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Sex and the City

Episode 12 of 20

Neil MacGregor on how a delicate glass goblet reveals the twin seductions of Venice - its sought-after luxuries and its equally sought-after lecherous women. From May 2012.

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, continues his object-based history. Taking artefacts from William Shakespeare's time, he explores how Elizabethan and Jacobean playgoers made sense of the unstable and rapidly changing world in which they lived.

With old certainties shifting around them, in a time of political and religious unrest and economic expansion, Neil asks what the plays would have meant to the public when they were first performed. He uses carefully selected objects to explore the great issues of the day that preoccupied the public and helped shape the works, and he considers what they can reveal about the concerns and beliefs of Shakespearean England.

Programme 12. SEX & THE CITY - A delicate glass goblet reveals the twin seductions of Venice: its sought after luxuries and its equally sought after lecherous women.

Producer: Paul Kobrak.

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15 minutes

Last on

Wed 2 May 2018 02:15

A Goblet from Venice

Date: c.1590-1600

Size: H:115mm, W:126mm

Made in: Venice or Innsbruck

Made by: Unknown

Material: Glass


Venice in the 16th century was the shopping capital of Europe. And as the world’s greatest centre of trade, it was a melting pot of nationalities, religions, classes and cultures all existing within this magnificent city built on water.

For Shakespeare, the city of Venice was something else too. In his plays, Venice becomes a cosmopolitan city of the mind, a laboratory of new social possibilities, where Jews and Christians could mingle freely, where mixed marriages were permitted, where the social and political issues of the modern city could be played out on this pretend and foreign stage.

This goblet was a product of Venice’s world famous glass workers, and tells us that glassblowers were in high demand across Europe to provide luxurious items to adorn the grand palaces of the rich and famous. The painted woman on the goblet also reminds us that Venice was a place of contradictions, where being able to tell the difference between the honourable and dishonourable was a difficult task indeed.


This object is from the British Museum


Watch a video of the Goblet from Venice


British Museum Blog: Venetian Glass by Dora Thornton, curator, British Museum


'Therefore, for fear of the worst, I pray thee set a deep glass of Rhenish wine on the contrary casket, for if the devil be within and that temptation without, I know he will choose it. I will do anything, Nerissa, ere I'll be married to a sponge. '  

Merchant of Venice: Act 1 Scene 2


  • By the sixteenth century, Venice dominated the luxury glass market across Europe and the eastern Mediterranean
  • To create a glass similar to this goblet, you would need materials from Africa, Syria, Germany, Cornwall and Italy
  • Venice's glass industry was based on the island of Murano - and strongly regulated by the Venetian government to avoid the glass-making secrets getting out.
  • Venetian glass was being imported into England as early as 1399
  • The dominance of Venetian glass lasted until the late 17th century and the invention lead crystal glass in England and Czech poltash crystal

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  • Tue 1 May 2012 13:45
  • Tue 1 May 2012 19:45
  • Tue 23 Oct 2012 14:15
  • Tue 24 Mar 2015 14:15
  • Wed 25 Mar 2015 00:15
  • Tue 26 Jul 2016 13:45
  • Tue 1 May 2018 14:15
  • Wed 2 May 2018 02:15