The history of Venice as a center of glassmaking is a particularly rich one. Since the 15th century, all over the world, the name of the island of Murano has been virtually synonymous with the creation of the finest and most elegant glass.
The origins of glassmaking in the Venetian lagoon, date back much further, their roots lying in the Roman manufacturing tradition on the nearby mainland.
The first archaeological evidence of the production of glass in the lagoon comes from the island of Torcello and dates from the 7th century. Documents in which glassmakers are mentioned occur from the late10th century onwards.
The industry expanded considerably after the Sack of Constantinople 1203/4, an event that had a tremendous impact on Venice, both technical and economic.
Sophisticated glass techniques such as enameling were brought in from the east at that time, but the Sack of Constantinople also brought Venice absolute dominance of the trade in luxury goods around the whole Mediterranean.
From an early date the Republic organized its glass trade and industry in a conscious effort to achieve a worldwide monopoly. Glassmakers were already subject to some rules in the 12th century. The famous Capitulare de Fiolaris dating from 1271, is the first statute of the glassmaker's art, containing rules and regulations for all people involved in glassmaking, including the furnace owners and the youngest apprentices, who were by the all organized in a guild of glassmakers. The "Capitulares" was regularly amended until the last version was issued in 1776.
A decree of November 8th 1291 forbade the establishment of new glasshouses in Venice. This meant that soon after the entire glass industry, with the exception of some lampworkers and beadmakers, was concentrated on the island of Murano, as it still is today. Since the 13th century Venetian glass has been known in Europe and in the Near East for its special qualities of transparency and its elegant shapes.
The glass used, known by the Venetians as "cristallo" had the quality of being extremely ductile when hot, but cooled very quickly while being worked. This enabled the glassblowers to create thinly-blown complicated shapes at the furnace, reheating the glass as many times as necessary during the process. Complete understanding of the material and excellent glassblowing techniques were required to exploit fully the qualities of this type of glass.
Technical knowledge and skill were built up over many generations of glassblowers, and were developed in conjunction with a sense of elegance and style which was totally appropriate to the material. Recipe books, banded down and added to from generation to generation, illustrate this constant process of experimentation, leading to gradual improvements, the rediscovery of lost techniques and the development of many new techniques.
By the end of the 15th century, most of the typically Venetian glassmaking techniques had already been developed and perfected. Enameling and gilding, calcedonio, filigrana and millefiori and a perfectly clear "cristallo" were all used to create glass of great visual variety, ranging from intricate network patterns to imitation of semi-precious stones and ethereal,. very light, transparent objects.
It was these qualities, together with the elegance of design, that meant that Venetian glass was unsurpassed anywhere in the world throughout the 15th, 16th and 1 7th centuries and in great demand by the biggest levels of society. It was only towards the end of the 17th century that this supremacy came to an end. European taste had changed, and much heavier English lead-glass and Bohemian glass were much better suited to the new taste for robust shapes and engraved decoration.
This caused a sharp decline in glassmaking in Venice during the 18th century. The only really successful and originally Venetian products of that period are exuberantly ornate and colorful chandeliers. in the second half of the 19th century a second period of resurgence began, closely related to the historicistic tendencies prevalent at that time in many European countries. Venetian glassmakers revived the styles of their ancestors of the 15th to 17th centuries. A glass museum was established in 1861 affiliated with a school of design, where glassmakers could study old specimens of Venetian glass.
Not only were more or less exact copies of old glasses made during this period, but also highly original 19th-century adaptations, which show a love of color combinations and the juxtaposition of different techniques. Specialist chemists employed by the major glasshouses dramatically extended the range of colors available. it was during this period that the technical basis was laid that led to the most original and technically perfect products of 2Oth century Murano glass.
From Glass by Reino Liefkes
Glass Department Curator Victoria and Albert Museum