Venetian Glass

Glassmaking in Murano comes from a common thread in Venetian history - the status of the settlement as a bridge between west and east. Glassmaking was an art that had reached a height in the countries of the Middle East - particularly in Syria, Egypt and Palestine - and Venice, looking outwards to the sea as always, was fertile soil for the specialised skills of the trade.

As Venice's trade grew with the Orient, typified by the journeys of Marco Polo and his uncles, so the skills from that area began to flow - along with the trade goods - along the return route.

Lion of St Mark

This is not to say, however, that glass was an unknown quantity in Italy before this time. The Romans had used glass - cut from a moulded piece rather than blown - for illumination in bathhouses. And what was probably one of the first glass furnaces on a Venetian island - dating from the 8th century, so archaelogists think - was discovered in the 1960s. Not on Murano, however, but on its more important neighbour in those days, the island of Torcello.

The fact that glass-blowing was more an Eastern skill than a European one played in Venice's favour as it, along with its bitter rival, Genoa, had the best connections to that area.

The Development of Murano

Many sources suggest that glassmaking was concentrated on the island of Murano because of the risk of fire from the furnaces on the more heavily populated areas of Rivo Alto and Dorsoduro. However, it is also highly likely that the industry was easier to control and influence when it was in one particular place.

As with the Arsenale, the Venetian authorities aimed to reward and guard a vital industry by keeping it comfortable within a "gilded cage". Incentives and conditions for workers and employers were strictly regulated by the administrators of the government body controlling the glassmaking industry.

Lion of St Mark

And for a long time workers who left the island were forbidden from ever working again within the industry on Murano - a measure taken to stop the outflow of secrets and skills from the island.

Whatever the reasons for the concentration of glassmakers within such a small area, the effect was a tremendous cross-fertilisation of ideas which led to the leading role of Venetian glass within Europe.

Ruling the Continent

The popularity of Venetian glass in the 15th and 16th centuries was fuelled by its expertise in producing clear glass - cristallo - or the white glass mimicking porcelain - lattimo. The practice of enamelling glass, which had originally spread from the Middle East, was also highly popular at the time. Venetain mirrors, too, were in great demand.

The evident prosperity of the glassmakers' guild on Murano of course attracted attempts at competition elsewhere in Europe and Italy and Venice was forced to intensify its carrot and stick approach to the industry.

Lion of St Mark

The ranks of master and assistant glassblower were opened up to allow non-residents an honorary citizenship of Murano - subject to the same rights and restrictions, of course - and, at the same time, steps were taken to close glass furnaces operating in other parts of the territory controlled by the Venetian Republic by force.

In the time of its greatest popularity, Murano was visited by crowned heads, popes and the leading businessmen of its time - all attracted by glass "à la façon de Venise".

Seeds of Decline

As with the Republic itself, the seeds of an eventual decline were hidden within the apparent success. Knowledge attempts to be free and, despite best efforts of the guilds, the government and the feared secret services, enough seeped away from the island to allow rival enterprises to start.

Merchants who had experience of commerce with Murano set up their own factories in France, Belgium and Austria. The repeated bouts of plague necessitated frequent relaxations of the strict employment laws to attract a sufficient number of workers. And, eventually, a new technique arose to challenge the pre-eminence of Murano glass - leaded glass - which developed bases in the UK and Bohemia.

Times of Hardship

The 18th century saw the seeds of decay start to flourish, and the furnaces of Murano were hit with worker discontent as one after another was forced to close and unemployment grew.

The relative decline in the importance of Venice as a power on the political stage also meant that it was less effective in policing its extensive and restrictive rules.

Lion of St Mark

Even an unexpected niche boom - led by a manufacturer of glass chandeliers - exemplified the decline. After centuries of seclusion the manufacturer was allowed to set up shop in Venice itself to keep his furnace and workers away from his jealous colleagues.

Occupation first by French and then Austrian troops put the finishing touches to the Serenissima - the Venetian Republic - and very nearly put paid to the glassmaking industry.

Modern Times

Glassmaking in Venice suffered under foreign rule and it was not until Venice was made part of Italy that the fortunes started to rise again. The Venice Biennale at the end of the 19th century showed that the spark of glass art was not dead and the early 20th century saw interest grow in using traditional techniques as part of a new movement.

The post World War II increase in visitors and interest in Venetian history has brought criticism that much of the "tourist glass" produced is a) not even made in Murano and b) unworthy of its pedigree. But, on the other hand, the current interest has also enabled the development of specialist lighting and jewellery producers - as well as the high end glass sculptors and artists.

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