The Glass has always linked its name to that of Venice and especially the small island of Murano: the tradition of a very ancient art that has been able to transform an incandescent and amorphous mass into masterpieces, and which has withstood the passage of centuries and epochs, reaching our days more alive than ever.
The origins of glass: from the East to the Venetian Lagoon
The very first evidence of the presence of glass working in Venice dates back as far as 982 by a bottle maker, a certain Dominicus Phiolarius.
But what are the origins of glass? The "discovery" seems to be attributed even to the Phoenicians, who were the first to carry out a primitive processing and, as often happens, the thing was born in a completely fortuitous way: a fire lit for a long time on the sand was enough, the high temperature melted the grains turning them into a sort of honey, which once solidified took on the appearance of a glassy mixture. That was it!
The processing of glass, rather basic, then spread to the Roman Empire, where they used it mainly for a purely domestic and religious use.
But how did glass arrive in the Venetian Lagoon? The answer is simple and lies at the basis of the origins of the city: Venice and the small islands of its lagoon were founded by people fleeing for internal conflicts on their lands. At first it was the Romans, later the immigrants from the East, thanks above all to the dense web of trade that the Serenissima Republic had woven with the East. It was the inhabitants of Constantinople above all who brought their vast knowledge of working techniques to the city. The witty spirit and far-sighted views of the Venetians did the rest: they immediately sensed that this extremely malleable incandescent mass lent itself well to being moulded before it cooled, but above all that it could be enriched with bright colours that remained unchanged until the object was completed.
Thus was born the extraordinary art of Murano glass, with incredible technical and aesthetic values.
The industrial revolution of Murano
But the most important thing that the Republic of Venice sensed had to do with a long-term, revolutionary project, we could say: that work could become an important driving force for the commercial development of the State. This was the reason why great efforts were made to perfect the workmanship and for the strong protection of this new art and its precious craftsmen, as well as for its promotion in what we could call a primordial marketng.
In a short time a series of laws were enacted that favoured the internal development of glass working, categorically prohibiting the importation of foreign products. The same prohibition also concerned individual artisans: it was absolutely forbidden to allow foreign glassmakers to work in the Lagoon. Thus began an industrial activity that at first saw the original nucleus of Venice, Rivo Alto, the current Rialto area, as a place of concentration, and then expanded to the Sestiere di Dorsoduro: it was in these areas that the furnaces were lit daily and real masterpieces were made.
The heart of Venice was the backdrop for the flourishing activity until most of the 1200s when Doge Pietro Gradenigo decreed that all the furnaces be moved to the island of Murano. The main reason, we could say official, was related to the intention to avoid burning in the city because of the frequent fires that developed from the furnaces and that risked to burn most of the houses, mostly made of wood. But there was a second motivation, we could say unofficial: the intention of the Republic was to isolate workers and workers from all those prying eyes that daily crowded the Serenissima, preferring a detached and isolated place, completely outside the dynamics of the city. It was necessary to guard and protect the secrets of an art and Murano was the most suitable place. So it was that the Republic of Venice and Murano, unwittingly, started a real industrial revolution, five centuries before the most famous one.
The privileged class of master glassmakers
The move of the furnaces to Murano provided for the consequent relocation of the master glassmakers and their families. But not everyone was willing to move from a flourishing and powerful city to an island immersed in the silent North Lagoon. The push to accept the change came from the Republic, which offered a series of incentives that concerned both individual artisans and their families: the master glassmakers were able to achieve a high social status by becoming a protected and privileged guild, which no other artisan class had ever enjoyed before, issuing in 1441 the "Mariegola dell'arte dei veri de Muran", a statute of rights and duties. They were allowed to carry a sword, they could marry members of the city nobility and they even became immune from any legal proceedings. Family members, as already mentioned, and above all their children, also enjoyed these benefits. Magnanimity from the Republic? No! It was just a "sweet" way of encouraging new recruits to learn the trade, so that they could pass it on from father to son in endless passage.
But as often happened, when the Republic gave, it also found a way to take it away. And so the benefits were accompanied by a series of limitations and restrictions, which in some cases were really hard. The master glassmakers were a protected category, certainly, but they were also well guarded. In fact, they were absolutely forbidden to leave the territory of the Republic except with a permit requested and issued by the customs authority: those who dared to leave the city without prior authorization were disbarred for life by the Guild without the possibility of being able to exercise the profession anymore. But there was even worse! The export by a craftsman of his knowledge, techniques and knowledge of the art of glass to foreign lands was considered a crime punishable with the death penalty carried out three columns of San Marco. In fact in 1675 one of the best craftsmen of Murano, Gerolamo Barbarin, reached Versailles and worked in the famous Hall of Mirrors of the palace. Without blinking an eye, the Serenissima sentenced him to death. But his exceptional skill saved him from punishment and he was allowed to return home. Even in that case the State thought about itself, and the professional potential of the individual craftsman, certainly not to save a man's life.
Such episodes never happened again.
