Crafts and Trades
The Judaic Origins of Venetian Glass
The dearth of documentation makes it difficult to determine the extent of the Jewish presence in the Veneto during this dark period, but it is evident that the Jews were well rooted elsewhere around the Adriatic during the formative period of the Republic of Venice. In the ninth century at Oria, a bustling town on the sea's south-western shore, two great Talmudic academies were engaged in teaching students who flocked in from the European Diaspora. Other academies, equally renowned as dynamic centers of Talmudic study, flourished at Otranto and Bari. At Siponto, some hundred kilometers northwest of Bari, the great Talmudist Rabbi Anan ben Marinus Ha-Cohen received scholars who came from the far corners of the western civilized world to draw sustenance from his well of wisdom.6 The equally revered Rabbi Aaron be Samuel came to Bari from Baghdad to become a member of the town's rabbinical court. It has been said that the profundity of the decisions of this great sage "recalled the days of the Sanhedrin."7 The Universitą d'Otranto shared honors with the Universitą di Bari. It was said that "from Bari went forth the law. And the word of the Lord from Otranto."8
These renowned centers of learning did not remain immune from trauma. The celebrated academies at Oria and Otranto were decimated by Romano. Some of the inhabitants found refuge in Bari, and others dispersed into the great Diaspora. Bari burgeoned as an industrial and commercial center, activities in which all the Jews, sages and citizens alike, took part. It should be recalled that, continuing the tradition set in the ancient days of Babylonia and of the Sanhedrin, the masters earned their livelihood not from their role as teachers but at trades, professions and commerce. "The Talmud is not a spade," is the precept carried forth from the ancient times into the great academies of the Middle Age. The reverence for human labor and creativity was intrinsic to the teachings of the Mishnaic Rabbis. "He who does not each his son a craft teaches him brigandage," the Mishnah Kiddur admonishes parents. "The Creator of the universe," it is said as a reminder of the dignity of labor, "labored for six days; may we do less?"
The Adriatic was a good market for Near-eastern glassware at the end of the first millennium. In 1972 underwater archaeologists found the cargo of a vessel that sank off the coast of the island of Mjet in the eighth or ninth century. It included some 30 well-preserved vessels, cups, goblets and carafes, a small portion of a larger collection that disappeared into the depths of the sea.
Glassware was imported by the Venetians until that time. There is evidence, as we shall subsequently document, that glassware was made around the Adriatic at Ragusa (now Dubrovnik) and at Naupoli. We might also imply that glassware was likewise being made around Padua, inasmuch as that region, as well as Ragusa and Naupoli, appear to be the origin of the glassware-makers who first came to work in Venice itself.
Venice's main source of both glass and glassware was, until then, Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel.
One of the earliest references to a provenance for the original Venetian glassworkers appears in a work by Jacobo Filiasi dated 1812. The revered chronicler of the glassmaking industry of Murano (that is, Venice), Luigi Zecchin, noted with customary understatement that his hypothesis "merits being studied."9
"The Venetians, even in the ninth century," stated Filiasi, "frequented not a little the glassmaking centers of the Syrian coast and probably took the art of glassmaking with them."10 By "taking the art with them" Filiasi infers, of course, that the Venetian adventurers brought artisans back with them, glassmakers who were practicing the exotic art of glassmaking in the Levant. "Syrian Coast" was clearly "Palestine."
Substance is added to this tradition by the similar resuscitation of the vitric industry in Normandy upon the return of the Norman crusaders, and likewise by the installation of the art in Altare by the crusading Marquises de Montferrato.
The only unexplained appearance of a glass product in the Veneto during this dark period of glassmaking (and Judaic) history is that of glass tesserae used in rendering scenes in the walls and floors of churches of the upper Adriatic region, notably the famous mosaics of Rimini. Whether the tesserae were made nearby or were imported, remains a matter of conjecture.
The earliest reference to a glassmaker (or descendant of a glassmaker) in Venice is dated December 20, 982. The family trade is inferred from the name of a witness to a document unrelated to the vitric industry: Domeniens fiolaris ("Domeniens the glassblower").11 Two other mentions follow of persons with obliquely indicative names are a Pietro Fiolario dated 1033 and a P. Flabanico Fiolaris dated 1090, possibly one and the same person or family. The fact that the documents on which these names appeared as witnesses were fortuitously archived in a monastery led to the entirely unfounded theory that the presumptive glassblowers were among the Benedictines, a conclusion Zecchin found unjustified.12
What is significant about the signatures, however, is that the document in which the latter P Flabinico appears was drawn at the Rialto, then assigned to the Jews for the conduct of commercial activity! There is more than a fair chance that witnesses signatory to documents drawn and registered at the Rialto were Jewish.
