22 July 2023

Antonio Salviati’s reredos
in Tamworth is part of
the revival of mosaics in
Venice and glass in Murano

The reredos above the High Altar in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, was made by Antonio Salviati of Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

In my search this morning for the mediaeval Altar of the Holy Trinity in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, I described the late 19th century reredos above the High Altar made in 1887-1893 by the Salviati family firm, working with John Birnie Philip when The church was extensively restored in the mid-19th century by Benjamin Ferrey, Sir George Gilbert Scott and William Butterfield.


The glass manufacturing business founded in 1859 by Antonio Salviati (1816-1890) of Venice, revived the glass-making traditions in Murano and a strong impact and influence on the arts in Victorian England. Salviati’s reredos in Saint Editha’s Church links Tamworth with an important element in architectural decoration and the decorative arts in Europe.

A new interest in Catholic liturgy and ritual led to a revival of Gothic architecture that, in turn, boosted a demand for traditional church decoration. The Anglo-Catholic revival in the Church of England and the writings of John Ruskin inspired a renewed popularity of Venetian mosaic architectural decoration.

During Sir George Gilbert Scott’s restoration of Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, the sculptor John Birnie Philip (1824-1875) designed the beautiful reredos at the High Altar, with its cusped arcading with marble shafts flanking five cusped gabled arches.

John Birnie Philip was the father-in-law of the American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler. He carried out most of his work with Scott. His works in English churches and cathedrals include the statues for Scott’s reredos in Lichfield Cathedral, and the reredos in both Ely Cathedral and Saint George’s Chapel, Windsor. In London, he carved the decorations for the porch at Saint Michael, Cornhill, built by Scott as part of his Gothic embellishment of Wren’s church, including an elaborate tympanum sculpture depicting Saint Michael.

Philip’s five arched niches in the reredos in Tamworth were filled with mosaics that are the work of the Italian glass manufacturer Antonio Salviati (1816-1890). The five mosaic panels in the reredos commemorate five pre-Reformation altars in the church.

They depict (from left): Saint George with a flag and sword; Saint Nicholas, robed as a bishop and holding a ship, his symbol; the central figure of the Risen Christ, surrounded by the words Pax Vobis, perhaps representing the Blessed Trinity Altar and the High Altar; Saint Katherine, with the wheel of her martyrdom and a palm branch; and Saint Editha, holding her crozier as Abbess and a model of her church.

Antonio Salviati revived glass making on the island of Murano in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Salviati family were glass makers and makers of mosaics based on the island of Murano in Venice and in London. They worked first as Salviati and Co and later, after 1866, as the Venice and Murano Glass and Mosaic Company.

The founder of the business, Antonio Salviati, was born in Vicenza, 60 km west of Venice, on 18 March 1816. He began in life as a lawyer. However, at an early age he became interested in glasswork after taking part in restoration work on the mosaics in Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice by Lorenzo Radi.

Salviati founded Compagnia Venezia Murano in 1866 with the British diplomat and archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894), who lived in Ca Cappello, a 16th century palazzo on the Grand Canal just behind Campo San Polo.

Murano had been a centre of fine glasswork since the Middle Ages, producing the glass that bears its name. But the pieces were lavish and expensive specialty pieces that only the wealthy could afford.

Salviati transformed the reputation of Murano glass, opening the first glass factory to employ a large number of skilled workers to mass-produce glass for export. Murabo glass had once been rare pieces enjoyed only by a wealthy few. But Salviati produced ornamental pieces that could be bought by millions, and so he re-established Murano as a centre of glass making.

The Salviati workshop in Murano made a mosaic portrait of Abraham Lincoln that was donated to the US by Antonio Salviati in 1866. It is now in a corridor off the Senate floor in Washington.

Antonio Salviati produced the mosaic glass for the altar screen for the high altar in Westminster Abbey

Salviati’s fame and work spread to England and France, where his work was usually in association with architectural designs. His mosaics can be seen in many European churches, while his smaller, mass produced works were sold throughout Italy.

