The Glassmakers of Altare

Fact Paper 25

© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved

The Villa Rosa, housing the Museum of Glass of Altare.

The Myths

Who were they?

Where did they come from?

When did they come?

Hidden away in the thickly forested mountains of Piedmont, inland from the port of Savona, a community of glassmakers labored together for over 800 years.

These stranieri (foreigners) settled into the heart of the massive mountains which form the juncture of the Appennines and the Alps. The community was accessible only through a single file mule path that twisted through the rocky passes of mountains a mile high.

The foreigners formed a commune on a lonely site atop a mountain called Altare (high place). They were thereafter referred to as the Università d'Altare, a name which distinguished them as a group of foreign artisans. They never mixed with the local populace; for eight hundred years they labored together and intermarried.

A hand-blown Altarese vase, 115cm (38") high, at an exposition in 1911. The glassmakers of Altare were then still active

The community has no memory of its origin. There are legends which do not bear scrutiny. A favorite folk fable relates that about 900 CE, a benedictine monk from Bergeggi, an island offshore of Savona, having observed how glass was made in Gaul, taught the art to the local paesani.

The Altarese glassmakers always repeat this tale with a sly smirk, for throughout the centuries of their sojourn at Altare, they kept strictly apart from the mountain people around them. The paesani, in fact, were of a physically different ethnic stock from that of the tight-knit glassmaking community. The statutes of the glass-making community prohibited access to the art by the locals. Not even a whisper of a case exists in which one of these "outsiders" (that is, the natives!), was allowed to apprentice at the furnace.

Most importantly, the masters knew full well, and any glassmaker the world over will readily confirm, that considering the state of the art at that time, it is absurd to believe that anyone, be he peasant or priest, can merely observe glass and glassware being made and proceed to teach the process to others.

"To master the art of glassmaking," the practitioners of the art declare, winking shrewdly, "it is essential to obtain a great-grandfather who was a master!"

The Bergeggi fable was repeated in many versions by writers and historians. Each of them adjusted the story to make it more credible; new fables appeared, none with more reason or support. Enrico Bordoni, a descendant of one of the ancient families, aware of the absurdity of the fable of the inordinately prescient monk of Bergeggi, attempted to rationalize all the fabulous accounts by declaring that the art was established in Altare by workers from Normandy called in to practice it by a monk from Bergeggi who was named the abbot of Fornelli, a village some seven kilometers from Altare.

Several facts discredit the revised legend. First, the Fornelli church did not exist until 1179, and no French monk arrived there until after 1401, when Pope Bonifacio IX converted the church into a monastery!1 Additionally, glassmaking was virtually non-existent in Gaul in the ninth century. There were a few glassmakers in northern Gaul; they were the descendants of immigrants from the Near East who had followed the Roman legions up the Rhine and Seine valleys during the first few centuries of the Common Era. Most of these artisans abandoned Gaul as a result of the repressions launched in the sixth century during the Merovingan period. The few who converted to Christianity during the aptly named "Dark Ages" carried on crude work, but none were located in Normandy, the area from which the Bergeggi monk was reputed to have recruited them!

Norman knights did, however, enter the picture with a new attempt to rationalize the facts, one which contained a hint of the truth. It was initiated by an anonymous writer who wrote: "Certain Norman gentlemen, returning from a crusade to the Holy Land, reached the island of Bergeggi and were given shelter by the monks, some of whom were fellow countrymen. The Benedictines, moved to a desire to help the Crusaders, supplied them with the means of constructing glass furnaces in a place called Altare."2

The glasshouse of Altare in the mid-20th century. It was still a cooperative of families descended from Judaic artisans brought from Palestine in the 12th century by the Crusader, the Marquise de Montferrat, and of Sephardic immigrants from the 15th century forward. The glasshouse is now owned by a private company.

