Murano is a small island North West of the city of Venice, Italy -not much larger than a few square miles. It is believed the origins of Murano Glass dates back to 9th century Rome, with significant Asian and Muslim influences, as Venice was a major trading port. Multihued perle (beads) were used in trading with Asian, African and Muslim neighbors.
Glass and glassmaking skills were spread throughout Europe some two thousand years ago by the Romans who made bottles, vases, and hollow vessels in Rome for supply throughout their empire.
Murano glass is the longest lasting center for glass making in history. It spans from the 9th century to today, and is full of beautiful and innovative artwork, success, failure and thankfully, a remarkable resiliency in the face of adversity. Because Murano does have such a long history, one can easily see the reflection of important events, including the Renaissance and Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, and how they affected a small island of glassmakers in the Adriatic Sea.
There was a decline in glassmaking when the Roman Empire fell, but the success of Venice as a trading center attracted glass craftsmen from Syria and other eastern centers to Italy. Venice had established itself as a glassmaking center as early as 450 A.D.
The first known historical document describes Domenico, a maestro (glass blowing master) who created fiole (bottles). Other equally rare documents describe Pietro Fiolario working with glass in 1083 and Giovanni Fiolario as a maestro making bottles in 1158.
The craft grew so rapidly, that in the 1260’s a trade association, the Arte, was formed. In an attempt to create and formalize a body of broad rules on how glass shops were to be operated and the duties and responsibilities of both maestri and discipuli (disciples) , the Capitolare was created. The earliest known version of the Capitolare dates to 1271, and was updated regularly for over 500 years until 1776.
In 1291, the Maggior Consiglio (Venetian government) decreed that all the glass furnaces had to be moved from the city of Venice proper onto the island of Murano, because of the fire hazard to a city built of wood.
The reason was partly to protect other buildings from fires (which commonly started in glassworks – the Great Fire of London is believed to have started in a glassworks); and partly to retain a monopoly on the glass trade.
To ensure that the maestri’s secrets were never revealed, harsh sentences were issued to individuals who leaked secrets to foreigners or left Venice without official permission. At the time it was rumored that the Maggior Consiglio even hired assassins to capture or kill artisans who left the island.
The death penalty was used as a threat to keep glassworkers on Murano, and it was even forbidden to teach foreigners the trade secrets of glassmaking.
Throughout the middle ages Venetian glass led the world. Their great secrets included the formula for Cristallo glass, a very clear transparent glass, which was particularly well suited to elaborate trailing, and thinly blown, intricate designs.
Angelo Barovier discovered Cristallo, which complemented the intricate designs seen in the mid to late 15th century. Goblets, bottles and pitchers all had ornate and sophisticated designs including enameling and gold leaf. New production techniques were slowly developed, including, filigrana a retortoli in 1527 and a ghiaccio around 1570.
They also used thinly sliced millefiori canes, and many of their designs were similar to popular Roman designs, albeit thinner and more delicate. Another of their great inventions was lattimo or milk glass, an opaque milky white glass. They made some white cups and beakers, but mostly lattimo glass was used in the form of thin canes to make elaborate lacy patterns in clear glass.
Demand for Venetian glass became so great; some maestros disregarded the Guild’s edict on trade secrets and began migrating throughout Europe. Even Louis XIV commissioned master craftsmen to create glass pieces for the palace at Versailles.
The Netherlands, Germany, France and Spain also had their own furnaces run by Muranese expatriates who described their works as à la façon de Venise (in the Venetian manner) and often modified classic designs and techniques to suit local materials and tastes.
Murano supremacy in glassmaking was challenged and overtaken during the 19th & 20th centuries by glassmakers in Bohemia and England. More recently, the Contemporary (Studio) Glass Movement was slow to take off in Italy, but is well in evidence there today.