes of Islamic and Venetian production so requested by the various ethnic groups in West Africa and beyond.

* The Sudan, for Arabs, was the territory corresponding to West Africa.