The cluster of islands known as Murano emerges from the Venetian lagoon, a vast expanse of water whose surface reflects every shift in light. Since the thirteenth century, glassmakers have observed these shimmering waters outside their workshops, a vision reflected in the art that has made Murano, and its glass masters, world-famous.
Glass vessels dating from the Roman era have been excavated across the Veneto. Some of these glass works incorporate classic techniques, such as murrina that we now associate with Murano glass, and they look remarkably consistent with glass produced in Venice even today. Fioleri (glass-, or more specifically, bottle-makers) are noted in Venetian documents as far back as the tenth century, and their name gives an idea of the utilitarian nature of the wares they probably produced at that time: tableware, window glass, and other household items. During the Middle Ages the art of glassmaking must have also been closely linked with mosaic, which was widely used across the city. Venetian mosaicists regularly used glass tesserae, or pieces, in creating the mosaics that decorated the floors, walls, and vaults of many of the city’s churches. By the 1220s, glassmakers were organized into guilds operating under a strict set of statutes that governed not only their working conditions but also many other aspects of the glassmakers’ lives.
Glassblowers came to be located on Murano for two reasons. The first was to minimize fire risk in Venice. The great number of glass-firing ovens—which regularly reached some 1500 degrees Celsius—produced beautiful glass objects but also initiated fires in the city. The fire hazard must have become onerous because by the 1270s, city officials had begun to transfer glass workshops from the center of Venice to Murano, a process completed by 1291. The second reason to relocate glassmakers to Murano was probably political. Trade secrets of Murano glassmaking were already being leaked across Europe during the Middle Ages, and sequestering glassmakers on Murano allowed the Republic to control glass production and exportation, ensuring that these secrets remained in Venice. Glassmakers faced steep fines or even imprisonment if they traveled outside the Republic, though interestingly, glassmakers from Dalmatia, Bohemia, and elsewhere were occasionally authorized to work on Murano. Until the sixteenth century, Murano glassmakers held a monopoly on European glassmaking, and their stunning creations brought them renown across the world.
We know something about early Venetian glassmaking techniques thanks to a work called L’Arte Vetraria (“glass art”), written by Antonio Neri in 1612. Neri’s work outlines the most valued types of Murano glass at that time, noting that it was the delicacy, lightness, and translucency of Murano glass that brought it fame.
Although the majority of Venetian glassmakers named in historical documents were men, some female glassmakers’ names appeared as early as the 1500s, especially in connection with beadmaking, whose practitioners formed their own separate guild. Many thousands of these beads made their way to Africa and North America, where they were used as currency and as embellishment for clothing well into the modern era. Even today early Venetian “trade beads” can be found on objects as disparate as a Native American purse or an African headdress.
The glassmaking trade faced hardships toward the end of the 1600s, when economic difficulties and plague outbreaks hit Venice particularly hard. Murano glassworkers also lost their monopoly on the exportation of certain types of glass and mirrors to the French royal manufactures, and other European glassmaking centers rose to prominence. The Venetian guilds were officially dismantled in the first few years of the 1800s, but just a few decades later there was already renewed interest in Murano glass. The mid-1800s saw an invigoration of Murano glass traditions with the foundation of several new firms, including Fratelli Barovier and Fratelli Toso, today Barovier & Toso. Murano glass enjoys a healthy trade today thanks in part to the tourist market and high demand among collectors for special pieces.
Even with the great variety of Murano glass techniques and its long history, there is something cohesive in the visual vocabulary of Murano glass. Even ancient pieces of glass discovered in the Veneto show that the region’s glassblowing techniques have remained consistent since ancient times. Some centuries-old museum pieces look remarkably contemporary, with the colorful stripes and swirls we still associate with Murano.
Today, the island of Murano is synonymous with glass. Everything imaginable is made from Murano glass: wine goblets, vases, candlestick holders, miniature animals, paperweights, chandeliers, lampshades, dinner services, tiny pieces of glass candy, beads, and every kind of jewelry you can imagine. There is tremendous variety in quality, price, and style. When it’s quickly turned out for a cheap profit among the tourist trade, frankly it can look hideous. When it’s well done, it takes your breath away.