Exactly a year ago, Venice embarked on a journey into the unknown. After almost a decade when mass tourism turned into crowds the city couldn’t handle anymore, a cruise ship crashed into the Santa Marta embankment in the morning of 2 June 2019. Another near-accident with a cruise ship happened in July, and in November, Venice was hit by the most serious bout of acqua alta, comparable to the acqua granda of 1966. And then in February 2020, the lockdown came as Covid-19 spread in Italy.
So yes, Venice has been through so much during these past 365 days. While a year ago following the cruise ship accident, discussions about her future started tentatively and haphazardly, it’s been the lockdown period that helped many ideas surface and take shape. All these ideas forwarded by Venetians and Venetian associations, converge towards one objective: To survive, Venice needs to tap centuries-old strengths. The artisans.
“The artist is the creator of beautiful things that are useful at the same time, and bring a sense of belonging. Images above by Spazio 2091.”
The future is both digital and hand-made, we can often hear, and the hand-made part is the true strength of Venice. This article summarizes what you need to know before reading books about Venetian arts and crafts: Here’s the red thread all artisans have in common, their own surprising story.
Why did Venetians become artisans?
To explain this, we need a short paragraph about history: When the Roman refugees arrived in the Lagoon after the fall of their empire in 476 AD, they joined merchants from Constantinople who had created a buzzing city and port (Torcello) in the northeastern part of the Lagoon. As the over-land trade routes were too dangerous, the inhabitants of the Lagoon had to look towards the sea: In order to pay for their food, the Venetians created glassware which they exchanged for spices on the markets of Constantinople, Aleppo (Syria) and Alexandria (Egypt).
These spices from the Levant arrived in Venice, where the spezieri (spice masters) created colorful mixtures. Venice sold these spice mixes in Europe at a high price. Thus, the spez(i)eri and glassblowers were the first crafts in Venice, organized in scuole (trade associations). Soon, herbs and spices were used not only to flavor food and create remedies, but also to color objects of art: The Venetian artisans developed color libraries and color pigments.
To survive, Venice had to excel. Many merchants were artisans at the same time, or turned into artisans later in their lives. On their voyages, they collected ideas in the Levant, Asia, Africa and Europe.
The Venetian color code
Like the Romans who created their own shade of rosso pompeiano, the Venetians created their own color palette revolving around rosso veneziano (Venetian red) and indigo. These colors were chosen for the Venetian flag: The red flag was used on the merchant and battle ships as warning for potential enemies, while the blue flag was used to remember victories, overcome losses and organize trade fairs. Right from the start, the Venetian artisans had to internalize a special color code so to say, set up as framework by the Government, based on the ancient Greek and Byzantine styles. This color code was enriched with thousands of variants inspired by the omnipresent water reflections in Venice.
Until 1797, this city was much more colorful than it is today: Many facades of the buildings lining the Grand Canal were adorned with paintings, often created by the famous masters. These colors reflected the liquid environment the city is built in. Even the mosaics in the Basilica di San Marco had to follow the Byzantine-inspired color codes and rules, taking up motives and colors of ancient Greece, the Levant and Egypt.
Ten types of arts and crafts
The arts and crafts in Venice developed in three waves, so to say. First came the merchants and explorers, bringing back home the raw materials and ideas to create objects that were beautiful, timeless and useful.
- From the 5th century AD, the spice masters and glass blowers designed goods for wholesale trade (export). These were the goods Venice sold internationally to be able to survive.
- From the 8th century AD, in Venice, architects combining elements from ancient Greece and Constantinople created a unique style.
- From the 9th century, all other artists offered their products in small botteghe (ateliers, retail shops) to a growing international audience in Venice. (NB: the clients in the past were foreign merchants coming for business, and many pilgrims from Europe).
Here are the ten major types of artisans working in Venice since the 5th century AD:
- Spezieri (spice masters) producing goods for export (wholesale trade). The existence of Venice depended on the spice trade.
- Glass makers producing glassware for export (wholesale trade).
- Fashion designers: Clothes, lace, scialli veneziani, jewelry, mask makers, ..
- Home decor designers: Carpets, ceramics, fabrics, linen, marble floors, lamps, mosaics, wall papers, ..
- Painters and sculptors (artists in the narrow sense)
- Book makers, map makers, marbled paper designers
- Gondola makers
- Retail food producers (bakers, patissiers, coffee shops, herbalists, spezieri da confeti: These were spezieri working in retail business)
- Apothecaries, soap makers and perfumeries (another branch of the spezieri working in retail).
Why the artisans of Venice are different
The artisans of Venice were not only merchants and artisans, but explorers and inventors: The Government of the Republic set up Venice as unique hub drawing scientists, doctors, artists and artisans from Europe and the Levant. Their purpose was to create objects that were useful, timeless and beautiful at the same time. This is why in Venice, joint ventures were set up, in a wider sense: For example, the art of map making developed next to producing the first vaccines (!) and extraordinary progress in the medical field. It was in Venice that Galieio Galiei presented his canocchiale on the bell tower of the Campanile to Doge Leonardo Donati in 1609. Scientific progress, which Venice welcomed with open arms, influenced the artisans to create objects of timeless beauty and usefulness.
Dopo la caduta: The artisans after the fall of the Republic of Venice
Gaetano Zompini, author of the book Le arti che vanno via published in 1778, created a table showcasing the artisans of Venice for future generations. In 1459, more artisans fleeing from Byzantium arrived in Venice. So the artisans created a city looking decidedly Levantine and unique in Europe. This came to sudden halt when on 13 May 1797, Venice lost her independence to the French army. The economic system based on the spice trade ceased to work from one day to the other, artisans and Arsenal workers were left without work and caught in a dire situation. Nevertheless, many persevered, to this day.. Venetian art is changing, but is still inspired by ancient and new stories alike. And during the overall crisis induced by overtourism, the artisans are standing up, with a strong will to keep up the legacy of Venice.
More about the artisans of Venice
The Venetian artisans created objects with centuries-old history, representing a wide field and the ancient soul of Venice – l’anima di Venezia. They preserve Venetian heritage and the unique mix of other cultures that went into it: Byzantine, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Jewish, Levantine, Persian, Armenian. This is why Venice looks and tastes so different!
Dream of Venice: Artisans Guide
Thankfully, there are quite a number of artisans still working in Venice, not only selling their work in their botteghe and online, but also offering workshops for visitors. Their work, now threatened by the economic crisis following Covid-19, could become the core of a new type of sustainble tourism, in which the visitor directly supports the artists and learns more about the secrets of their crafts.
Learn more about the artisans of Venice here:
- Dream of Venice – Venice Artisans Guide: JoAnn Locktov (Dream of Venice) has created a lush and comprehensive guide to artisans based in Venice and Murano, to support local makers from Alberto Valese (marbled paper) to Cioccolateria Vizio Virtù (artisan chocolate). This is a colorful journey into the precious world of artisans that will keep the legacy of Venice alive.
- The unique heritage of the artisans of Venice: Le arti che vanno via by Gaetano Zompini (1778) has brief descriptions and many drawings of the Venetian artisans of the 17th and 18th century. It’s written in Venetian and Latin, you can still buy it in Venice at Libreria Filippi, if you want to take a deep dive into Venetian heritage.
- And finally, a colorful book presents the world of the Venetian bead makers: Nina, l’impiraperle by Paola Zoffoli takes you into the scintillating world of the Venetian glass bead makers.