The idea that Crusaders could master the art by observing its performance in Palestine, was rendered even more absurd by the notion that Norman noblemen would deign to sweat at the furnace for years to become master glassmakers. Another writer on Altarese history, Gaspare Buffa, created still another fabulous version of the arrival of the art to Altare. Buffa was probably aware of the absence of the art in Normandy during the period in question, and that no Norman nobleman would demean himself with onerous labor at the furnace. So he depicted the Bergeggi monk as a poor hermit who had arrived from Flanders and was made a priest of the Fornelli abbey. The priest thereafter was said to have returned to Flanders to convince eight glass-making families to relocate in Altare. As noted above, such an event could not reasonably have taken place until 1471.3

The Lost Centuries

There was an historian who had the facts in hand, and from whose hands the facts mysteriously vanished. His name was Tommasso Torteroli. He was a canon from Savona.

In 1856, the Università d'Altare decided to establish themselves legally as a cooperative. Eight years later, proud of their considerable accomplishments, they set out to publicize them. They determined to discard the fables and delve into and proudly present the true origin and glorious history of the community. Only dim memories of their origins were retained and so they commissioned the church canon and historian, Torteroli, to cull the true history of the community from their archives and family records and to author a history of the community to be published by the cooperative. All the commercial records of the community and thepersonal papers and memorabilia of the families were trustfully consigned to the churchman. All the documents relating to the first four hundred years of the community's existence disappeared!

Gone were the mass of contracts and sales, negotiations, letters, genealogies, immigration and emigration records, and personal papers consigned to Torteroli. Only one document dated prior to 1512 survived. It was a copy of the Statuti, statutes drawn up in 1485 and ratified in 1512 by Guglielmo VII Paleologo, Marquise of Montferrato and his grandsons, the Marquises of Caretto and Savona, co-regents of the area. The statutes codified the autonomy of the glassmaking community of Altare, but placed the community under the watchful eye of the church. They are now the oldest extant records of the community.

Four centuries of the history of an illustrious, productive and unique community vanished!

Torteroli died in 1866. No explanation was given for the disappearance in the church of the mass of irreplaceable material. Torteroli had three years in which to digest the records consigned to him in good faith. The facts, whatever they were, become conspicuous by their absence. It is reasonable to presume that Torteroli, or his church superiors, found the facts unsavory and destroyed the records that would reveal them.

The community's history remained unpublished.

In 1907, a historian, E. Dillon, took exception to the prevailing myths about the Normandy and Flanders origin of the art. "We should have looked rather for some trace of oriental influence," Dillon proposed, pointing out that the Near East was traditionally the center of the glassmaking art and was carrying on a lively industry at the time the noble overlords of the area were active in the Holy Land. "The Marquisate of Montferrato was a feudal state whose rulers had in various ways a singular connection with the East... They claimed the crown of Jerusalem and wore the crown on Thessalonica."4

Dillon's observations were ignored until they were picked up seventy years later by an Israeli writer, Anita Engles, publisher of a series of journals entitled Readings in Glass History.5 Her credentials were questioned by the scientific community but her advancement of Dillon's theory was finally given mention in a work by a local historian, Guido Malandra, author of a comprehensive history of the Altarese community. Malandra begins by demolishing the tales and fables permeating Altarese pseudo-history, noting that all the "Bergeggi" versions are based on spurious traditions lacking any trace of foundation. Malandra points out that while some details of the Dillon/Engle hypothesis are arguable, they "are based on more concrete and documented premises."6

Malandra pursued the matter no further; he went on to a masterful study of the illustrious post-1512 history of the Università d'Altare.

Samuel Kurinsky, author of this monograph, intrigued by the mysterious circumstances under which this community of glassmakers suddenly appeared in the rugged Apennines, launched an investigation into its origin. The search propelled the author on an eight-year odyssey that spanned a good portion of three continents and led back through three thousand years of history.

It appeared that the Jews and the art of glassmaking had traveled a peculiarly parallel path from their Akkadian origins through the Byzantine period. Central on that path lay Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel. Many of the sites Mr. Kurinsky uncovered on his surveys of the Holy Land lay within areas that had been under Crusader hegemony. It became evident that the only reasonable manner in which the art could have appeared in Normandy and Piedmont was by relocating glassmakers from Palestine to Europe.7

This process was not unprecedented. It was an already documented fact in Christian annals that the Norman Crusader, Roger II, after invading Byzantium, took its most valuable treasure, the Judaic silkmakers of Thessalonica and Thebes to Sicily, then under Norman rule. The art of glassmaking likewise appeared in Sicily and Normandy during that period. The connection between the Norman Crusaders and the appearance of the art of glassmaking in Norman territories was evident.

