Venetian glass

A blue glass bowl
Decorated bowl from Murano
tools holding glass horse being shaped
Glassmaking tools holding a glass horse being shaped

Venetian glass (Italian: vetro veneziano) is thought to have been made for over 1,500 years, and production has been concentrated on the Venetian island of Murano since the 13th century. Today Murano is known for its art glass, but it has a long history of innovations in glassmaking in addition to its artistic fame—and was Europe's first major glassmaking center. During the 15th century, Murano glassmakers created cristallo—which was almost transparent and considered the finest glass in the world. Murano glassmakers also developed a white-colored glass (milk glass called lattimo) that looked like porcelain. They later became Europe's finest makers of mirrors.

Originally, Venice was controlled by the Byzantine Empire, but it eventually became an independent city state. It flourished as a trading center and seaport. Its connections with the Middle East helped its glassmakers gain additional skills, as glassmaking was more advanced in areas such as Syria and Egypt. Although Venetian glassmaking in factories existed as far back as the 8th Century, it became concentrated in Murano by law, beginning in 1291. Since glass factories often caught fire, this removed much of the possibility of a major fire disaster for the city. Venetian glassmakers developed secret recipes and methods for making glass, and the concentration of Venice's glassmaking on the island of Murano enabled better control of those secrets.

Murano became Europe's elite glassmaking center, peaking in popularity in the 15th and 16th centuries. Venice's dominance in trade along the Mediterranean Sea created a wealthy merchant class that was a strong connoisseur of the arts. This helped establish demand for art glass and more innovations. The spread of glassmaking talent in Europe eventually diminished the importance of Venice and its Murano glassmakers. The occupation and dissolution of the Venetian state by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797 caused more hardship for Murano's glassmaking industry. Murano glassmaking began a revival in the 1920s. Today, Murano and Venice are tourist attractions, and Murano is home to numerous glass factories and a few individual artists' studios. Its Museo del Vetro (Glass Museum) in the Palazzo Giustinian contains displays on the history of glassmaking as well as glass samples ranging from Egyptian times through the present day.


map of Venice, Murano, and Italy
Venice and Murano

The Venetian city state grew during the decline of the Roman Empire as people fled barbarian invasions to the safety of islands in the Venetian Lagoon. Small communities grew in the lagoon, and Venice became the most prominent. The city of Venice became a highly successful trading port, and by the 11th century dominated trade between Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. It also had a strong navy. Many European Crusaders passed through Venice on their way to and from the Holy Land. Treasures of many kinds were bought and sold in Venice: spices, precious metals, gemstones, ivory, silks—and glass. Successful trade bred a wealthy merchant class in addition to the nobles, and the wealthy became patrons of Venice's famous art and architecture.[1]

It is thought that glass production in Venice began around 450, as glassmakers from Aquileia fled to the islands to escape barbarian invaders.[Note 1] The earliest archaeological evidence of a glass factory in the area comes from the Venetian lagoon island of Torcello and dates from the 7th to 8th century.[5] The original Venetian glassmakers were joined by glassmakers from Byzantium (a.k.a. Constantinople) and from the Middle East—which enriched their glassmaking knowledge.[4] Glass was made in the Middle East long before it was made in Europe, though Ancient Roman glass made in Italy, Germany and elsewhere could be extremely sophisticated.[Note 2] Early products included beads, glass for mosaics, jewelry, small mirrors, and window glass.[8]

Venetian glassmaking grew in importance to the city's economy. Around 1271 the local glassmakers' guild made rules to help preserve glassmaking secrets. It was forbidden to divulge trade secrets outside of Venice. If a glassworker left the city without permission, he would be ordered to return.[Note 3] If he failed to return, his family would be imprisoned. If he still did not return, an assassin would be sent to kill him. Additional rules specified ingredients used for making glass and the type of wood used as fuel for the furnaces.[10]

Island of Murano

Dignitary visiting a glass factory in Murano
The Doge visits Murano

A law dated November 8, 1291 confined most of Venice's glassmaking industry to the "island of Murano".[11] Murano is actually a cluster of islands linked by short bridges, located about 1.2 kilometres (0.75 mi) north of Venice in the Venetian lagoon.[citation needed] The furnaces used to make molten glass were a fire hazard, especially in cities with wooden structures nearby. Moving the glassmaking industry to Murano removed the threat of a disastrous fire in Venice. The move also kept the technology of glassmaking, and the glassmakers, confined to Murano. This prevented the spread of Venetian glassmaking expertise to potential competitors. Glassmakers were not allowed to leave the island without permission from the government. Leaving without permission, or revealing trade secrets, was punishable by death. Locating the industry on a single island also made it easier for the government to monitor imports and exports.[12]

Murano in the 1200s was a summer resort where the aristocrats of Venice built villas with orchards and gardens. It took about an hour to row a boat from Venice to Murano.[13] Although the glassmakers could not leave the island, the nobles had no such constraints. Despite their travel restrictions, the glassmakers lived on a beautiful island, were under the direct rule of Venice's Council of Ten (the Venetian state-security committee), and had extra privileges.[14] They did not work during the hot summer, during which furnace repair and maintenance was performed.[15] During the 1300s, the annual summer vacation lasted five months.[16] In the 1400s, the Venetian government shortened the summer vacation to three and a half months.[17] Murano glassmakers sometimes complained they were not working enough.[Note 4] Glassmakers also enjoyed heightened social status. On December 22, 1376, it was announced that if a glassmaker's daughter married a nobleman, there was no forfeiture of social class, so their children were nobles.[19]

Other Languages
العربية: زجاج بندقي
беларуская: Венецыянскае шкло
Bahasa Indonesia: Kaca Venesia
Nederlands: Venetiaans glas
oʻzbekcha/ўзбекча: Venesiya shishasi
українська: Венеціанське скло