Mention Italian Glass—especially when discussing mid 20th century modern Italian glass—and virtually everyone’s minds immediately leap to Venice and Murano on the northeast coast of Italy.
Most collectors and dealers are unaware of another almost equally famous center of Italian glass making known as Empoli. Empoli is a region on the west side of Italy, southwest of Florence in the province of Tuscany. Like its better known counterparts to the northeast, Empoli has been producing and exporting glass since the 14th century.
For centuries, green glass was a trademark color of Empoli. The Empoli green, known as “Empoli Verde: was created from the iron that occurred locally in the sands of the Empoli region. Empoli glass is generally much simpler than other Italian glass and does not have the intricately applied trim or internal decorations associated with Venetian and Murano pieces. The simple traditional styles of Empoli glass were quickly adapted to the sparse abstract shapes of mid 20th century modernism. The vast majority of mid century-styled Empoli glass was made for the American market.
It should be kept in mind that Empoli is a region where there were many glass companies, not one specific glass company. The great majority of Empoli glass imported into the United States during the 1950s-1960s was marked only with relatively generic “Made in Italy” paper or foil labels. Over time, many of the original labels have fallen off and the majority of Empoli glass in today’s market is largely unmarked.
Some pieces of Empoli are very similar to shapes and colors made by the American glass maker Blenko. It’s very common to find Empoli offered as Blenko—either through ignorance or deliberately—on the larger online auction sites. The color the large lamp in Fig. 1, for example, is very similar to Blenko’s mid century amber. A number of Empoli shapes are also very similar to Blenko shapes. Some of those shapes include a fish vase, leaning tapered decanter, several large bulbous bottles with stoppers, a figural cat decanter with handle and others.
There are several ways to separate Italian Empoli glass from American Blenko. First, Empoli glass never has a pontil mark on the base; virtually all Blenko has a pontil. Empoli glass is typically quite thin-walled, not much more than one-eighth of an inch; Blenko generally has thicker walls, usually over one-eighth inch thick. Empoli stoppers and the mouths of the decanters and bottles they fit are smooth, not ground. Finally, all Blenko shapes can be confirmed by their appearance in original Blenko company catalogs. There is no single source of company catalogs to confirm Empoli shapes. Most Empoli glass is documented by its appearance in the catalogs of American gift importers and retailers.
Fig. 1 An Empoli amber glass lamp in a modernistic mid century shape. Very similar to an amber color made by Blenko during the same period. Glass body is 22 inches tall.
Fig. 2 Green glass, known as Empoli Verde, was a trademark color of the Empoli region for centuries. The green color was produced naturally due to the high concentrations of iron in the sand of the Empoli region.
Fig. 3 Empoli glass makers made a wide range of sizes including floor-sized bottled and vases. Some pieces, like this 18½ inch Empoli vase, have blown molded patterns while other pieces are perfectly smooth.
Fig. 4 Empoli glass has pontil marks. Virtually all Blenko pieces have pontil marks: most glass from Murano and Venice also generally have pontil marks.
Written by Mark Chervenka