The art of glassmaking had likewise appeared in Altare when the Italian Crusader, the Marquise de Montferrato, became the "Prince of Jerusalem." The inference made by Dillon and Engles that therein lay the secret of the origin of the Università d'Altare was reasonable. Glassmaking was already an ancient art in the Near East when the Crusaders first entered its historical picture. The Venetians, seeking to establish a glassmaking industry, likewise sought it in Palestine. One of the earliest references to the provenance of the origin of the Venetian glassmakers appears in a work by Jacobo Filiasi dated 1812. "The Venetians, even in the ninth century," stated Filiasi, "frequented not a little the glassmaking centers of the Syrian coast and probably took the art of glassmaking with them."8 By "taking the art with them" Filiasi means, of course, that the Venetian adventurers brought back artisans practicing the then exotic art of glassmaking.

Some of the ruling Crusaders of Palestine referred directly to the ongoing art of glassmaking in the territory under their rule. The Bishop of Akko (now Acre), wrote sometime before the year 1240 that "In the territory of Tyre and Akko the purest glass is made with cunning workmanship out of the sands of the sea."9

William of Tyre (1130-85), who became Archdeacon of Tyre in 1167, and Archbishop in 1175, made reference to the fine sand being mined in the area for making glass and to the exquisite vessels being produced from that sand, vessels famous for their transparency, vessels "carried to far distant places and which easily surpass all products of the kind."10

The Evidence of Judaic Origins

The identification of the glassmakers of Tyre and of the owners of the vessels that carried their products "to far distant places," was documented by a first-hand witness, the indomitable traveler, Benjamin of Tudela. Benjamin visited the Levant at the end of the 12th century.

"The Jews own sea-going vessels," Benjamin reported about the Jews of Tyre, "and there are glassmakers among them who make that fine Tyrian glassware which is prized in all countries."

Thus, in one sentence, Benjamin illuminates a vital portion of the commerce, of a people, and of an industry. Benjamin describes Tyre as a magnificent port in which travelers "from all parts" were active, and records that "almost 400 Jews reside in this excellent place." One of the Heads of the Tyrian community was Rabbi Meir, who came from Carcassone in Provence; therein is revealed the international character of Jewish life of the times.11

Benjamin also visited Sidon, Antioch, and Damascus, and documented the Judaic character of the silkmaking and glassmaking industries in those cities. In Antioch, for example, the art of glassmaking was conducted ten Judaic glassmaking families. Benjamin's sojourn in the Near East took place during the very period in whichthe Montferratos were active in Palestine.

The Montferrato family had been invested in 967 by Otto I with rule over the region encompassing Savona and Altare. They later participated in the Crusades and became a powerful family in the Levant. One branch of the family headed by William III, Marquis de Montferrato, was granted a fief in the Galilee and settled there. William's four sons and their descendants and relatives played a crucial role in Near-Eastern affairs over several centuries.

Glassmaking then depended on the availability of vast amounts of hardwoods for fueling the furnaces. The fact that the Piedmontese mountains were as thick with the hardwoods as was the hilly regions of the Galilee was undoubtedly a factor in the decision of the Montferratos to establish a glassmaking industry at their home base.

The fact that the glassmakers were alien to the region is amply supported by all the circumstantial evidence. The physiological characteristics of the members of the glassmaking community are substantially different from those of the indigenous population around them. The dialect of the glassmakers differed from that of any of the surrounding dialects, distinct even from that of the Paesani neighboring them in the very town of Altare itself. While the modern vernacular of the Università d'Altare understandably reflects the ongoing intercourse of the region with neighboring France over the past five centuries, it also contains strange roots which cannot be identified with Latin or any of the Latin languages. It also incorporates a rich inventory of idiomatic expressions that are unique to the glassmakers.

A street in present-day Altare. The town has two distinct populations. The glassmakers and their descendants distinguish themselves as the Universita d'Altare, and refer to themselves as Monsu - as (or descendants of), noble practicers of the art of glassmaking. The local countrymen are referred to as paesani. Intermarriage is unheard of. No Romeo and Juliet type story has come down through the 800 years of the community's existence.

The Università.

