Allow me to introduce you to a unique and unduly overshadowed chapter of Italian glass history. For most people Italian glass is synonymous with Venice and Murano, in particular circa 1880-1960, but in Tuscany there was noteworthy competition! Just to the west of Florence is a town called Empoli, and the glass produced in its environs, the majority in a natural green color (hence the moniker Empoli "Verde"), engendered both a regional industry and a fresh new aesthetic. At its peak, Empoli glass developed significant, if fleeting, renown. To quote from my first newsletter in order to provide some historical background.
A glass industry of superior quality and renown has existed in Empoli since the 1200s, though on a smaller scale glass had been produced there since about the 3rd century BC. In competition with Venice this industry flourished under the patronage of the grand duke Cosimo I in the mid 1500's. It is ironic that now it is most often misidentified as "Murano" or "Venetian."
Up until the 1920's the Empoli glassmakers were focused on producing functional glass for everyday use. Indeed the industry catered primarily to producing containers for the agricultural products of the region; notably for grape & olive products (flasks, oil cruets, jars, demijohns, etc). By around 1900 a secondary market developed for the glass, due to its inexpensive and functional nature. It was sold as "buffet glass"; essentially the paper plates of the day for parties and events. In this manner Empoli glass gained entry to the tableware market and the more refined decorative arts market.
The beautiful green color of traditional Empoli glass is a natural byproduct of the ferrous oxide found in the sands of the local rivers that is used in the making of the glass. The unrefined metal of the glass not only resulted in the color, but also had the effect of making the metal cool quite rapidly, as a result detailed or artistic flourishes were particularly difficult and impractical.
These intrinsic restraints ultimately lead to the development of a uniquely refined, minimal and modern aesthetic. A synergistic influence was the interest among Florence's artistic circles at the time in "primitive art" as well as the balanced simplicity of Quattrocento Art (c.1400; including such artists as Donatello, Fra Angelico and Leonardo da Vinci). The resulting aesthetic was very much at home in Italy's dominant yet unique "Stile Novecento" of the 1920's.
Not surprisingly, Empoli glass was regularly championed by Gio Ponti, a major force in Italian art and design and leader of the Novecento style. Not only did he regularly publish Empoli glass in his famous Domus magazine, Ponti also created designs for Empoli companies. Empoli glass also appeared in important decorative arts exhibitions both in Italy and abroad. Outside of Milan's Triennale's perhaps the most notable exhibition with Empoli glass was "Italy at Work" which toured major American museums in the 1950's and was promoted by the famous American designer Walter Dowrin Teague.
Many leading Italian architects produced designs for Empoli area glass companies. In the mid-1930's the architects Diego Carnelutti and Ernesto Puppo designed a special range of decorative items featuring thick heavy glass for the largest glassworks, Vetreria E. Taddei & C.
After the Second World War the style of the traditional Empoli "Verde" gave way to the cased style. The cased Empoli, with it's bright and exuberant colors found a ready market in America with it's post-war boom, in fact the overwhelming majority of cased Empoli was produced for export to the US, and very little was sold domestically in Italy. Beyond the technique and color, the forms of the cased Empoli were also quite different; simpler, more modern shapes with few traditional Muranese forms.
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