Pirates sail the seas in rigged ships. But on the island of Murano, just north of Venice, rigged ships may be made of glass.
On May 22, 1521, Hermonia Vivarini was granted the rights to produce her navicella, a glass pitcher shaped like a sailing ship. That’s 494 years ago! To think that she overcame so many obstacles in order to create and sell her art–women were not allowed to be glass makers (though she was somehow an exception to this rule). How does one become an artist of the highest level if one is not actually allowed to practice that art in the first place?
Hermonia had the advantage of artists in her family. Her father, great uncle, and grandfather were all painters, whose work can be seen in museums and churches around Venice and around the world. But it was her great-grandfather Michele who taught her the glass arts. Hermonia probably started out by doing chores in the bottega (workshop), and she must have had quite a bit of native skill, and a lot of hours of practice as well, to master the a mano volante or “flying hand” technique needed to create this boat. Murano is known for its glass arts; Venice protected these state secrets so carefully that special laws were set up to prevent glass artists from leaving the island and taking their knowledge with them. Hermonia was surrounded by a wealth of glass art history and knowledge, which she soaked up and used to fashion her own creations.
Venice granted Hermonia her patent for ten years. But still, her navicella was widely copied. Travelers and chroniclers from the era report seeing these glass boats being sold in numerous shops. None of Hermonia’s original ships have survived. If you notice the level of intricate and fragile detail, it’s easy to see why. The Museo del Vetro on Murano does have two that they rotate on display. Hopefully you’ll get to see them; when I was there last summer, sadly both were stored away.
I couldn’t find an image that I could download and drop into this post, but if you click on this link, you’ll see Hermonia’s design:
Here’s another one, with gold accents:
I’ve included a chapter on Hermonia Vivarini and another remarkable glassmaker, Marietta Barovier, in my new book A Beautiful Woman in Venice. If you want to read more, including what she wrote in her will, please visit http://kathleenanngonzalez.wix.com/beautifulwoman.