When you think of the VenetianIsland of Murano, glass immediately springs to mind.
The history of glass has been interwoven with this island since 1290, when the Most Serene Republic of Venice ordered the transfer of all glass production to Murano to ensure that the whole of Venice would not go up in flames if a furnace were to catch fire. Since then, for over 720 years Murano has been linked to this curious substance. The manufacture of glass as we know it dates back to ancient Egypt, but it was the Romans who further developed particular glassmaking techniques, which would later be revived by the foundries on Murano. It was thanks to Bizantium and the splendid mosaics that adorn the basilicas of the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire that the art of glassmaking was preserved. Little is known as to why Venice became the European capital of glassware. Indeed, the medieval lagoon seemed hardly the best place to develop this type of production, as essential raw materials were lacking and needed to be imported: wood for the furnace, and silica for the glass. Anyway Venice strongly wanted to produce glass. Yet, in Venice glass was highly sought — after, most likely for the production of mosaics, as we can see today in the Basilicas of Saint Mark’s, Torcello and Murano. As Venice preferred to be independent from the Sacred Roman Empire which dominated the mainland, it developed as a most important churches were not based on the Romanesque model, as Constantinople, and the nearby exarchate of Ravenna, a centre of Byzantine power in Italy. It is likely that the glass mosaic tiles were initially imported, but later manufactured on site.
There is no firm evidence that it was the Benedictine monks themselves who produced the tiles, but as their motto was » ora et labora «, it could very well have included craftwork of this kind. What is known for certain, however, is that over a thousand years ago one of Venice’s Doges decoded to present the Benedictine monks with a precious Christmas gift: land on which to build a new monastery. On 20 December 982 Doge Tribuno Memmo gave the monks the Church and Island of San Giorgio, close to Saint Mark’s Square. Amongst the illustrious citizens present at the ceremony was one Domenicus fiolarius, or manufacturer of «fiole», bottles. This provides us with precious information: first, that glass was worked, an second, it was also blown. This is the first record we have of a glass-manufacturer from Venice, dating back over a thousand years ago. There are also two other records, dated 1087, concerning once more the monastery of San Giorgio, where a certain Petrus fiolarius was present during another donation ceremony, to be found again in a document three years later in 1090.
Let us go forward two hundred years, there is evidence from maritime statutes and commercial contracts that in the thirteenth century Venetian ships arriving from the Middle East used scrap glass as ballast. Capitulary archives reveal that in 1271 three distinct categories already existed. the foundry owner, masters and workers. The first category could only include citizens from the «dogadum», the thin strip of coast tha went from Grado to Cavarzere which constituted the main territory of the Republic of Saint Mark. We know that the «fiolari» were allowed to burn alder and willow — for other types of wood they needed to make a request — and that the working year was divided up into seven continuous months, so that the five months left were dedicated to restoring or substituting the furnaces. In 1290 glass manufacturers were obliged to concentrate all their production on the island of Murano, in workshops that overlooked a canal walkway («fondamenta») that was called Verieri and today Vetrai. In 1295 emigration was banned to prevent the development of foreign competition, but this was not much heeded, since we see that over following centuries punishment became increasingly harsh, reaching a point when families of glassmakers were imprisoned and killers were hired by state Inquisitors, as occurred in Paris in 1667. In the fourteenth century the figure of the master glassmaker became socially important, to the extent that in the second half of the century the aristocracy could marry the daughter of a glassmaker without losing privileges for their children. In 1383 the art of glassmaking was declared a noble one and in 1441 Murano had the first statute (Mariegola) governing glassmakers. In the first half of the same century lived Angelo Barovier, one of the most illustrious glassmakers in the history of Murano glass. It was he who invented flawless, transparent glass (called «crystal» because of its colour that resembled rock crystal), which he produced using manganese as a decolourising agent that was mined in the Piedmont region. He is also alleged to have developed the techniques to produce chalcedony (multicoloured veined glass resembling semiprecious stones). His most famous piece is a mid-fifteenth century blue enamelled wedding goblet, called the «coppa Barovier», housed in the MuranoGlassMuseum. Following his death in 1460, the glass works was inherited by his sons and daughter, Marietta, who was not only one of the rare examples of women glassmakers in the history of Murano, but was also responsible for the development of rosettes or «murrine», a technique dating back to the Roman antiquity, but subsequently forgotten. The multicoloured and