The origins of glassmaking in Venice go back to the times of the Roman Empire when molded glass was used for illumination in bathhouses. Blending Roman experience with the skills learned from the Byzantine Empire and trade with the Orient, Venice emerged as a prominent glass-manufacturing center as early as the 8th century. One of the earliest furnaces for glass on a Venetian island, dating from the 8th century, was discovered by archaeologists in 1960.
By the late 1200s, the production of glass objects of the finest quality was the city’s major industry as confirmed by the establishment of the Glassmakers Guild that laid out rules and regulations for the craftsmen. The purpose of the guild was to safeguard the secrets of the trade and ensure the profitability of the industry. In line with these objectives, a 1271 law prohibited the importation of foreign glass or the employment of foreign glassworkers.
An even more radical law was passed in 1291 that laid the ground for the establishment of Murano as a premier glass-manufacturing center. This law required that all furnaces used for glassmaking be moved from Venice to Murano to avoid the risk of fire from the furnaces spreading onto the largely wooden structures of overpopulated Venice. Many historians agree that the true motive for this law was to isolate the glass craftsmen to a location where they wouldn’t be able to disclose trade secrets. A subsequent law passed in 1295 forbidding the glassmakers from leaving the city confirms this theory.
Artisans working in the glass trade were well rewarded for their efforts. They had a privileged social status, and their daughters were allowed to marry into the wealthiest and noblest of Venetian families. By applying this clever approach, Venetian government ensured that the glassmakers encouraged their offspring to carry on the trade, and that trade secrets stayed in the families and fueled creative processes leading to innovation and further success. This, along with Venice’s convenient location at the crossroads of trade between East and West, gave Venice monopoly power in manufacturing and selling quality glass throughout Europe that lasted for centuries.
15th and 16th Centuries and the Full Bloom of Glass Making
Venetian glass reached the peak of its popularity in the 15th and 16th centuries. In the 15th century, master Angelo Barovier discovered the process for producing clear glass - (cristallo) - that allowed Murano glassmakers to become the only producers of mirrors in Europe. In addition, the popularity of Chinese porcelain among European nobility fueled discovery and production of the white glass mimicking porcelain (lattimo).
Other types of glassmaking techniques became popular such as enamelling and gilding glass, which originated in the Middle East, filigrana glass which is made using glass rods with inner threads of white, golden or colored glass that are twisted or intersecting, and ice glass which appears finely crackled. Variety of shapes and colors increased, and glassware became more sophisticated though the beauty was still viewed as the simplicity of shapes and ornaments.
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