On 21 February 2018, the exhibition “Fantasia in Threads. Western European Lace and Glass of the 16th to 19th Centuries” opens in the Blue Bedchamber of the Winter Palace. The exhibition from the stocks of the Hermitage presents more than 70 items, for the first time showing and linking in an original manner two types of applied art from 16th- to 19th-century Western Europe that might seem incompatible diametrical opposites – lace and glass.
They are connected by the similarity of the ornamental patterns created using threads. In lace threads are the main material from which the pieces themselves are made, while in glass they are one of the forms of exquisite decoration. It is the threads in this pairing that have managed to not only connect such very different objects, but also in each of them to emphasize the elegance, the delicacy of the shape and the imagination used in devising the patterns.
Although they demonstrate a great number of variations, the designs for the most part contain simple geometric shapes: the circle, from rosettes to stars, and the strip, either straight or wavy, in the form of scrolls and bows. The specialist lace-makers and glass-blowers would have been able to find all this variety of designs in anthologies of ornamentation that were published in Europe from the 16th century. Some offered an already set shape and decoration for an article; in others the emphasis was placed on the role of the imagination and bold flights of thought. A play of lines, first seen in Leonardo da Vinci’s “knots”, was developed by Dürer and artists from other countries and found reflection both in compositions of threads in lace and in the decoration of glass. Over the centuries, the treatment of patterns of lines changed, taking on characteristic features of the period, becoming by turns bulky or light and playful.
The first lace is known to have been born out of embroidery as early as the late 15th or early 16th century. The drawn-thread and cut-work techniques that created openwork patterns on embroidered articles provided the impetus for the development of lace as a separate craft. The threads separated themselves, as it were, from their backing, the linen canvas, and started to float in the air. Even the technique used to make it was called punto in aria – "stitch in the air". Almost simultaneously, around the turn of the 1500s, another lace-making technique also appeared – weaving threads using bobbins. Lace was in the main light in colour – white to ivory, but it could also have other colours, be black or metallic, made from gold or silver thread. In the early stage, Italy was famed for its needlepoint and its bobbin lace. In lace, for the most part Italian, the 16th and 17th centuries gave preference to patterns of circles, stars and rosettes, that were sewn with a needle using light-coloured linen thread. Stars and circles formed the basis for the most widespread ornamental pattern of the Renaissance era – the reticello. It is interesting to note that this term was used not only in the design of lace, but also in the name of one of the well-known techniques for finishing glass. The lattice of milk-glass threads, a type of decoration which brought Venice fame for centuries, was called vetro a reticello. Later the same type of pattern was taken up by the Spanish. Such compositions were at their most impressive in Sol (“sun”) lace made in Spain in the 17th century. At that same time in Flanders, which was famed for its bobbin lace made with very fine linen, little circles and stars densely filled the net backgrounds that became known as snowflakes. In the 18th century these geometric shapes found a place for themselves framing floral motifs set in cartouches. Besides that, they were used in an 18th-century innovation – on the net of woven tulle, embellishing it with “beauty spots”. The 1700s also saw the extensive introduction of bands into decoration, varying from straight to elaborate rocaille scrolls. At a later time, in the 19th century, rosettes or oval medallions were joined together in chains or connected with garlands in the pattern of Brussels appliqués. They also adorned French lace, whether it was made from light-coloured linen thread (from Alençon, Argentan and elsewhere) or from black silk (Chantilly).
In glass preference was mainly given to the play of lines within bands, where it was possible to bring out the quality of the thread itself. In designs in the form of feathers or festoons, the lines thickened to become broad rounded strips that were set off by the coloured backgrounds, especially blue. Still it was the slender thread of milk glass, invented on the island of Murano in the first half of the 16th century, that brought fame to Venetian glass. It was placed either as a vortex of concentric circles, reminiscent of Leonardo’s “knots”, or as a pattern on the diagonal, or in precise rows forming a lattice. The filigree thread, as it was called, became the particular pride of Venetian glass. Already in the second half of the 16th century, the new technique became known in various parts of Europe. The German-speaking countries, to which the centre of European glass-making shifted, devised their own simplified version of the celebrated Venetian technique. Bohemian craftsmen in the second half of the 17th century quite often embellished their works with diagonally placed threads of different coloured glass. On the Iberian Peninsula, the Venetian filigree technique became known in the second half of the 17th century. In Catalonia it became the basis for a unique style used for finishing expensive vessels with milk-glass threads. Spanish craftsmen made a striking motif of a rosette within glass, resembling Sol lace. By the late 1700s, with the arrival of Neo-Classicism, in the majority of European countries filigree was excluded from the repertoire of decorative techniques in glass-making. Attempts to revive the old manner of working with a thread were made in Italy in the 1830s. Today, too, artists continue to turn to the celebrated technique, using it as a basis for the creation of new artistic images that look to the future.
The works presented in the exhibition, with their different palettes, from monochrome to a bright mix of colours, provide an opportunity to appreciate the imagination of European craftspeople, who used threads to produce striking designs in both glass and lace.
A scholarly illustrated catalogue in Russian has been produced for the exhibition “Fantasia in Threads. Western European Lace and Glass of the 16th to 19th Centuries” (State Hermitage Publishing House, 2018, 208 pp.) with an introduction by the curators.
The exhibition curators are Tatyana Nikodemovna Kosourova, head of the Sector of Decorative and Applied Art in the State Hermitage’s Department of Western European Applied Art, and Yelena Anatolyevna Anisimova, senior researcher in the Department of Western European Applied Art.