General Non-Fiction posted May 13, 2022

This work has reached the exceptional level
Italian decorative items in an Edwardian home.

Glass From The Past

by LisaMay

I work part-time as a tour guide at Olveston Historic Home in Dunedin, New Zealand. It was built between 1904–06 for a wealthy Jewish family — the Theomins — and gifted to the city in 1966, intact with its contents, by the daughter of the family. Since then it has been a tourist attraction, a social history museum drawing admiration for its beautiful collection of artefacts.

I’ve also worked as a housekeeper there (‘heritage curator’ makes it sound a bit fancier), enjoying the experience of seeing all the items at close hand while caring for them, able to appreciate every aspect of quality craftsmanship. Prior to working at Olveston I had no knowledge of antiques, but have since developed an interest to educate myself by researching the origins of some of the items.

The Italian glass artefacts on the Theomins’ dining table are eye-catching additions to the decorative pieces at the stately home. The blown glass dolphins, with gold flecks, were made on the Venetian Island of Murano under the prestigious Salviati name. There are several shapes in use: the form with three dolphins (see accompanying photo) could be used as a vase; a small glass dolphin was used as a place card holder, and other dolphins were used as table decorations.

The dolphin motif itself is synonymous with Venice, dating back to Roman times when it featured in mosaics, afterwards being linked to the printing industry through the Aldine Press, established in 1494 by Aldus Manutius. He adopted the image of a dolphin wrapped around an anchor as his publisher’s device in 1502. The dolphin-and-anchor symbol is associated with the phrase ‘festina lente’, meaning ‘make haste slowly’, indicating quickness combined with firmness in the execution of a great scheme. The symbol and phrase were taken from a Roman coin minted during Emperor Vespasian’s reign (69–79AD) that was given to Manutius by Pietro Bembo. (Bembo was an Italian scholar, poet, literary theorist, and Renaissance cardinal.)

Manutius’ publishing philosophy ensured the survival of many ancient texts and greatly facilitated the diffusion of the values, enthusiasms, and scholarship of Italian Renaissance Humanism to the rest of Europe. His ‘enchiridia’ — small portable books — revolutionised personal reading and are the predecessors of the modern paperback. Manutius’ editions of the classics were so highly respected that the dolphin-and-anchor device was almost immediately pirated by French and Italian publishers. Many modern organisations use the image of a dolphin wrapped around an anchor.


I’ve taken you on an interesting diversion about the dolphin motif, now let’s get back to the Salviati glass dolphins in the Olveston collection.

Antonio Salviati (1816–90), was an Italian glass manufacturer who helped re-establish Murano as a centre of Italian glassworking and was instrumental in stimulating European interest in brightly coloured, ornate pieces of Italian glass. Murano had been a glassmaking centre since the European Middle Ages, but in the 19th century the industry was revitalised by Salviati and others who adapted traditional skills to modern manufacturing processes. Salviati’s firm helped promote glass as an accessible art form and encouraged the public to collect glass ornaments and tableware.

A lawyer by profession, Salviati became involved in restoration work being done on the mosaics of Venice’s St Mark’s Cathedral. His interest in mosaics led to an interest in glass and, ultimately, in glassmaking. He established his first business in 1859 with a partner, Lorenzo Radi, and within a few years began receiving major commissions from abroad. Salviati was the first modern Italian factory owner to employ many skilled workers to produce glass in quantity, designed primarily for export. His factory’s designs were seen at exhibitions throughout Europe, and their elaborate ornamentation was popular in the Victorian era. Before Salviati’s time, the production of art glass had been restricted to unique and expensive pieces, available only to the wealthy. By the late 19th century, through the efforts of Salviati and other progressive manufacturers, most Victorian parlours possessed at least one piece of colourful glass.

Who would’ve thought a lawyer would be instrumental in making art pieces more affordable? For me, a great part of the appeal of working at Olveston is discovering such interesting stories as these, and others about family biographies, Edwardian lifestyle, the architecture of the home, and the wonderfully eclectic international collection.


Author note:
In my capacity as tour guide/educator at Olveston I have been entrusted to choose items that appeal to me and write about them for my city's newspaper. This is an amended story that first appeared in the Otago Daily Times in 2020. Due to the pandemic and resulting drop in visitor numbers, I have not had much work. I was missing my job so I was nostalgically re-reading the stories I've written and thought I would share one with FanStory readers.

Photograph taken by the author:
Salviati Ventian glass triple-dolphin table centrepiece at Olveston Historic Home in Dunedin, New Zealand. This item could be used as a vase.

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