The names of these signatories, Fiolari, may well have been generic, that is, cognomens that indicate descent from glass[ware]makers but not necessarily to persons practicing the art in Venice at that time, inasmuch as there is no evidence that the art had as yet been re-introduced to the region.
Glass certainly was not being produced as a primary material in Venice at the time. Alternatively, and more likely, these fiolari may have been among the first artisans (glassblowers) who were working from cullet then beginning to be exported from the Levant, an area that had come under the rule of the Moslem Caliphate of the Fatimids at the time.
One such shipment was laded on board a vessel that foundered in the early 11th century off Serce Limani, a natural harbor off the Turkish coast north of Rhodes. In 1973, Dr. George Bass, founder and Archaeological Director of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, uncovered an amphora from the site in a ten-minute dive. The upright position and sound condition of the amphora and the glass fragments scattered liberally over the surrounding seabed led to a campaign of excavation in 1977.
"We did not dream that we would have more than eighty intact glass vessels - cups and bowls and beakers in a variety of colors and patterns. Nor did we dream that we would have the fragments of approximately ten thousand other vessels. In addition there were two tons of raw glass, ready to be melted and fashioned into lamps and ewers and beakers in some unknown glassworks."13
Three metric tons of cullet were recovered in that year from the shipwreck, "two tons of which took the form of chunks of new glass, while the rest consisted of broken glassware vessels along with some waste glass produced in various stages in the manufacture of glassware."14 The 60 intact glassware were found in a separate section of the vessel. They were evidently packed in wickerware baskets or crates and were the trade goods of some merchant on board. An analysis by Dr. Robert Brill of the Corning Museum of Glass showed that virtually all the glass cargo came from one source. Certain other evidence, such as the type of javelins and spears being carried on board for defense suggests that the Balkans rather than Byzantium was a likely destination of the vessel, which was headed in a westerly direction.15 Early evidence from Venice bolsters this postulate since, as we shall see further on in this account, glassware-making, that is, the manufacture of glassware from previously manufactured raw glass or shards of broken glass vessels (cullet), was being practiced at the time in the eastern and northern Adriatic towns from which Venice received many of its earliest artisans. The fact that Venice drew its earliest masters of the vitric arts from Padua, Treviso, and other smaller towns of the surrounding Veneto, and from towns along the Adriatic coast like Ragusa (now Dubrovnik) Naupolis and Zara is substantive evidence that the art had indeed survived the worst of the region's dark age and was being widely practiced before its reappearance in the Venetian lagoon. What is remarkable and can hardly be coincidental is that Jews were present in all the locales from which Venice drew its earliest glassmakers.
The first indication that glassware was being produced in Venice on a substantial scale from imported raw materials is a mention in the statutes of 1233 concerning the import of Vitreum, aurum pigmentum, alumen, vitreolum, and smerlium, materials clearly intended for glassware production. Such materials are listed as being loaded in Levantine ports for transport to Venice.16
A Venetian document dated 1255 alludes to merchandise loaded aboard a Venetian ship that was destined for unloading in Zavorra, an eastern Adriatic port, upon its return from the Levant. The cargo included vitrum in massa, interpreted by Luigi Zecchin to have been either glass cullet or frit (frit is a coagulated, partially vitrified mass, obtained in the first stage of producing glass). Also included was alumen de Alexandria, that is, ashes from Alexandria. Soda, an alkali employed in the process of vitrification, was obtained from the ashes of certain plants. It was then the most common alkali used for the production of glass. The provenances fit perfectly into the routes such vessels took around eastern Mediterranean ports. The import of soda as well as raw glass, cullet and/or frit indicates that by the latter half of the 13th century the vitric industry in Venice had graduated from making glassware from imported raw material to the production of primary glass itself.
|Venetian glassware of the 19th century. Photograph by Samuel Kurinsky, courtesy of the Murano Museum of Glass.|
The definition of vitreum as "frit," or alternately and more probably as broken glass (otherwise called vetro rotto, i.e. cullet), is substantiated by an agreement between the Doge of Venice (signed by Bohemond VII, "Prince of Antioch and Count of Tripoli") , on the first of June 1277. It is specified that "If the Venetians deal in broken glass from this city [Tripoli], then it is necessary to pay customs."17
We are fortunate to be able to identify the Levantine glassmakers with confidence. An Arab geographer, Al-Muqadassi, visited Tyre around the year 985. His report attests to the antiquity of the art of glassmaking in the area. The chronicler was struck with the unique activity of the artisans in that city and reported that Tyrian products included glass beads, bracelets, and excellent wheel-cut glass.18
The identity of the glassmakers is made more specific by the testimony of the inveterate traveler, Benjamin of Tudela., one of the many Judaic merchant/scholar globe-trotters of the period. There are occasions in which the fortuitous presence of a reliable eye-witness casts an illuminating beam into the otherwise impenetrable murk of an ancient period. Benjamin was such a witness. His travels took him to scores of Judaic communities whose presence and activity would otherwise have remained mired in a historical murk. His written records are one of the few that escaped the book-burnings and other obliterations of Judaic presence and activity perpetrated by the Inquisition.