He produced the mosaic glass for the altar screen for the high altar in Westminster Abbey. The altar and screen was erected between 1867 and 1873 to Scott’s designs. The sculpted figures of Moses, Saint Peter, Saint Paul and King David on the screen are by HH Armistead. Behind the altar, the mosaic of the Last Supper was designed by JR Clayton and executed by Salviati.

Salviati produced several mosaics for the grand dome in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. Five mosaics by Salviati are behind the altar in the new east apse in the chapel in Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and depict teaching incidents in the Bible.

In Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, Salviati’s iridescent mosaic glass panels in the reredos form a striking backdrop to the High Altar. He completed this reredos in 1887, and died three years later in Venice on 25 January 1890.

Apart from his work in Tamworth and Westminster Abbey, Salviati’s works in churches in England include the reredos in Saint Andrew’s Church, Biggleswade; the reredos in the chapel in Fulham Palace, London; a large reredos in Saint Mary’s Church, West Rainton, Durham; a mosaic of the Last Supper in Saint Thomas of Canterbury Church, Elsfield; a mosaic depicting the Last Supper after da Vinci in the Church of Saint Bridget with Saint Thomas in Wavertree, Liverpool; a reredos depicting the Last Supper in All Saints’ Church, Reading; mosaics in Exeter College Chapel, Oxford; and the chancel mosaics in in Saint John’s Church, Torquay.

He also worked in Saint David’s Cathedral, Wales, and Saint Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, Dundee.

In Germany, Salviati produced the mosaic decoration of the dome of Aachen Cathedral and mosaics for churches in Berlin and Heringsdorf.

Mosaics by Salviati and his companies are also in the Central Lobby of the House of Parliament (Palace of Westminster), London, the ceiling and walls at the entrance to the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore, the Paris Opera House, the Albert Memorial, the Council House, Birmingham, the Chamberlain Memorial Fountain (whiich I visited in Birmingham, which I visited earlier this week), Ajuda National Palace, Lisbon, and Carl von Scheibler’s Palace, now the Museum of Polish Cinematography in Łodz.

The Palazzo Salviati on the Grand Canal in Venice was built as a shop and the furnace of the Salviati family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I have often admired the Palazzo Salviati on the Grand Canal, between the Palazzo Barbaro Wolkoff and the Palazzo Orio Semitecolo. It was built as a shop and the furnace of the Salviati family in Venice, and was designed by the architect Giacomo Dell’Olivo.

The building underwent a major renovation in 1924, with the addition of an extra floor and the placement of large mosaics on the façade.

Structurally, the façade is relatively simple, with arched doors on the first and third floors and matching arched windows on the second floor. The mosaic figures that cover most of the façade include a large mosaic in the centre of the building and smaller mosaics over the doors on the first floor and at the top of the third.

To the left, the Palazzo Orio Semitecolo Benzon was built by the Orio family and was owned by the Benzoni family by the 14th or 15th century. It was integrated with the Palazzo Salviati in the 20th century. The Gothic façade has a different style on each floor: the first floor is in typical 14th century style, the second is in 15th century, while the top floor was added in the 19th century.

To the left again, the Casa Santomaso stands between the Palazzo Orio Semitecolo Benzon and the Palazzetto Nani Mocenigo, close to the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute. This is a typical 15th-century building, with Gothic and Renaissance forms.

Salviati’s Compagnia Venezia Murano continued as an important producer of Venetian art glass. Today, the company is Pauly & C – Compagnia Venezia Murano, and continues to be an important producer of Venetian art glass. Glassmaking remains the main industry of Murano, where the artisans continue to employ centuries-old techniques, crafting items from contemporary art glass and glass jewellery to Murano glass chandeliers and wine stoppers.

The Casa Santomaso, the Palazzo Orio Semitecolo Benzon and the Palazzo Salviati (right) form an interesting group of three smaller palaces on the Grand Canal in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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