Part One – London and Venice – 1557 – 1567
Giam Bellini wiped the sweat from his eyes, not for the first time that morning, and fed more alder and willow billets into the ravenous mouth of the furnace. Peering intently through a window in the furnace he examined the molten glass inside the fire clay pot for any signs of bubbling; it had been heated for several hours now and was a quiescent, brilliant mass. The dazzling surface was difficult to distinguish from the gleaming sides of the paele itself, but Giam’s now experienced eyes knew the mass of liquid glass was ready for working. Signaling to the waiting feeder that the glass was ready, he moved round to the front of the furnace where it was slightly cooler, sat down on the bench against the wall and composed himself for the coming test.
Giam’s real name was Giacomo, but only his tutor ever called him that; unless he was in trouble. At thirteen, he was tall for his age, with a sturdy athletic build. Wiping his forehead again, he frowned as he thought about his coming trial. He’d been learning the art of glassmaking from his grandfather, Antonio Luciano, Master of the Luciano Glass-works, for the past two years. It had taken him months just to understand the language of the Works. Now he was about to be tested on the skills he had learned and he must satisfy his grandfather that he knew them well enough to be allowed to help the Capos. Waiting impatiently for his grandfather to arrive, he looked around the room. In the golden glow of the furnace, apprentices were hurrying to serve the Capos, the experienced glass-blowers of the Works, and to Giam’s mind the best in Murano. There were six of these at present and their job was to see that, as far as possible, each piece of glass was finished to perfection. From the first time he’d been allowed to help in the glasshouse, Giam had felt at home. Even the sweltering heat of the furnace room had not deterred him.
Luca Ridotti, an apprentice a couple of years older than himself, strolled across to Giam carrying a blow-iron. ‘Best of luck in the test,’ he grinned. ‘I’m sure you’ll pass easily.’ Giam grinned back. Luca was always friendly and he was very skilled, often acting as foot maker for the Capos.‘I wish I could be so sure,’ he replied with a grimace. ‘Grandfather won’t show me any favouritism. I’ll have to be perfect if I’m going to be allowed to make a real glass.’
‘Don’t worry; you’ll be all right. At least you know he’s fair, which is more than you can say for some,’ said Luca, indicating, the Chief Capo, Marco Baffo. He was a man with a short temper and long ears.
‘Ridotti! Are you going to be all day getting that bowl done?’ Baffo bellowed. ‘Stop chattering and get on with it! As for you, Bellini, stop holding up my feeders, or you’ll get my boot up your arse!’
Luca winked at Giam. ‘Right on cue; I’d better get on, or his highness will bust a gut; best of luck Giam, nil desperandum!’ And with a cheery wave he hurried off to the furnace.
At that moment his grandfather came striding across the room.
‘Ready, young Bellini?’ he asked in his usual brisk manner. When Giam replied that he was, Antonio led him to a vacant glassmaking Chair. ‘In the last two years, you have learned about the different tools we use to make glass. Now I need to see if your skill with words is equal to your skill with your hands. I want you to make a glass. You will act as Capo; I’ll get an apprentice and he and I will act as your team.’
Looking to get a little support, Giam pleaded with his grandfather. ‘Could we have my friend Luca, please, Master Antonio? I’ve worked with him before.’
‘I don’t see why not,’ agreed Antonio. ‘Baffo seems to have finished the batch he’s making and they’re just cleaning up at present.’ He walked across and had a brief word with Baffo and then came back with Luca. Standing in front of Giam they looked at him expectantly. For a moment Giam started to panic, but with an effort of will he took a deep breath and sat down in the Capo’s chair. ‘We’ll make the same glass that Marco has just made. Luca you will do the gathering and making the foot. You Patron will assist as required.’ Busily arranging the tools, Giam missed the small smile on his grandfather’s face.
Taking a blow-iron from its rack Luca hurried to the furnace. Rotating the blow-iron in the paele, he gathered a blob of molten glass on the end and was just about to carry on when Antonio motioned for him to pass it to Giam. ‘You make the foot, Bellini.’
Accepting the blow-iron from Luca, Giam began to roll the molten blob on the smooth, highly polished surface of the flat iron marver. Occasionally blowing down the tube to distend the still molten mass into the shape of a bulb he quickly achieved the shape he required. When he was satisfied he held it out for Luca to drop a small knob of molten glass on to the end of the bowl.