Benjamin visited the Levant at the end of the 12th century, during the very time that Venice was beginning to import cullet from the Near East in quantity. Benjamin sojourned in Antioch, Tyre, Sidon and Damascus, and recorded the activity of the Judaic communities in those cities and the names and provenances of some of the heads of the communities.
"The Jews own sea-going vessels," reported Benjamin about the Jews of Tyre, "and there are glassmakers among them who make that fine Tyrian glassware which is prized in all countries." Thus, in a single sentence, Benjamin illuminates a vital portion of the history of commerce, of a people, and of an industry. Benjamin describes Tyre as a magnificent port in which "traders from all parts" were active.. "About 400 Jews reside in this place," Benjamin wrote. His reference was usually to heads of families, and we may therefore interpolate from the figure given that there were about 2000 persons in the Judaic community resident in Tyre at the time.19 The range of such exports from the region is evidenced by the vessel referred to above that sank in the Adriatic off the island of Mjet and is dated to the very period that the Arab geographer and Benjamin visited Tyre. The glassware being produced by the Judaic glassmakers of Tyre was esteemed throughout the Mediterranean. The high regard in which Tyrian glass was held was made specific by no less a personage than the 12th century William of Tyre (1130-1185), a churchman and historian who became archdeacon of Tyre in 1167, and archbishop in 1175. William boasted of the fine sand being mined in the area and to the exquisite glass vessels being made from that sand. The vessels were famous for their transparency, William wrote, vessels that were "carried to far distant places and which surpass all products of the kind."20
The verity of Benjamin's observations and of both ruler's boastful descriptions of the glassware being made within their bailiwick is supported by the correspondence of Judaic artisans and merchants of the area with the Jews of Fustat (Old Cairo) and from other documents recovered from the geniza (storage room) of the eleven-hundred-year-old Ben Ezra synagogue of that city. The synagogue was also visited by Benjamin in 1169.
The documents register the value placed on the excellent glassware produced in Antioch, Tyre, and Beirut and reveal the identity of glass-makers and/or dealers. Glassware was also being produced in Fustat, but better quality glass was being imported from the Asian cities, especially a red variety of glass, the production of which was the special secret of the glassmakers of Beirut."21
Typical of transactions detailed in the documents is one concerning an order of 37 baskets of Tyrian glassware that had been shipped to Fustat. Khalaf ben Moses was the representative of the merchants of Tyre. He conferred the power of attorney in an action to collect payment for the glassware.22
Many such transactions, bespeaking the lively intercourse between the various Judaic glassmaking centers, are recorded in the thousands of documents squirreled away from the authorities in the Fustat Geniza.
American excavations under Professor George T. Scanlon uncovered the evidence of glassware manufacturing near the Ben Ezra synagogue in what was the Judaic quarter. The physical evidence supports the documentary evidence from the Ben Ezra geniza. A variety of locally manufactured vessels was uncovered throughout the extensive area investigated, dating from as early as the eighth century. The range of styles and functions were clearly directed at a wide market. It consisted of utility ware such as bowls, bottles and goblets as well as items with specific functions such as chalices, toilet bottles and cupping vessels. Products manufactured for the state or its officials were also found, typical of which was a glass weight with the imprimatur of Egypt's finance director and a glass jeton bearing the name of Fatimid Caliph as'Zhir (1021-1035).23
Benjamin of Tudela also visited the Judaic community of Antioch, another of the glassmaking centers with which the Fustat Jews were in contact. Benjamin recorded that there were 10 heads of families residing in Antioch "engaged in glassmaking," a total of some fifty persons Since Benjamin recorded no trade but glassmaking being pursued by that community, we may assume that they were all so engaged.
The import of glassware into Venice, and then of the materials by which glassware could be made, took place mainly at Rialto, a market-place set aside by the Council of Ten for Judaic commercial activity. Jews resided across the lagoon from the Doge's palace and administrative complex on an island that became known as (and is still called) Giudecca (Jew-Town). The name first appears in a charter issued in 1090 by Vitale Faletro, Doge of Venice and Dalmatia.
The Jews set up offices, shops, and small manufactories across the canal from Giudecca in the Rialto district, and it became the heart of both Venetian and Judaic commercial activity. According to a report the Judaic population of Giudecca had reached 1300 heads of families by 1152. Albeit the report may have been somewhat inflated, it does appear from the reports of Benjamin of Tudela and others that the Judaic population of Giudecca rose to at least 3000, and possibly as many as 6000 persons.
