The exhibition presents the finest works of Western European and Russian artistic glassware from the 16th century through to the early 20th from the stocks of the Hermitage’s Department of Western European Applied Art and Department of the History of Russian Culture, demonstrating the great variety of decorative treatments that have been given to glass articles.

Venetian glass, massive German drinking vessels, skilfully engraved goblets made in Russia and Europe, vases, articles with glass insets and (more than 90) mosaic pictures illustrate various stages in the evolution of glass-making in Europe and Russia.

The elegant fragile vessels demonstrate the astonishing craftsmanship of the artists who created them – glassblowers, engravers and painters. They are not only silent witnesses to technological advances but can also tell the interested viewer about changing aesthetic tastes and the etiquette of their times.

The main part of the exhibition consists of tableware. From the late 15th century onwards, glass vessels have been a constant part of European dining etiquette. In the Renaissance era glassblowers’ exquisite creations were compared for their beauty to vessels made from gold and silver and acknowledged to have just a single shortcoming, albeit a substantial one – their fragility.

In the 1400s and 1500s, the fashion in glassware across Europe was set by the pieces made by the craftsmen of La Serenissima – the Republic of Venice. Its geographical location and role as a major Mediterranean port with extensive economic connections favoured the production of such a luxury item as glass. One of the early examples of an object made from Murano milk glass is the small, exquisite Vase in the form of a pilgrim’s flask decorated with a scene from the myth of Apollo and Cyparissus (1510–20). Such glass was produced on the island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon for only a few decades and today no more than ten objects made from it in the late 15th and early 16th centuries survive anywhere in the world. The Venetians’ artful creations delighted their contemporaries so much that in the 16th century workshops opened in various countries imitating them and producing their own works in the Venetian style – façon de Venise. They include a Drinking Vessel (Late 1500s – early 1600s, Southern Netherlands(?)) and a Goblet with Pendant Rings (1592, Bohemia).

In the 17th and 18th centuries artistic tastes were shaped by the dynamic opulence of the Baroque style. In this period, the onward march of technology brought new manufacturing centres to the fore: Bohemia, England and France. In the second half of the 17th century, table etiquette altered. The first services appeared that were made up of glasses intended for different drinks and linked together as a set by common elements in their decoration. The exhibits include Three items from Duke Ernst Johann Biron’s Service (Poland, 1738), a Compotiere with a lid (Castile, Spain, 1770–87) and a Table ornament of the type known as trionfi (“triumphs”) or desseri (from the French word dessert) that was created by 18th-century Venetian craftsmen and intended for grand official banquets.

In Russia, the reforms introduced by Peter the Great (1672–1725) furthered the rapid introduction of European ways into everyday life. The construction of St Petersburg was conducive to the opening of new manufacturing facilities. In the late 1730s, the St Petersburg Glassworks was created, producing items that were intended for the imperial court. In 1777 Prince Grigory Potemkin became the owner of the glassworks. With the backing of the state, he managed to turn it into an enterprise whose output was of as good quality as the foremost German producers’. The exhibition includes a variety of pieces made by the craftsmen of the glassworks including the grand Goblet with a portrait of Empress Catherine II and her monogram that was made to celebrate Russia’s victory in the Russo-Turkish War of 1768–74, items made of coloured glass (Compotiere with a lid (1780s–90s) and a Goblet with the monogram WD (second half of the 18th century)), and also shtofy (four-sided decanters), carafes, drinking glasses and plates. In the early 19th century, the Petersburg glassworks was famed for the production not only of tableware but above all of decorative vases and lighting devices from crystal glass. The display features a pair of dark green glass vases with bronze handles that were specially commissioned from the Imperial Glassworks in the 1810s.

The manufacture of coloured glass became a particular distinction of the Russian industry in the second half of the 18th century and on into the 19th. The pioneer in this field is considered to have been Mikhail Lomonosov (1711–1765). After much experimentation, the famous scientist developed a recipe book for producing many different shades of coloured glass that were then used to make mosaic pictures and buglework panels (bugles are tubular glass beads). After Lomonosov’s death, though, mosaic-making was forgotten. Its revival in the 19th century was due to the mosaic-artist Georg Ferdinand (Yegor Yakovlevich) Weckler (1800–1861), whose works also appear in the exhibition – Paperweight with a Russian Dance mosaic (early 1830s) and View of the Yelagin Island Palace (1823).

The middle and second half of the 19th century was a time of artistic searching for European and Russian glassmakers. The craftsmen working in that era of Historicism found inspiration in the art of the past. A whole range of decorative approaches found embodiment in numerous glass articles that included a Vase in the Arabian style (1848) – a work by the outstanding French artistic glassmaker Philippe-Joseph Brocard (1831–1896) and a Carafe and Stopper decorated with designs that reproduce the patterns of Russian folk embroidery and woodcarving that was made at the Imperial Glassworks in 1870. The Model of the Coasting Hill was created by Russian craftsmen in the second quarter of the 19th century and is going on public display for the first time.

Glassmaking reached its highest peak in the era of the Art Nouveau. The items created by the outstanding French artist Emile Gallé (1848–1904) set the standard right up to the outbreak of the First World War, which interrupted the development of this branch of decorative and applied art for several years. The exhibition features two Gallé vases with depictions of orchids that their creator himself reckoned to be among his finest works. They were presented to Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna in Paris in 1896, becoming precious souvenirs of their successful first diplomatic visit together as Emperor and Empress of Russia.

Works of decorative and applied art with glass insets – pocket watches, miniature perfume bottles, shoe buckles and other items – form a sort of supplement to the display.

The exhibition has been prepared by the State Hermitage’s Department of Western European Applied Art (headed by Olga Grigoryevna Kostiuk) and Department of the History of Russian Culture (headed by Viacheslav Anatolyevich Feodorov).

The curators are Yelena Anatolyevna Anisimova, senior researcher in the Department of Western European Applied Art, and Tatyana Nikolayevna Pankova, a researcher in the Department of the History of Russian Culture.

The State Hermitage Publishing House has produced an illustrated scholarly catalogue for the exhibition: Glass Made to be Admired. Masterpieces of the 16th–19th Centuries from the Collection of the State Hermitage Museum. The introductory texts are by Yelena Anisimova (“Western European Artistic Glass of the 15th–20th Centuries. “An astonishing beauty of forms…”) and Tatyana Pankova (“From ‘curiosity’ to masterpiece. Russian artistic glass of the second half of the 18th century to the early 20th”).