He passed the blow-iron to Luca, ‘Reheat this please , Luca,’ he said briskly and with a grin Luca hurried to the glory hole and after reheating the glass handed it to Giam.
Quickly drawing the reheated blob into a stem, Giam left a small blob at the end. His grandfather took it from him and gathered a small amount of molten glass over the blob and then held it while Giam shaped the foot with a pair of wooden clappers. Picking up a pontil, a rod slightly thinner than, but similar to the blow-pipe, he attached it to the middle of the foot. Luca handed him a moistened piece of iron and Giam touched the bowl with it and then gave a hard tap on the blow-iron. This caused the bowl to crack completely round its circumference.
Quickly reheating it, Giam skilfully removed the surplus glass from the rim, using the pucellas as shears, then inserting them inside the bowl he opened them, rolling the blow-iron along the arms of the chair until he was satisfied with the shape. Passing it to Luca with a sigh of relief he detached the pontil with a sharp tap and told Luca to put the completed glass into the oblong fire-clay tunnel in the top part of the furnace to anneal. He looked anxiously at his grandfather searching for any sign of approval, but his face was inscrutable. Without any comment Antonio asked, ‘What does anneal mean?’
‘The top of the furnace is warm and allows the molten glass to cool down slowly. If it cools too quickly, stresses are formed in the glass and it cracks easily. This is called crizzling and annealing stops this happening.’
Just as Giam was thinking that the questions would never end, Antonio gave a small smile. ‘That’s about right,’ he said in grudging approval. ‘That was quite well done. I think you’re just about good enough to work with one of the Chairs now.’
Luca, who had overheard this comment, looked at him in surprise. ‘Begging your pardon, Master Antonio, but I can’t tell the difference between the one Giam made and the ones that the Chief has just done.’
‘Perhaps that’s why you’re not a Capo yet, young Ridotti,’ Antonio Luciano said sternly, but there was no malice in his voice. Luca turned away, a broad grin on his face.
While Luca started to clear up, Antonio led Giam out into the fresh air and they sat on the billets of wood near the canal-side. It was refreshing after the heat of the furnace room and they sat in companionable silence. Eventually his grandfather broke the mood. ‘I didn’t say too much inside,’ he confided, ‘it doesn’t do to praise too much. But you did well. You’ve also a loyal friend in Luca Ridotti. It’s good to have friends at work, Giam, you might be thankful for them one day.’
‘I already am, grandfather,’ Giam said. ‘Luca’s helped me a lot over the last year.’ His face took on a wistful look. ‘I wish I had more friends outside of work though. I don’t get to meet other boys very often, especially since Lunardo Carreras moved to Venice. I only see him occasionally now.’
Lunardo was the son of his father’s friend, Enzio Carreras, a shipwright. They were firm friends and were always getting into some scrape or other. Giam pushed him into the canal on their last day together, but Lunardo soon got even; when Giam offered his hand to pull Lunardo out he’d pulled him in too. Giam smiled at the memory.
‘You have to study,’ said his grandfather. ‘There’s a lot you must know as a noble.’
‘But I spend so much time studying,’ Giam said plaintively, ‘and I don’t get to meet other boys now I’ve had to leave the Academy.’
About a year earlier the Senate had passed a law which stated that if a nobleman married the daughter of a glass-maker, any child of the union would be treated as being of noble birth. This was to recognise the rising importance of glassmaking to the Venetian economy. The aristocracy, usually referred to as the Old Families, had opposed it. The Orseolis and Cornaris and their ilk, with lines going back to the founding of Venice, saw this law as diluting their noble stock. Giam had benefited because his mother was the daughter of the glassmaker, Antonio Luciano, President of the Guild. She had died from the sweating fever five years earlier, when Giam was eight.
‘I understand why your father insists on a tutor. All the sons of the nobility have live-in tutors. But Eduardo should make sure you get to mix with people of your mother’s class, too.’
‘It’s not too bad, grandfather. I’m not bothered about meeting sons of the nobility. Those I’ve met are mostly very arrogant and treat me as an inferior. My tutor keeps me busy most of the day, but at least my father lets me come here in my spare time and that’s what makes it all worthwhile.’