monochrome rosettes rediscovered by Marietta later played a remarkable geopolitical role, as these «coloured beads» were used as currency by white slave traders in Africa to buy their slaves. This is the reason why the beads were called «conterie», because they were forms of currency and so their precise number had to be noted. Moreover, we know that the necklace worn by Cortez in 1519 when he was received by the Aztec emperor Montezuma was of Venetian origin. Cortez offered his necklace as a gift to Montezuma, in return for two precious red-shell necklaces, from each of which hung eight golden shrimps, ten centimetre long (the necklaces alone could have purchased several foundries). Another type of glass, milk glass, again dates back to the fifteenth century, whose characteristic feature imitated Chinese porcelain, which was being introduced into Venice at that time, hence rare and precious. Two other items were also being developed at that time — mirrors, and more importantly, glass lenses, thanks to Angelo Barovier’s invention. The latter had previously been made of polished rock crystal, a highly expensive procedure, so the invention of transparent glass greatly reduced the cost of production. Initially the glass lenses were considered fakes, until an order was issued tha imposed the declaration of the provenance of the material used. Murano became a leader in lens production. There is little evidence to confirm that Galileo Galilei (who taught in the nearby city of Padua) used these lenses from Murano for his telescope, but it is quite likely that he did. Throughout the sixteenth century Europe was supplied with Murano glass which was supplied with Murano glass which was affordable by many, at least in the shape of coloured beads.The sixteenth and first half of seventeenth century were the golden age of Venetian glass production, and Murano was its capital.
The seventeenth century was also the period in which the production of glass sheets, both white and coloured, was at its height. However, it was precisely this popularity which would eventually bring about the later decline in demand. In this period much of Europe, but also Persia and China, set about producing glass «à la façon de Venice». In England in 1675 production of lead oxide crystal began, and although less easy to work than venetian glass, it possessed higher light refractive properties. Five years later, in 1680, Bohemian crystal seriously challenged Venice’s monopoly of the glass market, as it was of greater clarity (soda was replaced with potash and chalk), and much better for cutting and engraving. Further more, France under Louis XIV challenged the monopoly of venetian mirror manufacture. Although Venetians violently tried to stop the concurrence, the European diffusion of glass working was unstoppable. The end of the monopoly, although serious, was not the determining factor in the decline of Murano production, as the manufacture of mirrors continued throughout the eighteenth century. What really challenged the nation supremacy was Bohemian crystal. In the early eighteenth century island’s fate seemed to be decided, as Bohemian crystal was introduced in Venice, despite an official ban. All this changed in 1740 when Giuseppe Briati established the production of glass «in the Bohemian style», reviving fifteenth and sixteenth century techniques. Murano, whose techniques had once been imitated, turned to the imitation of Bohemian glass, producing potash glass with a high lime content, and became incredibly successful. Indeed, Briati applied for a patent for glass making in Venice and not on the island of Murano, and for the first time in 450 years the Council of Ten conceded the patent’s validity. He revived milk glass and chalcedony production, and produced amongst other things table centerpieces, which were wheel-engraved, rather than diamond point engraved, a technique that had been introduced from Bohemia. However, Briati is best-known for his sumptuous chandeliers, the «ciocche» (bunch of flowers) with many arms, decorated with leaves, flowers and fruit, polychromatic or transparent, which illuminated the Venetian Palace Salons. Some chandeliers can be admired today in such places as Ca Rezzonico. Then the thousand-year-old Republic ceased to exist on 12 May 1797 with the arrival of Napoleon and his troops. In 1806 all the guilds were dissolved, including those of the glass makers, and glass production halted altogether, a part from the manufacture of beads. For about forty years the furnaces remained unused and the age-old artistry of the master glass makers seemed doomed to vanish. Later, under Austrian domination in 1830 the demand for glass making returned when an antique dealer by the name of Sanquirico asked several old glass makers to produce objects that he then passed off as antiques. In other words, they were fakes, but were so numerous that they even had a specific name: «zanfirici». Nevertheless, in 1850 glass production was at its lowest. On Murano only 19 foundries remained active with 160 workers employed. However, as happened with Briati a century earlier, the tide was reversed by an abbot, Vincenzo Zanetti, who firmly believed in restoring the foundries to their original splendour, and indeed succeeded in doing so. Zanetti decided to collect all the best of past production in order to provide an example for future generations, and in 1861 he founded what is still today the