|Nef Ewer, Late 16th century, Murano Italy. |
Courtesy Milwaukee Art Museum
On the afternoon of Friday, 22 March 1521, The Venetian Senate - then called the ‘Pregadi’ - reconvened after lunch. Senator Marino Sanuto (the Younger) recorded in his now famous diary that among the afternoon business was the granting of a ten year exclusive license to Arminia, the daughter of painter ‘Alvise da Muran’ (Luigi Vivarini). She was granted this privilege to produce the ornamental glass galley ships she had recently devised. [1,2] Once called 'Navicella' (little ships) these ewers, probably most used to serve wine, are now known as ‘nefs’. A pour spout was situated at the ship's bow, and often a handle astern. These objects soon became iconic symbols of the island-nation’s long dominance in trade, and regularly appeared on sideboards and elaborate dinner table settings, not only in the lagoon, but in Florence, Rome and far beyond.
In their Objects of Virtue: Art in Renaissance Italy, Syson and Thornton write,
“It was not only the use of coloured canes in complex patterns embedded into clear glass that typified Venetian glass from the 1520s, but also the manipulation of cristallo into ever more fantastic forms. Novelties were first displayed at the Ascension Day Fair, which, like visits to the glasshouses in Murano itself, was firmly on the tourist map by about 1500. The Venetian diarist Marino Sanuto mentions the work displayed at three booths at the fair in 1525, those of Barovier, Serena and Ballarin workshops ‘among other things, a galley and a very beautiful ship were to be seen.’”
Syson and Thornton continue, “Leandro Alberti singled out just this kind of glass in his famous description of the marvels of Murano in his Description of All Italy of 1550: ‘I saw there (among other things made of glass) a scaled-down model of a galley, one braccia long and with all its rigging and equipment, so perfectly in scale that it seemed impossible to model such things accurately in such a medium.” 
Scholar and science investigator, Georgius Agricola, described a vessel in the form of a ship in his De re metallica published in Basel in 1556,
“The glass-makers make diverse things, such as goblets, cups [...] and ships, all of which excellent and wonderful works I have seen when I spent two whole years in Venice some time ago. Especially at the time of the Feast of the Ascension they were on sale at M[u]rano, where are located the most celebrated glass-works. These I saw on other occasions, and when, for a certain reason, I visited Andrea Naugerio in his house which he had there, and conversed with him and Francisco Asulano.” 
Arminia Vivarini’s father was a painter of some renown, but her family is also among the earliest recorded glassmakers on Murano. Her third-great grandfather, named Vivarino, arrived from Padua, just ahead of the plague in 1346.  The family seems to have been involved in the craft on the island from then on. She clearly had access to a furnace, perhaps one owned by an uncle or a cousin. In any event, she exemplified the qualities of the very best glass artisans throughout history: a clear design sense coupled with technical expertise and the opportunity to put them both into practice.
Her very existence also forces us to more closely examine the well worn narrative that hot-shops were exclusively male domains, from which women were strictly excluded. In such a highly competitive arena, it is perfectly reasonable that a family would promote its best talent, regardless of gender. In many ways, we owe homage to Vivarini for her success with this style of novelty glass object; it started the genre that continues in popularity today, five centuries later, with works of art prized by collectors and in museums around the world. 
 Arminia (Armenia, Ermonia) Vivarini (1490-1569). See Luigi Zecchin: Vetro e Vetrai di Murano, 3 vols. (Venezia: Arsenale, 1987-9) v.3, p. 194. Marino Sanudo: I diarii di Marino Sanuto (1466-1536) v.30. Eds., F. Stefani, G. Berchet, N. Barozzi (Venezia: Fratelli Visentini, 1891) col. 45. Also see Zecchin 1987-9, v.2, p.276.
 Luke Syson, Dora Thornton: Objects of Virtue: Art in Renaissance Italy (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001), p. 197.
 Georgius Agricola (Georg Bauer): De Re Metallica: Tr. from the 1st Latin Ed. of 1556… trns: Herbert Hoover, Lou Henry Hoover. (Princeton: Mining Magazine, 1912), p. 592 (Book XII.) op. Cit. Zecchin 1987-9, v.3, p194-5.
 Thanks to Sophie Small @sophieesmall for inspiring the subject of this post.