Giam thought wearily of his days filled with the learning of Latin, Law, Dissertation, French, English, Seismographic, Dancing and Writing under the strict eye of Il Docente Giorgio Alessandro, but then he smiled and said, ‘He does at least let me study the history of glassmaking, if only to help my Latin.’
‘I’m afraid all of the sons of nobility have to study these things, Giam. Having your name in the Libro d’Oro is more than just a line of handwriting in a book.’ His grandfather couldn’t keep the pride from his voice. ‘It gives you a standing in Venice that I could never have, no matter how good a glass-maker I am.’
‘I never wanted to be a noble, grandfather. I just want to be as good at glassmaking as you are. I really love it and to make that glass today gave me a wonderful feeling.’
Antonio smiled. ‘You’ll have to work very hard, then.’
‘It won’t be for lack of trying’ said Giam earnestly, even though he knew his grandfather was joking. ‘I just hope that being a noble doesn’t prevent me from achieving it.’
‘Come on then lad,’ said Antonio gruffly, ‘enough of this daydreaming. Go and give Luca a hand to clear up and I’ll have words with you later.’
Four years later an excited Giam, holding a tall goblet in his hand, burst into his grandfather’s office. ‘I’ve done it, grandfather! I’ve designed my first new glass …’ His voice tailed off in confusion as he realised that Antonio Luciano was not alone. Seated to one side of the desk was a pair of richly dressed visitors. The man, hawk-nosed and bald, wore a long black silk robe with wide sleeves, ornamented with a double row of buttons. A black triangular cap often worn by Senators topped his matching doublet and hose. Around his neck he had an elaborate catenina d’Oro; the heavy gold chain was a sure sign he was a wealthy merchant. The woman, obviously his wife, wore an embroidered red velvet cloak over a matching red day dress. Giam made a hasty bow and placed the glass on the desk.
‘Please excuse my grandson Giacomo, for his bad manners,’ said Antonio before Giam could apologise. ‘He’s a little overexcited.’ Turning to Giam, he introduced the visitors. ‘Senator Dalle Fornaci and his wife Signora Foscarini-Dalle Fornaci; they are considering the purchase of some stem ware from us.’
As Giam made a formal bow, the Signora began examining his new goblet with great interest. The bowl was a simple round funnel festooned with flowers around the rim in diamond-point engraving; the stem having a central boss engraved into a lion-mask.
She turned to her husband and held up the glass. ‘This is very unusual! I like it very much.’
The Senator also examined the glass with interest. ‘It is different from your other glasses, Master Luciano. We were hoping that by coming direct to you, we might obtain a style that was a little out of the ordinary. I think this glass will do very well. It’s the right size for our needs and will make an excellent talking point at our next dinner. How soon can you let us have ten of them?’
Giam beamed ecstatically, but his grandfather quickly brought him down to earth. ‘First of all, Giacomo Bellini,’ he said sternly and Giam winced at the use of his full name. ‘You will apologise to Senator and Signora Fornaci for your lack of manners. And secondly,’ he held his grandson’s disconcerted gaze for a long moment and then, unable to keep the pretence up any longer, he gave a broad grin, ‘you’d better tell me how soon you can make ten more.’
I quickly came to like the central characters of Giam Bellini and lady Maria Morisini. The enemy of the two Adrian Ragazoni gives plenty of twists and turns to Giam and Maria falling in love and being together and to the success of Giam as a glassmaker. Indeed as a result of the evil plotting of Ragazoni the tale turns and takes Giam to London with a new name and a new life thanks to loyal friends and connections but alas without Maria.
Once again the life of London at this time is richly brought to life and Giam strives once again to have success in glassmaking as a partner of the Crouched Friars Glass-works. His partner and friend Jean Thieré is assassinated in the course of their quest to become glassmaker to Queen Elizabeth. This turns Giam’s attentions to thwart the plot against Queen Elizabeth’s life and to rescue Maria from Ragazoni.
I have really enjoyed the book. The history, the characters, the romance and devious plots and counter turns.
I am really looking forward to reading the next part of Giam’s life in the next book The Crystal Ship.
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