|By Melody Amsel-Arieli
What might plump glass paperweights, ornamental beads, and bottle stoppers have in common? Many feature exquisite, flowery patterns called millefiori. This delicate glasswork technique is commonly associated with Murano, an isle near Venice, Italy. Yet it actually dates to ancient Egypt, where it was known as mosaic glass.
Egyptian glassworkers often covered bars, rod-formed beads, and protective amulets with fine, tiny, identical disks depicting floral, eye, or animal mosaic-glass images. These were created by artistically arranging colored glass threads in thin glass canes, then miniaturizing them by stretching. After these were fused together, they were cut, like slice-and-bake cookies, into slender disks.
Egyptians also created lustrous, mosaic-glass inlay plaques, dishes, bowls, and vases. These were fashioned by fusing prepared disks into flat, ornamental circles, which were slumped over sand-and-dung molds to give them form. When gently heated, circles and bodies bonded.
Centuries later, skilled Greek and Alexandrian craftsmen also created Egyptian-style, mosaic-glass beads and vessels. Amazingly, many of these early mosaic-glass fragments and beads have survived. Those reaching the market currently command several hundred to many thousands of dollars each, depending on their size and condition.
During the Roman Empire, glassworkers, from Antioch to Africa, produced similar pieces as well. Many of their pieces feature checkerboard patterns, popular as sumptuous wall interior overlays and furniture inlays.
Roman beads, despite their size, often depict birds, lifelike faces, or florals. Their outlines are sharp. Their colors, both translucent and opaque, are pure and brilliant. Moreover, notes art historian J. J. Winckelmann, “The most delicate pencil of the miniature-painter could not have expressed [their beauty] more accurately.”
Roman artists also created bright arabesque and spiral mosaic-glass urns, cups, dishes, and bowls — some with elegant monochrome or gold glass inclusions. By combining glass, metal, and gem cutting techniques, they also fashioned flat, decorative brooches and plaques from mosaic-glass fragments.
Following the discovery of glass blowing in the 1st century AD, Roman craftsmen apparently abandoned this intricate, labor-intensive art form.
“Highly collectible Roman mosaic-glass, mostly fragmented beads and vessels from the Eastern Mediterranean, hit the market a handful of times a year,” said Allan J. Anawati at Medusa-art. Prices can vary between $1,000 and $10,000, he adds. “ But when a complete and desirable object comes to market, it could fetch many times more. Unfortunately, one must be careful before buying — high demand and short supply result in modern fabrications.“
During the 8th or 9th century, mosaic-glass reappeared (or was rediscovered) in Mesopotamia and Syria. Its lush, patterned disks embellished not only beads, bowls, flasks, and game pieces, but also carpeted floors and architectural elements. Many of these bear dramatic “bull’s-eye” patterns ringed by colorful, concentric circles. Eventually, however, this technique vanished once more.
Mosaic-glass was briefly revived and refined in 15th century Murano. As more popular, lucrative, marbled, transparent, colored, and crystal-clear Venetian glassware entranced Europe, however, this time-consuming technique was largely abandoned.
It surfaced again in the early 1800s, when Pietro Bigaglia, a master Murano glassmaker, re-created a number of long lost glass ornamentations. Eventually, he nestled them all— fantastic scrambles of white glass filigree, aventurine inclusions, adorned with mosaic-glass, spiral and silhouette canes — in clear glass globes. From this point on, mosaic-glass became known as millefiori, “many flowers” in Italian.
Beadmaker Giacomo Franchini produced many of Bigaglia’s millefiori canes. His greatest achievement, however, was creating incredibly realistic, incredibly tiny millefiori silhouette canes profiling 19th century notables — some the width of a knitting needle. His intense, laborious efforts however, eventually drove him to the madhouse.
During this era, Bohemian glassworkers also created millefiori paperweights, perhaps from glass bits discarded at days-end. Many are loose-filled with canes afloat in seas of clear glass. Others feature close-pack cane designs or dominant central canes amid millefiori cane circles. These were produced by cutting warmed, cane-patterned glass rods into appropriate slices or lengths, then meticulously placing them on (or in) cushions of molten glass within paperweight molds. Coats of more molten glass completed their magnifying domes.
As their popularity spread, charming, affordable millefiori paperweights became coveted souvenirs, gifts, and collectibles. Their cheery orbs, colorful companions to inkwells, quills, and sealing wax, brightened up even the dreariest Victorian writing desk.
As master craftsmen immigrated to the United States, the Gillinder Glassworks in Pennsylvania, as well as the New England Glass Company and Boston & Sandwich Glass Company in Massachusetts, also began producing millefiori paperweights.
The finest, most collectible ones, however, were produced through the 1860s in France. Clichy weights, known by their fine, pale palette, feature miniscule, spiraled, garlanded, or concentric designs. Some include single canes depicting the letter C. Others bear pink-and-green Clichy rose canes tucked among close-pack millefiori patterns.
Saint-Louis, a rival French company, produced round, footed , and faceted lead crystal weights featuring multicolored millefiori canes in carpet, close-pack, scramble, and mushroom patterns. Some also bear its characteristic dark yellow cane or a tiny “dancing devil” image.
The Baccarat Company created sparkling, high quality round, faceted, and mushroom-design weights in a wide variety of millefiori canes and patterns. Many feature concentric rounds, rosette circlets, or loose-pack canes against white swirl or filigree grounds. Others, carpeted with lush millefiori canes, evoke formal French gardens. In addition to paperweights, Baccarat also produced luxurious, highly collectible millefiori bottle stoppers, goblets, serving dishes, and newel posts.
Although 19th century millefiori pieces are extremely desirable, more contemporary examples are not only attractive, but often, less expensive. Many currently command well under $500.
The Corning Museum of Glass, www.cmog.org/, offers extensive historical information about both mosaic-glass and millefiori.
Books discussing millefiori techniques, identification, pieces, and prices abound. Do-it-yourselfers may also enjoy manuals on creating millefiori canes from polymer clay.