GlassMuseum on Murano. He sought the old master glass makers and the following year opened a school for young apprentices that still exist today and introduced technological innovations in the furnaces. Another notable event helped to herald the revival of Murano glass work through the insight of a former lawyer from Vicenza, Antonio Salviati, who decided to dedicate his life to glass production. As a result, in 1867, Murano glass was displayed at the Universal Exposition in Paris and captured international attention. Murano glassware became once again a desirable commodity and salons all over Europe were illuminated by enormous chandeliers adorned with flowers and leaves. What finally propelled Murano glass production into the twentieth century and into the art world was the contribution of another lawyer, this time from Milan. In 1921, Paolo Venini established a new foundry that would in time become famous. The focus was increasingly on artistic design, not only artisan skills and many other foundries followed suit. Not only was artistic glass manufactured, but industrial production also became important. For example, reflective paint was invented on Murano, initially used to mark signposts that named towns bearing a white text on a blue background. Other examples of production were vehicle lights, glass for the chemical industry, medicine, bottles and demijohns. The WWII brought about great changes. Some materials were in short apply, especially gold, and Murano became involved in the war effort, producing glass for the navigation lights on aircrafts and boats. This type of production continued after the war and thus boosted the glass sector. The 1950’s were years of great expansion, but also of great poverty, as manual labour cost little. Thus, it was not uncommon for people to emigrate abroad. After the ‘boom’, production turns back in crisis during the general crisis of Italian economics which involved our country from the 1970’s on. The glass manufacture cycle has changed little through centuries, apart from the introduction of some rather important techniques. Following WWI the wood, which had previously been imported from Istria and Dalmatia, was replaced by coal and naphta, the latter only being used for melting at night as otherwise the glass would be stained during its shaping due to its oily texture. Methane has been used since 1952, as it seems to be the ideal fuel, since it does not stain, it burns without producing any waste, thus ensuring that the glass is clean without impurities.
Glass is a night creature. It smoulders for hours, while the moon casts a silver light over the roofs and canals on Murano, and the fire in the furnaces burns ever brighter until the crucibles have transformed sand and scrap glass into a mass of molten glass, ready to be shaped by the skilful master. Glass is not much to look at before it enters the furnace: a mixture of 70% sand (nowadays imported from fontaine bleau, near Paris), 20% soda, and lime, other minor compounds, and metal oxides in order to provide colour: the classic red colour, «ruby gold», is obtained by adding copper oxide, but this has a brownish hue, so dark that it used to be pressed between two sheets of transparent glass in order to lighten the colour; during the Austrian domination of Italy a specific shade of red called «Imperial Red» was developed, which was a compound of selenium and cadmium sulphide, and was much brighter than the previous shades, in the late nineteenth century rare minerals were used to achieve new colours such as pink and violet, which had been previously obtained combining gold and cobalt. One colour that is no longer in use is yellow produced using uranium, which was immensely popular in the early twentieth century but turned out to be highly radioactive. The team of glass makes working at the furnace is called the «Piazza», which has remained unaltered for centuries. It is usually composed of a minimum of three to a maximum of six people, but the usual number is five, composed of the master glass maker, who works and shapes the glass and his assistants, the «Serventi» (apprentice), who prepares the object, the «Serventino» who removes the globe of glass from the crucible and brings it to the Servente or Master, the «Garzone» (boy), who helps the master by cutting or adding glass. Most of products (vases, lamps, chandeliers, glasses and everything which can be invented by fantasy) are created by the master-glass-maker’s art. Acquiring a Murano artefact means owning valuable item, and gaining a knowledge of its origins and what it represents within this chain means acquiring a piece of history, which is quite invaluable. Unfortunately today the crisis is not only industrial, but also commercial. The glassware is sold above all outside Murano, while the so-called showrooms, full of brightly coloured glass and with a small furnace to demonstrate glass blowing techniques are there to cheat the tourist, as most of the glassware present is made in China. This is the fault of the Murano islanders who had previously commissioned their wares from Empoli and subsequently from Central Europe, only to discover that with China they could make fabulous profits. This has now turned against them, as can be seen with the countless shops selling imitation Murano glassware that is passed off as original, while the honest shopkeepers have a hard time convincing people to appreciate their wares.