In Venice, Artisans Preserve Ancient Forms of Art Right in Plain Sight

On small glass balls, turquoise swirls collide with crimson dots, violet ripples, bronze stripes, and olive motifs. This sounds like chaos of colour and design. Yet these polychromatic beads are merging elegantly on a necklace, which provides a flourish to the black outfit of this jewellery’s wearer and creator, Marisa Convento.

That vibrant accessory doesn’t just represent the style of this 62-year-old Venetian woman. It also helps signify she is an impiraresse, or glass bead stringer, one of the last of a fading breed. Convento crafted the necklace from Millefiori beads, a local export which once helped the Venice Republic become a wealthy sovereign state, and even acted as currency. Now, however, the city’s glass bead art could be dying due to industrialization, rising rents, and over tourism.

From the 1600s to the early 1900s, bead stringing was a common occupation in Venice, particularly for women, who did this either to make beads easier for merchants to carry, or to create art. There once were hundreds of impiraresse. They enthralled visitors during the halcyon days of the Grand Tour, Convento told me, when I met her in Venice. That refers to the ship journeys to France and Italy undertaken by many wealthy Europeans in the 1700s and 1800s.

Murano glass. Photo by Shutterstock

Grand Tour participants often commissioned Italian artists to paint, carve or sculpt bespoke souvenirs. The impiraresse benefited from their patronage. One of Venice’s distinctive sights, during this era, was groups of females stringing beads along the city’s narrow calli streets, Convento explained.

They gathered to hone their craft near the busy quays of Castello, the largest of Venice’s six sestieri (neighborhoods). With nimble fingers, they skilfully threaded glass beads on to cotton strings. Impiraresse would store thousands of beads, created on Venetian island Murano, in a two-foot-long wooden tray, a version of which Convento still uses.

Did you know that Venice’s glass bead jewelery has earned protection as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage property?

For most of these artisans, speed was paramount. They were paid by the bead, so the faster they strung the quicker they earned. This monotonous style of bead stringing disappeared long ago. Now the impiraresse rise or fall on the strength of their artistic flair.

“That kind of mere stringing of beads in bundles of standardized length and number of strings, for their shipment all around the world, is no longer required in our industrialized days,” Convento tells me. “Gradually the stringing techniques have evolved into more creative making skills – self-produced design pieces ranging from embroidery to beaded flowers, jewelry or home decor.”

Only a few dozen impiraresse remain, says Convento, who helped spearhead the recent, successful push for Venice’s glass bead jewellery to earn protection as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage property. To showcase this ancient art form, she invited me into her workshop and store.

Making beads in the traditional way is important to Venetian artisans. Photo by Ronan O’Connell.

Called Venetian Dreams, it stocks Murano bead bracelets, brooches, and earrings. Her specialty is colourful necklaces like the one she wears, named tutti frutti, a vibrant blend of contrasting beads. Venetian Dreams has a glorious perch in the Dorsoduro area, overlooking Rio de San Vio, the narrow waterway that connects the famed Grand Canal with the even-wider Giudecca Canal.

This neighbourhood brims with creative output. Convento’s neighbours include the iconic Gallerie dell’Accademia art museum, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and the Squero di San Trovaso, an historic shipyard home to Venice’s last gondola craftsmen.

That latter art form is withering due to the complexity and physicality of handmaking gondolas. Bead stringing, meanwhile, was initially weakened by industrialization. Factories began to produce bead designs so cheaply and swiftly that the impiraresse struggled to compete.

The art of the gondola in Venice. Photo by Ronan O’Connell.

Then they were hindered by the “heavy pressure of mass tourism,” Convento explains. Although Venice is proud of its ancient traditions, it’s become more inhospitable for traditional artisans. Convento has watched hundreds of small businesses gradually replaced by generic shops selling fast food, ice cream, and cheap souvenirs.

Tourists normally make only short visits to Venice, she said. Many have neither the time nor the inclination to engage deeply with its artistic heritage. “(Most) end up buying the cheapest and easiest items – just simply grabbing something while in Venice, rather that something really made in Venice,” Convento says, with an air of resignation.

Rampant tourism has also propelled the price of Venice real estate. Pre-pandemic, Venice received an astonishing 20 million visitors annually, which dwarfed its less than 100,000 residents. To accommodate this influx, more and more buildings are taken over by tourism businesses, driving up rents. As a result Convento tells me, many artisans can’t afford to run their own workshops.

She survives, in part, thanks to financial support from the Italian Government, due to her role with an endangered artform. Impiraresse and gondola makers are among a slew of Venetian artisans slowly vanishing…as are authentic gold leaf makers.

After I met Convento, I wandered a labyrinth of alleys in the Cannaregio district to find Berta Battiloro. This family business is the last Venice studio that still handcrafts gold leaf, used to decorate the city’s churches. Its owner, Sabrina Berta, tells me she is hopeful their art form would persist. But she can not be sure of it.

Working together in Venice aims to strengthen artisans’ futures

Venice’s Murano, hub of artisan glassmaking. Photo by Shutterstock

Keen to avoid a similar predicament, the impiraresse have banded together, Convento says. They formed the Committee for the Safeguarding of the Art of Glass Beads of Venice, of which she is vice president. This group has more than 100 members from the city’s glass bead industry, including maestri vetrai master glassmakers, molatori bead cutters and polishers, and the impiraresse.

The committee successfully lobbied for UNESCO listing, which acknowledges the heritage of bead stringing in both Italy and France. This was a major boost for the impiraresse, increasing their profile and prestige. Convento and her colleagues are now trying to seize this momentum.

In small workshops across Venice, they’re armed with traditional techniques, modern designs, and trays of colourful Millefiori beads. Four hundred years after they became a fixture of Venice, the impiraresse are resilient, optimistic and prolific. Their luminous creations continue to shimmer in shop windows alongside the canals, churches and piazzas of this Italian wonderland.

Authentic artisan shopping in Venice

On your next trip to Venice, consider stopping in at some of our favorite artisan shops in the city:

Marisa Convento’s Venetian Dreams bead stringing (Dorsoduro)

Berta Battiloro’s gold leaf  (Cannaregio)

Squero di San Trovaso gondola craftsmen  (Dorsoduro)

Murano Vitrum glassware (San Marco)

Martina Vidal Burano lace and linens (Burano)