It is significant that the glassmaking community was anciently known as a Università, and continued to be so referred to after the imposition of Statuti officially tying them to Christian faith and ritual. Even after the Università had transformed itself into a Cooperativa in the mid-nineteenth century, the members of the community continued to refer to themselves in the traditional manner, and so refer to themselves to this day.

The term Università has rarely been applied to a community without a specific Judaic implication. It has been occasionally applied to a consolidated group of artisans without an ethnic reference, but it has always implied a foreign origin. The term was, however, a universal and specific reference to communities of Jews during the Middle Ages; Jews confined to a ghetto were always so designated. The word Ebrei (Jews), became superfluous by common usage of the term Università. The phrases: "Università di Roma," "Università di Padua," Università di Venezia," etc., refer to the Judaic communities of those cities, and to no one else.

The use of the word "Università" in relation to a community of Jews is appropriate. The word denotes a group with a specific set of skills and knowledge. The Judaic communities centered around a synagogue that doubled as a place or school of learning. The synagogues of Italy were, in fact, termed scuole (schools).

The Dizionario della Lingua Italiana, defines the word "Università" as "Università Israelitica," and quotes the Bible in illustration of its application12.

The statutes drawn up in 1485 granted self-government to the Università. In some areas the Jews had to pay homage to the church for the privilege. Each year, for example, "the leaders of the downtrodden Università degli Ebrei of Roma (so-designated in the Papal decree), had to pay homage to the Pope by the presentation of the Scroll of the Law, which the Vicar of God would return contemptuously over his left shoulder, with a derogatory remark."13

The statutes, finally ratified by the Marquises de Montferrato in 1512, continued the previous rights of self-government to the Università. But the Montferratos bowed to the church in regard to religious observance. Religious routine was structured by the church, and universal adherence to church and ritual was prescribed.

Altare passed by marriage from the Montferratos to the Gonzagas, a powerful family based at Mantua. The Gonzagas were the last of the Italian nobility to allow their Jews to be subjected to the increasingly severe strictures of the church, and were extraordinarily tolerant of them even after the power of the church made itself felt. Jewish musicians, actors and others were given the run of the court. The prestigious Jewish Provenzal family felt so comfortable under the benign Gonzaga rule that they established a yeshiva-university in Mantua, at which secular as well as Talmudic studies were part of the curriculum. It was partly a school of medicine and reflected the status Jewish physicians enjoyed as professors in the universities of Padua, Pavia and elsewhere, and as practitioners everywhere until Gregory XII issued a bull in 1581 prohibiting Christians from patronizing Jewish doctors. The commandment was regularly ignored.

The Gonzagas were, however, surrounded by areas under Spanish influence, and ergo, church domination. The adjoining Genovese Republic fell under the rule of Andria Doria in 1528. He promptly raised the imperial standard. The axe finally fell upon the Jews of Genoa in 1567, when they were expelled from the Genovese dominions for the fourth time. The area interior to the coast became infected by the aftermath of the Inquisition. Altare was enveloped.

The ecclesiastical blanket which descended upon Altarese history coincides with those events. A protective saint was assigned to the glassmaker's guild. Participation in Christian religious rites was mandatory. It is at this juncture that the prior history of the Università disappears.

When all of the Jews of the Italian Piedmont-Lombardy areas were placed under church strictures in 1597, the only Jews able to openly practice their religion outside of the Gonzaga base at Mantua were those confined to the ghetto of nearby Allessandria and in Casale Montferrato, a town under the protection of the Gonzagas.

At Casale Montferrato, the seat of the former Montferrato dynasty, the Gonzagas continued the secular and religious autonomy granted to the Jews in 1565, but the Altarese community was never released from church control. As the centuries passed, the descendants of the original families were absorbed into the Christian regimen.

The Sephardic Connection.

The estrangement of the glassmakers of Altare from their roots did not take place quickly. The clandestine identification of the Università with Judaic glassmakers faced with even direr circumstances was made evident by a most peculiar influx of glassmakers from Spain. Not only did the Università accept these forestieri(foreigners) with open arms, but placed them into their highest council. It appears that the Università became a surreptitious way station, or "underground railway," for Judaic glassmakers seeking to pursue a livelihood in the Diaspora.

