CANVASES, CARATS AND CURIOSITIES

The Unexpected History of Venetian Glass

Known as the Floating City, or La Serenissima, Venice carries with it an air of mystery and romanticism unlike any other city in Europe or elsewhere. The world has celebrated Venice’s unexpected beauty for centuries, which extends to the city’s most famous art form — glass. Modern-day tourists visit the city’s factories to see lively glass blowing demonstrations, and its shops are filled with glass trinkets that make wonderful souvenirs. The story of how Venice became the mecca for glassmaking is both fascinating and surprising.

 

Venetian Murano Glass Chandelier, circa 1880.

Venetian Murano Glass Chandelier, circa 1880.

 

Origins

 

Venice’s artisan tradition goes back centuries ago and owes much to her unique geographic position. The city was founded sometime in the 5th or 6th centuries by people fleeing barbarian invaders after the collapse of Rome, who chose the marshy land for the protection it could offer. It did not require massive city walls and fortresses, giving it a completely different character than other Italian cities and helping it to avoid revolution and invasion from antiquity all the way until to modern times. The Republic of Venice’s unique placement also allowed it to establish bases throughout the Adriatic Sea to facilitate sea commerce, helping it become a pivotal commercial center. It served as a bridge between the West, the eastern Mediterranean, and Africa and enjoyed immense political and cultural importance as a result.

 
Venice was originally controlled by the Byzantine Empire before becoming an independent city state, a connection that was essential in its early development as a glassmaking center. Glassmaking of the time was more of an Eastern than European craft, and Venice’s position within the Byzantine Empire attracted craftsmen from Syria and Egypt. The earliest archeological evidence of Venice’s glassmaking factories can be traced back as far as the 8th century, but the first guild did not appear until the 13th century. Their earliest products included beads, jewelry, mosaic glass and window glass.
 
In 1199, the 4th Crusades began, largely led by the Venetians due to their strategic position and strong navy. Using that navy, the Venetians sacked Constantinople in the beginning of the 13th century. At the time, Constantinople was the largest and wealthiest city in Europe and Near East, far bigger than London, Paris, Rome, or Venice, and they traded with everyone from the Indians and Persians to the Muslims and Chinese. They had knowledge of a huge variety of craftsman techniques, including glassmaking. When the Venetian navy attacked, they brought back with them many of Constantinople’s glass artisans, bolstering their own legacy of glassmaking.
 

Murano Venetian Glass Fountain

Murano Venetian Glass Fountain

 

Secrets of the Trade

 

The Venetian glass trade quickly became highly profitable. Isolated in her lagoon, the tiny nation was insulated from the rest of Europe during the Dark Ages, and, rarely challenged, was able to hold on to her riches and flourish. At a time of prosperity, lavish glass pieces became a hallmark of the affluent, a uniquely Venetian testament to wealth. Because glass was becoming such a big business, this posed a threat to the city (made up mostly of wooden structures) in the form of fire. A devastating fire caused Venice’s Maggior Consiglio, or Grand Council, to order all glassmakers moved to the nearby island of Murano in 1291.

 
This move served another more intriguing purpose — to prevent an early form of corporate espionage. The Venetians took their craft seriously, and their glassmaking methods were a closely guarded secret. Murano was isolated and far away from the prying eyes of other European cities that wanted in on the lucrative business of glassmaking. Glassmakers were bound to the island and not allowed to leave, but they enjoyed heightened social status despite being part of the artisan class, and often married into noble families.
 

 

Hall of Mirrors, Palace of Versailles

Hall of Mirrors, Palace of Versailles
 

One of the most exciting stories about the Venetians’ attempts to keep their craft a secret takes place in the 17th century as the Palace of Versailles was being constructed, specifically, its famed Hall of Mirrors. Jean-Battiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s head of construction and Minister of Finance, decreed that every single aspect of the palace had to be manufactured in France. At the time, mirrors were an incredibly expensive status symbol, but no French artisans knew how to make them. So, they looked to Venice and the Isle of Murano, and Colbert devised a plan to bribe and smuggle glassmakers away from the island. The Republic was so protective of their secret that after the defectors escaped to France, the government put their families in prison and even deployed assassins to poison the artisans. This was ultimately unsuccessful, and the rogue glassmakers taught French apprentices their craft.

 

Venetian Mirror, circa 1880.

Venetian Mirror, circa 1880.
 

Evolution of the Craft

 

This defection meant that Venice’s mirror-making monopoly was now broken. Over a century later, Napoleon’s conquest of Venice in 1797 halted the output of Murano glassmakers for about six decades. But in the 1850s, it was revived by one determined and enterprising glassmaker and businessman, Antonio Salviati. After Venice regained its independence from foreign rule and prosperity returned to the city, artisans began to revitalize their craft that they had lost just a generation before, including the nation’s pride – glassmaking. Salviati, his craftsmen, and his competitors succeeded in restoring the glass industry to its former grandeur by the end of the 19th century. This came at the same time that the practice of the Grand Tour introduced young European nobility to the art and culture of Europe. The requisite stops were Paris, Florence, Rome and, of course, Venice, where glass objects were popular souvenirs.

 

Venetian Murano Glass Chandelier, circa 1880.

Venetian Murano Glass Chandelier, circa 1880.
 

Innovations

 

Venetian glass encompasses a wide variety of products, techniques, and styles because the city’s artisans were always innovating. By the 16th century, they had gained even greater control over the color and transparency of their glass and had mastered a variety of decorative techniques, such as mirrors. There are many, many more, but other important innovations included:

 

Cristallo
The first colorless Venetian glass, cristallo was created circa 1453. It was the clearest glass one could find in Europe at the time, with all others having a green or yellowish tint, making it highly desirable across the continent with nobility and the Church.

 

Filigrana
Filigrana, or filigree, style glass was also first created in the 15th century. Involving embedding white or colored glass canes within colorless glass, filigrana has a distinct striped appearance. Multiple variations are possible with vetro a retortoli having a spiral pattern and vetro a reticello producing a double spiral.

 

 

 Glass cane using the vetro a retortoli filigrana technique.
 Glass cane using the vetro a retortoli filigrana technique.
 
Glass cane using the vetro a retortoli filigrana technique.
 

Murrine or Millefiori

 

This technique involves canes of glass fused together to form a larger cane that is then sliced to expose a pattern. It is an ancient form of glassmaking that experienced a resurgence among Venetian artisans during the Renaissance.

 
Venetian glass perfume bottles incorporating murrine glass.
Venetian glass perfume bottles incorporating murrine glass.
 
Venetian glass perfume bottles incorporating murrine glass.
 

Aventurine

 

Aventurine glass incorporates tiny pieces of gold or other metals for a shimmering effect. It got its name because of its chance discovery in the early 17th century when an artisan is said to have dropped some metal shavings into his molten glass by accident. In Italian, "all'avventura" means "by chance."
Venetian champagne flute with aventurine glass stem.

 
Venetian champagne flute with aventurine glass stem. Venetian champagne flute with aventurine glass stem.

 

Venetian glass boasts a fascinating history, incredible innovations, brilliant hues and dazzling, acrobatic designs. The astonishing technical and creative mastery of these glassmakers place their pieces among the most delightful and extraordinary in the world. Click here to explore M.S. Rau’s entire collection of Venetian glass objects.

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