|IN SEARCH OF THE “MISSING” VENETIAN BEADS
|A rereading of Kenneth E. Kidd’s Glass Bead-Making from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (1979)
has reminded this student of one of the great mysteries of the bead world. Now, when I say mysteries, this
pertains to me and not necessarily to the leading bead researchers of the day. The mystery of the “missing”
Venetians was first presented to me some years ago by Mr. “Beadman” Allen, if I may mention names, and from
time to time, Mr. Allen and I have pondered this subject of continuing mystery. In short, it is a question of the
advent of drawn bead making at Venice or, perhaps, elsewhere in Western Europe, and I am sure this same
question has long interested modern bead researchers.
|A commonly held opinion is that drawn beads were first made in Venice or thereabouts in the mid- to late-15th
century and that the “chevron” bead, particularly the famous seven-layer, marks this advent of drawn bead-
making. At least, this opinion is all that the historical record allows. However, it seems unlikely that such an
elaborate bead as the seven-layer could emerge “out of whole cloth”, so to speak, but it is pointed out by Mr.
Allen (and I want to be careful not to misconstrue his ideas), that the seven-layer and other cane beads may have
been some kind of “epiphany” in an otherwise old and established mosaic cane industry. Thus, the Venetians had
been making decorative mosaic canes (solid rods, presumably) for quite awhile, until one day, someone got the
idea to make hollow tubes, sections of which could be made directly into “tube” beads. In other words,
Venetians had been making solid mosaic canes, thin sections of which were being used for decorative work, until
someone made a hollow tube instead of the usual solid seven-layer rosetta or star cane, sections of which became
the famous seven-layer beads. Why this epiphany occurred only as late as the mid- to late-15th century is a
mystery to me, for it seems logical that the techniques for making both solid canes and hollow tubes must have
been equally well known from the earliest periods of drawn and blown glasswork at Venice. Otherwise, it seems
unlikely that the first drawn beads of an industry would be something as elaborate as the seven-layer and that
there would not be any simpler layered beads, such as a simple plain tube, from which more elaborate tubes
evolved. Sadly, the physical record provides little tangible evidence of Venetian drawn beads prior to the seven-
layer, and the historical literature is equally silent.
|Dr. Kidd (pp. 61-68) has done an admirable job compiling a historical timeline for European glass bead making.
Presented below are selected excerpts from this timeline relevant to the purported “missing” Venetians period.
| 1200-1300 Beadmaking begins its upsurge at Venice.
1268 Beads and glass vessels are said to have been made at Murano by Martin da Canale.
1279 German peddlers restricted to carrying from Venice ten lire’s worth of glass rods for making beads.
1295 Polo returns to Venice and encourages bead trade to the East.
1296 Beads first used in embroidery; early colors were red, white, and green.
1317 Giovanni, the “fioler”, made great improvements in colored glass; probably invented star beads.
|The 13th century, according to Kidd, witnessed an “upsurge” in bead making at Venice. By the second half of
the century, “beads” and glass vessels were being produced, although the technical variety of these beads is not
specified. However, produced along with these beads are vessels, which imply a blowpipe, suggesting rather
pointedly that these bead makers had the technology to draw tubes for beads. About this time, German peddlers
were restricted in the amount of “glass rods [solid or hollow?] for making beads” that they could carry from
Venice. Late in the century, the famed Marco Polo mentions the importance of beads in trade, or something to
that effect, and “embroidery” beads, presumably small beads, are being produced in enough quantity to support
beadwork. Finally, in the early 14th century, there’s the intriguing statement identifying “Giovanni” as the author of
|Otherwise, Kidd indicates that “no ‘works’ on Venetian glassmaking exist prior to the middle of the 15th
century”, and conveniently, or as a result of this dearth of evidence, the seven-layer is dated by most experts to
late 15th century Venice. In short, the late 15th century is the earliest provable date, but indirect evidence
suggests that drawn beads were produced from the 13th century. The “missing” Venetians are hypothetical
drawn beads produced in Venice from the 13th century, as the literature and certain logic suggest, of which, the
seven-layer is a late 15th century evolutionary descendant. Thus, the quest is on for drawn beads of proven
Venetian origin that are older than the late 15th century and the seven-layer.
|Certainly there must be collections of beads somewhere that contain a wide variety of candidate “missing”
Venetians and, fortunately, our dating problem is greatly eased by the “discovery” of the New World coinciding
with this important moment in bead history. New World glass beads are no older than the late 15th century and
older styles will usually not be found there. Old World beads can be tentatively dated based upon the dating of
New World finds. Left out of the equation are beads produced before the Age of Exploration, which would not
usually be found in the New World. If the hypothetical “missing” Venetians exist and are to be identified, they will
found in pre-Columbian Old World locations. Based upon the quantity and variety of hard-to-explain beads that
have been emerging from West Africa in recent decades and the realization that Europe traded with West Africa
for centuries prior to the Age of Exploration, it seems probable that the “missing” Venetians actually exist and that
they will be identified among the “Roman” beads of the modern West African trade. At the same time, the
“missing” Venetians are not likely to match New World beads, but they may likely have things in common.
|West African glass beads may now be divided into three categories:
A. Beads that match New World trade beads of known European origin;
B. Beads that can be traced to the Middle East or elsewhere other than Europe; and
C. The “missing” Venetian (or European) beads.
|The easy part of this sort is the elimination of Group A. Otherwise, we are left with a hodgepodge of mainly
small, nondescript, and poorly understood beads of shadowy provenance that comprise Groups B and C.
|The sorting of such a pile was addressed in the recent “Fourteen Strings of ‘Roman’ beads”. Among the
“Roman” glass beads, shape, size, and color were the main criteria for sorting. Most all of these beads are
drawn, and variations in the drawing and finishing techniques suggest multiple origins. Bead techniques that can be
extrapolated to New World Venetian trade beads would be the best candidates for the “missing” Venetians, while
techniques not represented in the New World beads would less likely be Venetian. Beads known to be other
than Venetian can also be eliminated. Thus, a portion of beads among the “Roman” material should represent the
candidate “missing” Venetians, if only the sorting can be more refined.
|In summary, it seems logical to assume that drawn beads were made in Venice from at least the 13th century,
even though there is no detailed evidence. Conversely, it seems unlikely that some epiphany of the late 15th
century yielded Venetian tube beads for the first time. If the hypothetical “missing” Venetians exist, they will be
found in pre-Columbian Old World sites and they should have technical affinities with New World Venetian trade
beads. The “missing” Venetians should look more like Venetians than associated beads of known other origins
and should be found in the great pre-Columbian bead importing regions of the Old World, such as West Africa.