Sara Pierdonà explores the origins and prestige of Bavarian glass, charting its development throughout Europe from the 15th century onwards, and discovering key characters in its story ~ from an antagonistic prince to master craftsmen.



Hand-painted Bavarian glass © photograherd by Jiri Koptic, Theresenthial


The history of objects, even the most prestigious ones, is often bizarre. For example, Theresenthial, the German manufacturer that played a pivotal role in establishing the prestige of Bavarian glass, was founded because Ludwig I disliked Napoleon.

At the time, Ludwig I was not yet king and Bavaria was officially allied with France. The only means by which the future ruler (grandfather of the even more famous Ludwig II, patron of numerous castles, supporter of Wagner, a man with a fictional life) could express his antagonism against the French was to compete economically. The choice fell on glass and the aim became to match, or exceed, the quality of French crystal.


Traditional, hand-painted European glass bottles @ Cabana Magazine  



The mid 15th-century, specifically 1450, was a crucial time in the history of glass: crystal had been discovered in Italy, achieved by adding sodium and manganese to glass. Soon the recipe spread throughout the rest of Europe and various centres began to work it, achieving increasingly impeccable results. In the meantime, in Murano - historically the epicentre with the most inventiveness and creativity - new laws severely limited the activity of decorators (relegating them strictly to the role of workshop employees, prohibiting them from marketing the finished product).

The decorators were considered a less prestigious workforce, not privy to manufacturing secrets, such as exact chemical compositions, and were often impersonated by immigrants from other Italian regions, not represented by any guild capable of defending their rights. As a consequence, glass art oriented towards the pursuit of shape excellence, with less expertise in carving or enamelling techniques.


This instead flourished in other parts of Europe: the Saint Louis glassworks was founded in 1586, while in 1760 the first glassworks opened in the small village of Baccarat, and in the mid 19th-century the same happened in Meisenthal. 

When Ludwig I decided to invest in crystal and granted Theresenthial 'royal privileges' to set up a luxury crystal factory, the founders, Franz and Wilhelm Steigerwald, located it not far from the Czech border. "In those days, the national border was irrelevant. Many companies had offices on both sides. And that is the reason why Bavarian and Bohemian glass have such intertwined histories with each other," says current Theresenthial owner, Max Freiherr von Schnurbein. 

More important were the natural resources that abounded in the area (on both sides of the border): potassium chloride and gypsum, which ensured a more transparent and stable material than Italian glass.


Before long, Bavarian and Bohemian crystal became famous for its excellent quality and master craftsmen became qualified teachers, attracting students from neighboring nations. Such was its success that an official glass art school system developed in the second half of the 19th-century. The most successfully exported and distinctive object ended up being the enamelled vase with floral subjects, which could be painted with great speed but ensured a very refined rendering.

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