Some of these artisans remained in Altare; others , along with many of the original members of the community, brought their art to Provence, to the Netherlands and to England.

The eminent Italian historian of the Università, Guido Malandra, hesitant to identify these emigrants directly as Jews, pointed out that "The Altarese do not restrict themselves to produce and work at home, as is normal in other Italian regions, but leave in groups from their home base to exercise their art even at a distance from Montferrato... They leave, they build their furnaces, produce glass and sell it, and move again as if they were in a biblical diaspora; in other cases, however, they implant establishments which function for generations at the new locations, but always, and again characteristically maintain a direct relationship with their original country of origin."

Then Malandra hints, significantly: "It is a phenomenon unknown to any other social group of the Marquisate of Montferrato, where only the Hebrews are in the habit of moving the seat of their business from place to place."14

Malandra's oblique reference derives from the fact that Jewish glassmakers were unable to identify themselves as Jews in the pursuit of their art. Most glassmakers assumed a Huguenot disguise. England, a country from which the Jews had been banned, eager to establish a glassmaking industry, turned a blind eye to the fact that virtually all of the scores of glassmakers who entered England in the seventeenth century, declared themselves either "Huguenot" or "of no church." Many "Huguenots" bore names such as "Robles" and "Rodriquez!"

Over the centuries the Spanish and Italian names of the glassmakers became anglicized along with the memories of their bearers. The family name "Racchetti," for example, became transmuted into "Rackett."

Some of the members of the reconstituted Università d'Altare bore names that begin with "Bar" or "Me." "Bar" means "from" in Hebrew, just as does "Von" in German or "da" or "de" in Italian. "Me" translates to "of" in Hebrew. An eponym formed by the name of a city and prefixed by Bar or Me is therefore most likely to be of Judaic origin.

Thus, Jacobo Bartolletti (and also Bartoluzzi) translates to Jacob from Toledo (after the Latin version of Toledo: Toletti). Barcaluso identifies the family as being a Judaic family from the town of Caluso in Lombardy. Metrevis translates to "of Treves," from which glass-making town of Provence Jews fled into Italy. Often the prefix was dropped. "Treves," for example, is a common Italian-Jewish eponym appearing ubiquitously throughout the Judaic communities of France and northern Italy.

Jewish surnames were frequently simple eponyms of the cities from which they migrated. Names such as "Pisano" and "de Pisa," for example, appear in the annals of both the Venetian and Altarese glassmakers. There was, in fact, a considerable Judaic glassmaking community in Pisa. As we shall see further on, some were granted exclusive glassmaking rights in the Republic of Genoa.

An extraordinary number of the forestieri appear in Altare into the seventeenth century with names which identify them as coming from Iberian Portugal or Spain. The fact that these stranieri, or "outsiders" were straightaway made welcome at the Università takes on sharp significance in light of the otherwise inflexible application of injunctions against the acceptance of outsiders. The statutes of the community explicitly proscribe access to the furnace to anyone unrelated to the registered families.

The local paesani could not be hired for anything other than the menial housecleaning jobs within the vetreria (glasshouse) when they were permitted to work there at all. The uncompromising restrictions were enforced by severe penalties for their transgression.

The Università became more than a melting pot for certain foreigners; it became the hub of their dispersal into the diaspora. The secrets of glassmaking were then universally and strictly confined within the family circles of the glassmakers. The economic interest of the glassmaking community would seem to be to prevent the industry from spreading beyond its borders. Yet the Università not only condoned but encouraged members to establish competitive enterprises abroad, and made the emigrants welcome upon their return. This apparently schizophrenic attitude can only be rationalized by the proposition that, indeed, these foreigners were considered family, and so considered because they were Jews.

The coats-of-arms of the main glassmaking families of the Universita d'Altare. Conspicuous among these monsu are those of apparent Sephardic origin: Marini, Marenghi, Bertoluzzi, Racchetti, Masari, Lodi, and Somaglia. They indicate an influx of glassmakers from Spain and Portugal from the 15th century forward.

Documentation of the Judaic identity of the glassmakers in the area was found by the author in Genoa's archives. After a grueling search through reams of fading and crumbling documents, a paper dated dated 1659 came to light which began "The Serenissimo Republic of Genoa hereby grants to Eliahu Bernol and his Hebrew compatriots the exclusive rights to produce glass and glassware for all the dominions of Genova for a period of twenty five years..."15 The document went on to outline guarantees for the privilege.