How is glass made? Methods and types
Today glass processing follows techniques and methods of the past. The main component is siliceous sand, which must be very pure, to which soda is then added, with the task of lowering the melting temperature, then lime, sodium nitrate and potassium carbonate. These elements, once arrived in a furnace, are mixed together and dissolved in a rather complex process, at a temperature that reaches 1400 degrees centigrade. An extremely malleable glowing mass is obtained. At this point, man takes over the manufacturing process: the master glassmaker inserts a long metal rod into the furnace making it rotate continuously so as to take the necessary amount of product. Once extracted, with rather simple tools, the creative phase begins which then leads to the finished product.
At the time of the Serenissima Republic this process led to the production of bottles and mirrors, of which the Venetians were absolute experts, holding the reins of this trade throughout Europe. After the transfer of the furnaces to the island of Murano, the proximity of all the masters led to an exchange of fundamental knowledge to bring significant innovations. It was in this way that in 1400 master Angelo Barovier developed the formula for completely transparent glass processing: it was possible to make glasses and jugs, but above all the first pure and truly reflective mirrors in the world.
Two centuries went by and master Giuseppe Biati created the first flowered chandelier, a work in great demand by all the noble families of the time to embellish the halls of their palaces: among the most beautiful and large ones, the one in the Ballroom of Ca' Rezzonico and the one in the stalls of the Gran Teatro La Fenice.
Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries the pearls of Murano were made, small and colorful glass spheres that were an extraordinary success, even becoming a bargaining chip to obtain products such as spices, precious and very expensive, ivory and even slaves: they were renamed, in fact, pearls of trade or pearls of slaves. Legend has it that Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492 and brought a bag full of glass pearls as a gift to the indigenous people of San Salvador. Over time, the process was perfected with the microscopic Rocailles pearls. They were made with the creation of glass rods, long straight filaments with a very small diameter, inside which the master glassmakers blew to create an air bubble that would then become the hole of the pearl, once the rod was cut into very small parts. They were used for the decoration of dresses and bodices, embroidery and even the production of jewellery, attracting the attention of noblewomen from courts all over Europe.
It was at the end of the nineteenth century when master Vincenzo Moretti made the first murrina, inspired by the ancient Roman mosaics: it is a work that allows to trap in a transparent mass of elements with many bright colors. Complex but extremely fascinating.
From the end of the Serenissima to modern design
Venice and Murano remained absolute powers for glass working for centuries, surviving quite discreetly even after the fall of the Republic by Napoleon in 1797. The real crisis for Murano glass came with the Austrian domination. Austria, in fact, was the home of Bohemian crystal, a particular decorated glass obtained by mixing sodium chloride and gypsum, leading to a final product that was completely colourless and above all more stable than that of Murano. It is easy to imagine that the Austrians promoted their local glass to the detriment of that of Laguna: in their 20 years of domination they drastically reduced the import of Venetian products and substantially taxed the raw materials necessary for processing. So it was that more than half of the furnaces in Murano extinguished their fires, forced to close under the weight of a great financial crisis. The few that remained open only produced bottles and pearls, absolutely not enough to keep the engine of the entire island's economy running.
It would be necessary to wait until the end of the nineteenth century for the art of Murano glass to be relaunched. The fires of the furnaces were rekindled by two enterprises, that of the Toso Brothers and that of Salviati family: within 10 years they brought Murano glass back to its ancient splendour, becoming a real flywheel for the new commercialization in Europe and the reopening of the other furnaces.
A great help to the revival of glass was given by the Venice Biennale which, in its first kermesse dedicated to art, hosted many master glassmakers and their works, opening the way to an exquisitely modern design. It was 1895 and since then the art of Murano glass has continued to shine, taking back the world record of its kind, then knowing how to renew itself and adapt to fashions and times. A milestone in this direction was the Venini that from 1921 gave life to an exclusively modern design production that also saw the collaboration of the great names in contemporary art.
Today the island of Murano has about 80 furnaces, preferring three types of processing. The most famous mouth-blown glass, made by inserting air with the blow pipe into the incandescent mass that swells like a balloon: the master glassmaker's ability to give the desired shape in a rather short period of time, before the cooling and solidification of the mass, is fundamental. The main characteristic of this type of glass is the thinness and lightness given by the balance between solids and voids. Then there is solid glass, used for the creation of real glass sculptures: a primary central body to which other glass grafts are then progressively added, to create simple faunal figures or human bodies of colossal dimensions and in various attitudes. Finally, the working of mirrors decorated in the most varied ways, to enrich walls or to be inserted in wooden furniture. To these are added glasses and pitchers, chandeliers, and the small workmanship of pearls, murrine and jewelry.
Today Murano glass is considered luxury, as it is a completely handcrafted and complex process that has remained almost unchanged over time. Around Venice and Murano and proposed are really many, perhaps even too many because not all original: the real Murano glass must bear the words Made in Murano, otherwise you are faced with a trivial piece of cheap glass.
Beware of imitations!