The earliest extant attestation to the existence of glassware-making in Venice is the listing of 29 persons denoted as glassblowers in a record of the commune dated 1224. They were members of the Ars Fiolaria, ("glassblower's guild"). Most of the names are of Semitic origin, and a considerable number are distinctly Hebraic: "Marcus; Jacobinus, Symionus Leonardus; Lazarinus; Laurencinus.24
The glassmaking industry and guild was given official status in Venice by statutes drawn in 1271. They established the rules under which the industry was to be conducted. It is significant that they contain no mention of the process by which raw glass is to be manufactured, but are limited to matters concerning the production of glassware from (imported) cullet and raw glass.
Documents signed at Rialto attest to the fact that the glassworking industry was first installed in that district. It was at the Rialto, for example, that a Martino de la Frattina (Martin of Frattina, a town near Padua in and around which a large Judaic community existed) contracted for a load of wood to fuel his furnace in May of 1281.25 Transactions concerning the purchase of vitreum (raw glass) and other products employed in glassware production also took place at the Rialto.
On March 20, 1280, Nasimbenus Fiolaris (Nathan the glassblower?) admits to a debt for a purchase of Tantum vitreum. The glassware producing industry was evidently burgeoning in Venice at that time for on December 11, 1287 an obligation is acknowledged in a document for almost five thousand pounds of broken glass, recalling the even greater weight of the cullet in the cargo of the Serce Limani vessel that foundered in the Adriatic.
By the end of the 13th century the transition to primary glassmaking had evidently begun. The production of glass at that time had to pass through two stages. The first firing in a reverberatory furnace of silicate sand mixed with soda as a flux produced what is now termed frit, that is, a coagulated mass of partially vitrified silicate (quartz). The frit had then to be pulverized and refired with the introduction of previously manufactured glass (cullet) in order to achieve full vitrification
The first frit-making furnace was established in 1280, a fact we learn from the name of its owner given to us in a document of that date. The padrone of the first known frit-making furnace was named Jacobo de la Calcara, which translates to "Jacob of the frit-furnace." This is the earliest date at which frit becomes clearly distinguished as massa vitrea from broken glass or cullet. Both the process and the furnace required are subsequently described in an act of the town Mayoralty of 1287. The same information is included in an order of 1290 to an associate of Jacobo de la Calcara, whose name was Jacobo Longovardo. It appears that the first Jacobo was content to rent his facility, and the second Jacobo actually sold the product.
The substantial size of the latter Jacobo's operation can be judged by two recorded transactions for 5000 and 6000 pounds of vitrea de massa (frit) respectively. Thus glass production in Venice can be affirmed to have been initiated by the year 1280.
|Venice, the city of the two G's (gondolas and glassware), was otherwise known as the Serenissimo (the sublimely serene). The Judaic origin of the technological and artistic prowess of glassmaking in Venice is dimly discernable in its ancient records. These records were brought to light by Luigi Zecchin, the eminent chronicler of Murano, and by other documentary and circumstantial evidence. Photograph by Samuel Kurinsky.|
The differentiation between broken glass (cullet) and frit became clearer with the appearance of the term fricte a vitreo in a document dated 1347. The term became the standard by which that material was called. It was transcribed into Italian as Frita, into French as fritte, into Spanish as frita, into German as fritte, and finally into English as frit.
Soda, derived from the ashes of plants, was a second material employed in the production of glass. At first it was imported from the Near East. Alexandria and "Syria" were the main sources for this material. The inferior Alexandrian ashes came in solidified blocks, whereas the more potent and desirable ashes from Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel, came as a powder and was laded on board in a carnavaccio, a coarse linen or canvas bag. Both Venice and its rival in Piedmont, the Universitą d'Altare.26 valued the cenere di Soria (soda-ashes from "Syria") much more highly than that which came from Morocco or Alexandria.
Sand (of silicate composition) was, at first, likewise imported from the Levant, recalling the Roman practice a thousand years earlier of importing sand from the dunes of Judah's Belus River, sand which the Romans deemed essential for glass production. The import diminished as time went on; in the year 1313 a Muranese owner of a vetreria (glassmaking facility) Guglielmo da Pienega. whose name tells us that his family originated from a town near Padua, was obliged to pay for 20,000 pounds of sablone roseto ad faciendum vitreum, i.e., a local type of sand "to make glass with." The appearance of the word vetreria, for "glass manufactory" certifies that a transformation had taken place in which the manufacture of primary glass had become a norm for Venice. Who were the earliest glassmakers to fire up furnaces in Venice? Where did they come from? We shall delve into these questions in Fact Paper 29-II, The Judaic Origin of Venetian Glass, Part II; The Arrival of the Glassmakers.
Go to: Part II