Education 101: A Glimpse Into The Rich History Of Glassmaking In Venice
The Venetian Island of Murano is recognized worldwide for its intricate glass artwork. But what makes Murano glasswork a legacy? Known for their many innovations, including Murano beads, Lattimo, mirrors, and chandeliers, the glassmakers of Murano are said to be pioneers of glassmaking.
Besides the revered craft of glass making, Murano is known for its rich history, having been its own municipality before merging with Venice. Find out how Murano glass peaked in popularity in the 15th and 16th centuries, its decline in the 17th, and its revival.
The Rise: How Murano Glass from Venice Became a Legacy
To flee raids from barbarians during the Roman Empire, glassmakers from Aquileia, Italy, traveled to the Venetian lagoon about 1,500 years ago, giving rise to Venetian glassmaking.
Due to an order from the government, all glass manufacture in Venice was transferred to Murano by 1291. Before this incident, Murano was a summer resort where the aristocrats of Venice built villas with gardens and orchards. Nobody would have expected this cluster of seven tiny islands to become the glassmakers' wonderland known today.
Historians note two reasons why this action was required. The first was that Venice, with its dense population, posed a severe fire risk due to the glassmakers' use of scorching furnaces. Officials intended to prevent potentially disastrous fires in the city by shifting furnaces across the lagoon.
The second and more important was to safeguard business secrets. Government officials intended to prevent other nations from stealing their methods since Venetian glassmakers had a virtual monopoly on the manufacturing of European glass. Neither domestic glassmakers nor those from other countries working on Murano Island were permitted to leave the Republic.
Due to its concentration on glassmaking talent and skill, Murano became the center of numerous breakthroughs and techniques that helped the craft evolve. In the fifteenth century, Murano was well-known for Cristallo, a fine, translucent glass that had been unattainable before. Lattimo, milky-white glass resembling porcelain, was another type of glass quickly gaining popularity, especially at a time when the secret of Chinese porcelain was not yet known. The island's most famous products at various times included mirrors, chandeliers, glass beads, imitation precious stones made of glass, and many more types of glassware.
During this era, tightly guarded glass-making methods were passed from one generation to another to maintain a family's position as the leader in glasswork, as Murano Glass from Venice grew in popularity.
A Technological Breakthrough for Murano Glass from Venice
In 1450, glass artist Angelo Barovier discovered how to purify soda ash to produce clear glasses, signaling the end of the Middle Ages and the start of a renaissance. His discovery paved the way for glassworkers to create innovative drinking glasses.
Everything changed when glassmakers discovered how to add color to the glass. With the addition of vibrant colors, techniques that bond different colored glasses together to create intricate patterns gained popularity. These techniques revolutionized glass making and are still revered.
The most popular techniques include:
Millefiori: This is a kind of glassware that resembles flowers. The name Mille is Italian for "thousand" or "many," and Fiori is Italian for "flowers." To create this highly sought-after Murano glass, artists heat a collection of thin glass rods in various colors until they fuse. The bundle is stretched thin, cooled, and then cut into little disks, delivering floral patterns.
Aventurine: Also known as goldstone glass, it is translucent brownish with specks of metallic copper, resembling the gleaming flecks of natural quartz. It is based on a seventeenth-century technique developed in the Miotto family's Murano (Venice) glasshouse.
During this golden age of glass making, Murano was a business hub. Traders came from the Spanish Indies, Turkey, Italy, Spain, and Germany to purchase glass. The island also hosts numerous leaders and dignitaries, such as dukes, generals, princes, ambassadors, and archbishops. The famous people who became collectors of Murano art were Phillip II of Spain, Henry VIII of England, King Ferdinand of Hungary, Clement VII, and Francis I of France.
A Conquest in the 17th century Poses a Threat to Murano Glass from Venice
In the 1700s, rival glassmaking centers emerged in Europe, undermining Murano glass. Glassmaking, trade, and related commercial activities declined gradually in Venice.
However, the significant decline in the fortunes of Murano glass makers was Napoleon's conquest of Venice in 1797 and the subsequent transfer of Venice to the Hapsburg Empire in 1814.
The Austrian rule had a profoundly negative impact on the Murano glassmaking industry because the government enacted legislation restricting glass production on the island to favor Bohemia, the empire's other glassmaking region. Taxation and a lack of markets resulted in a significant decrease in glass furnaces.
Most glass shops had closed by the mid-19th century, and the few still open had been reduced to producing glass trading beads. The formerly famed Murano glassblowers' tradition vanished entirely from the island in just a few decades. The centuries-old methods and recipes that the Venetians had carefully safeguarded for hundreds of years had vanished.
The Recovery of Murano Glass from Venice
The downward trend turned around in the middle of the 19th century when the Fratelli Toso corporation established a new glass furnace. A second company named Salviati was established in 1859 after the 1854 launch of the Fratelli Toso corporation. Both businesses started with basic glass products: one produced everyday glassware, and the second produced mosaic tile repair materials.
But among the many who had preserved glassblowing traditions, preserved the art of the fathers and grandfathers, and discovered ancient glass-making processes were the master glassblowers who gradually gathered at these two enterprises. One of them was Lorenzo Radi, who had studied the intricate glass-making methods from the 1400s and other unique processes, such as the production of chalcedony glass.
At the 1862 London World's Fair, the Salviati factory's products attained widespread fame. Commercial success followed this acknowledgment of artistic excellence, and the company opened a sales office in London in 1868. Through these attempts, Venetian glass found new markets outside of the Hapsburg Empire. Venice was delivered from Austrian rule in 1866 and incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy. The Murano glassmaking sector gradually grew commercially.
Murano Glass from Venice: Relevance in Today's Art Industry
In conclusion, Murano glass is famous worldwide for its unrivaled quality, exquisite color palette, and craftsmanship. In fact, avant-garde Murano glass is so fine that you can form all other types of Venetian glass. Furthermore, Murano has had a monopoly on quality glassmaking for over 700 years, developing and perfecting numerous techniques still used by local glass artisans to handcraft everything from glass tableware to figurines and famous Murano glass chandeliers. Murano glass's extensive range of pure colors continues to inspire glassmakers worldwide.