The secret history of glass beads from Venice
Since 2020, the art of glass beads has been registered in the representative list of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. An important recognition that offers us the opportunity to tell you one of the most fascinating stories in the world: that of Venetian pearls, romantically enveloped by the magic and charm of distant lands.
The legend tells, in fact, that it was Marco Polo, on his return from China in 1295, who revealed the potential of the markets of the Far East for the spread of Venetian glass beads. Legend or not, it is a historically established fact that glass beads have been produced in Venice since the 13th-century and that, in the following centuries, an intense trade was made of them, especially with the ports of the Levant. To understand the importance of Venetian pearls, we can just say that they are the asset that over the centuries has mostly kept its value intact over time and also the one that has had a greater diffusion in the world.
And if today the UNESCO recognition confirms the importance of the “immaterial” culture linked to pearls as a set of positive values, it has not always been this way, as history has unfortunately also made “material” use of it.
It is, in fact, at the time of the trades with the Americas, the Indies, and then in the period of colonialism in Africa that pearls become one of the most precious commodities in the world. They have been used, as they were highly appreciated for their beauty and “intrinsic” value, as a unit of exchange in the trades with local populations where a commonly accepted currency was lacking. The foundations of the city of NY, to make a fascinating example, are “built” on Venetian pearls: before becoming New York it was, in fact, a small fortified city called New Amsterdam and which was bought, in 1626, by the Dutch Company of the West Indies with an exchange of beads, in particular of “rosette” pearls (chevron in English), the most famous of all and the most sought after by collectors. White, red and blue, they were invented by Marietta Barovier to be destined for the colonies. Even today, they can still be seen on the shamans and tribal leaders of various areas of Africa in beautiful tribal necklaces. It is said that pearls are able to catalyze the energy of those who wear them, which is why ancient necklaces, such as those worn by shamans or used for voodoo rites, are truly precious.
But there are also virtuous examples, such as the colorful Krobo people in Ghana who today still reproduce Venetian-style pearls that they use on their social occasions as a shared intangible cultural heritage that increases a positive sense of community.
Venice, till the beginning of the 19th-century, held the monopoly of the manufacture of glass beads (until cheaper materials were invented to reproduce them) so that various crafts related to them proliferated, such as the glass masters who made the perforated rosette barrel in the furnace, the grinders who model glass reed pearls pierced by using a water wheel, the pearl makers who create the pearl, and the impiraresse (bead stringers, from impirar in local dialect).
The latter were generally women who, to supplement the family’s salary, put tiny beads, called conterie, in bundles for a double purpose: to verify that they were holed (and therefore not defective) and to transform them into the unity of measure of the time, that is a skein that was equivalent to up to ½ kilo of exchange goods.
A story, that of Venetian pearls, which today continues to inspire and make us dream. The UNESCO recognition was obtained, in fact, thanks to a group of pearl makers and impiraresse who never gave up, self-financing themselves in order to fight against the danger of oblivion of this noble art caused by years of cheap souvenirs and sterile speculations. This group, which has become the spokesperson for the entire Italian community of the sector, obtaining UNESCO recognition, is called the Committee for the Safeguarding of Venetian Art of Glass Pearls and it is represented, in particular, by its President Cristina Bedin and by the Vice President Marisa Convento, one of the “last” impiraresse.
It is thanks to them that, with 1000 years of history, the art of Venetian glass beads will continue to live forever and make us proud of a truly unique tradition in the world that today wants to be, above all, a mediator of dialogue, friendship, and exchange of culture between peoples.