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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
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, 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.
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.
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 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.