Sixteen other documents were then uncovered in Genoa's Archivio Segreto under the category Hebreorum. They filled in vital details about the Jewish community, and about the glassmakers among them.

The Jews had been expelled from Genoa in 1567, during the period in which the Republic was under Spanish domination. Glassmaking thereupon disappeared from Genoa. The Università issued a strict prohibition against members going to work for the Genovese. They even passed a statute in 1601 that imposed sanctions upon members or any one else lured into practicing the art in Genovese territory.

The Genovese eventually threw off the Spanish yoke. Desiring to redevelop the industry and commerce lost with the expulsion of the Jews, Genoa invited a group of Jews from Pisa in Tuscany to "come and settle in the Serenissimo Republic of Genova." In 1658, two Jews, Abram da Costa de Lèon (from Lèon in Spain) and Aron de Tovar (likewise a Sephardic name) , obtained the Capitoli per la Nazione Hebrea, which became effective on April 1659. Only a few months later, the exclusive right "for the production of glass and glassware" was granted to the master glassmaker from Pisa, Elihu Bernol, and to "his Hebraic compatriots."

At that very time all five members of the governing council of the Università d'Altare were of Spanish origin. Three members of the council bore the surname da Costa!

The other two were a Ponte and a Rachetti.

The documents included a census of the Jews and a map of their dwellings in the ghetto assigned to the Jews. A Ponte and a Da Costa were among the residents. They were neighbors to an Abram Salom, registered in the census as a dealer in lead "for the purpose of making glass."

Salom's trade becomes significant when we take account of the fact that a Da Costa from Altare went to work in London for a Ravenscroft. Ravenscroft soon thereafter took out a patent for "lead glass," and is commonly credited for its invention!

The Judaic glassmakers spread out into the western European Diaspora, implanting the glassmaking industry wherever they went. For many generations they intermarried only within the extended glassmaking family circles.

As the centuries rolled by they became integrated into Christian society and lost all memory of their origins.


  1. Aleramo Bormioli, ed., Societa artistico vetraria cooperativa anonima Altare, 1931, p. 12, citing a study by Dott. Vico di Mallare.
  2. The article appeared in L'Economica Italiana, October, 1935.
  3. Gaspare Buffa, L'Università dell'Arte Vetria di Altare, Altare, 1897, pp. 15-29.
  4. E.Dillon, Glass, London 1907.
  5. Anita Engles, Readings in Glass History, No. 12, Jerusalem 1981, pp. 17-24.
  6. Guido Malandra, I Vetrai di Altare, Altare 1983, pp. 27-28.
  7. Samuel Kurinsky, The Glassmakers; an Odyssey of the Jews, 1991, ch.7., pp. 183-250. The subsequent history was documented in a series of articles by Mr. Kurinsky in the quarterly journal Alte Vitrie, published in Italian with English summaries by the Istituto del Vetro e dell'Arte Vetraria of Altare, notably in issues 1989/1, 1989/2. 1993/1, 1993/2, 1993/3, 1994/1, 1994/2/3, 1995/3, and 1996/2.
  8. Jacobo Filiasi, Saggio sull'antico commercio, sull'arti e sulla Marina Veneziani, Padua, 1812, p. 147.
  9. Jacques de Vitry, Palestine Pilgrims Text Society, Vol. II, no. 2, London, 1896.
  10. William of Tyre, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, trans. Babcock and Krey, vol. 2, p. 6.
  11. M. Adler, The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, London, 1907.
  12. Nicolo Tomasso and Bernardo Bellini, Dizionario della Lingua Italiana, quoting Bio. Gio. P. 20, "Accio che dessuno loro ajuto per combattere contra l'altra universitade de figliouoli d'Israel."
  13. Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews, rev. ed., ed. 1970, pp. 278, 383.
  14. Guido Malandra, Ibid, pp. 15-16.
  15. Arvivio Statale Genovese, Hebreorum, Archivio Segreto. See also files 44, 1390, the Capitoli per la nazione ebrei, and other related documents in the files termed "Hebreorum."