Murano, Its Glass and Its People
Reprinted by courtesy of both Vetri Murano: A Consortium of Glass
Factories in Murano Island and the Venice Chamber of Commerce. Edited
by Stanley B. Kruger
A Thousand Years of Venetian Glassmaking
Chapter One: From The Beginning to the 14th Century
The history of Murano glass developed parallel with the history of the Venetian Republic. It began, it grew, it flourished and it underwent periods of crisis hand in hand with the political and economic events of the Venetian state. Venice, which passed gradually from the role of Byzantine province to that of an independent state (the first Doge, or duke, Orso, came to power in 727), remained outside the feudal empire founded by Charlemagne. The Venetian patricians, who exercised the political power and from amongst whom the Doge was elected, did not possess the noble titles that the feudal empire spread throughout Europe, but called themselves simply “noblemen”. They did not live, as in other places, from the income of their lands but they became rich investing and risking their capital in the sea trade with the Mediterranean Orient. For half of its existence, the Venetian Republic was more a bridgehead for the Orient in Europe than a European state, not only for its political links with Byzantium and because of the profound influence that Byzantine and Oriental art in general exerted on the artistic manifestations of the lagoon, but also because the origins of the economic power of the city were rooted in its links with the Orient. Even before the European economic renaissance after 1000, Venice was an active emporium, where prized spices and manufactured goods arrived from the ports of the eastern Mediterranean which were, in their turn, connected by means of caravan routes with the Far East. The foreigners who visited the city were amazed by its internationality, by the crowd of men of all races in the marketplace dressed in the most exotic ways.
The Venetian glass industry too, along with the economic fortunes of the city, shared this oriental pattern. And Orient in the Middle Ages still implied advanced and refined technology. At the time of the Roman Empire, Aquileia, an important port of the Southern Adriatic, not far from the place where Venice later was to rise, was a famous center of glass production. In the 19th century, historians liked to think that in the 5th century A.D., with the flight of the Aquileians towards the lagoon following the arrival of the barbarians, the glassmaking industry was transferred to the Venetian islands. The caution of the modern historiographer, however, accepts the fascinating hypothesis with difficulty as there are centuries empty of information between the end of the Aquileian glassmaking and the first traces of the lagoon industry. It is these centuries which, it is hoped, will be filled by new discoveries but which, for the moment, do not indicate a connection between the Aquileian and the Venetian glass traditions.
In both cases, whether through a continuity of the Roman glassmaking of Aquileia into the medieval Venetian state, or whether the origin of the Venetian activity is to be found in the early Middle Ages, independent from the older local glass tradition which had ceased for centuries, the links between the Venetian Republic and the Orient were fundamental to the flourishing of this art. The similarities of technique and form between medieval Venetian glass and those of the same epoch of the Eastern Mediterranean are such that it is inevitable to see the origin of Venetian glass in the Orient. However, if its origins are to be found instead in Aquileia, the stimulus for the development of a modest local craft into a refined elite skill is well worthy of exploration.
The oldest document relating to Venetian glassmaking is a manuscript kept in the State Archives of Venice, one of the most important and famous archives in the world both for the quantity of documents kept there and for the age of some of them. It is an act of donation dated 982 A.D. and amongst the witnesses appears a certain “Domenicus fiolarius”, that is “Domenic the glassmaker”, as “fiolarius” derives from “fiola” (bottle). It is for this reason that the 1000th year of Venetian glassmaking was celebrated in 1982. The second document containing the name of a glassmaker, “Petrus fiolarus”, dates from 1803 (?). Manuscripts containing information pertinent to Venetian glassmakers are more frequently found after 1279, the date of the oldest documents of the Mayor of Murano (a Venetian noble, the representative of the government of the Republic on the island) who was appointed for the first time in 1275 and whose records are conserved at the State Archives in Venice. The running of the glass industry in the lagoon, with a few exceptions, seems to have been confined to Murano at the time, along the “Rio dei Vetrai”, where even now the oldest furnaces are concentrated.
Venetian glass is, from its origins, according to the information supplied by documents and the analysis of the oldest fragments found in the lagoon, a soda glass, like that of the Eastern Mediterranean. The fundamental raw materials were in fact silica supplied by quarry sand or by crushed quartz river pebbles (the latter were preferred from the middle of the 14th century to the end of the 17th century) and soda ash from Mediterranean coastal plants. The soda ash was imported from Syria or from Alexandria in Egypt, while the use of potassic ash, used in Northern European glasswork and a carrier of many impurities, was forbidden. Even in the 13th century, glass, because of its greenish nature, was bleached with manganese dioxide or colored light blue or magenta red by the addition of appropriate substances. The names of many medieval types of glass have reached us. They are for the main part glasses, bottles, bowls, cups and lamps, whose distinctive features we are not always able to identify. Molds were widely used, both to decorate in relief the surfaces of blown objects and also to shape them into predetermined forms. But even then, it seems that the principal decorative techniques were executed freehand. For example, glasses decorated with vitreous threads applied “a ghirlanda”, in garlands, and “with perle”, i.e., glass beads, are frequently mentioned in the documents.
Some families of medieval glass workers are well known. It was not rare for a dynasty to be interrupted coinciding with the many plagues which hit the various European cities, Venice included. At other times, the name of a family survived for centuries on end, and even now there are families at Murano who have been active in the glassmaking field since the Middle Ages.
The presence at Murano of decorators who used molten enamels on glass dates back to 1281. The first active glass painter known to us was Gregorio from Naufplion in Greece. The names of Bartholomew from Zara (in Dalmatia) and his brother Donino are also to be remembered. Documents proving the presence of these decorators at Murano between 1281 and the middle of the 14th century were discovered little more than 10 years ago. They are very important as they allow us to attribute a particular group of glass pieces decorated in enamel and dating from between the end of the 13th century and the middle of the 14th century to the lagoon artisans with considerable certainty. The group comprises about 30 pieces, fragments for the most part, found mainly in Europe. They are sometimes decorated with European coat-of-arms and Latin inscriptions. The most famous of them all is the glass preserved in the British Museum in London, on which is written the Latin inscription “Magister Aldrevandin me fecit”, that is “Master Aldrevandin made me”. The name of this decorator is not to be found in the various documents but very recent discoveries confirm the hypothesis of his Venetian origin.
A glass has been found at Verona, inscribed with the coat-of-arms of a noble family of that city, the Scaligeri, which is important for the proximity of the place where it was found to Venice. Even more significant is the finding of several fragments of at least six glasses in excavations near the city of London. They all show various decorations similar to those of the other examples in this group and two of them have an inscription which can be reconstructed as “Magister Bartholomeus”. It is probably the signature of Master Bartholomew from Zara indicated in the Venetian documents between 1290 and 1325. The vast area in which the approximately thirty examples have been found is explained by the fact that Venice was then the only glass-making center capable of providing “works of art” in blown glass.
Not only enameled glass was exported, but also less elaborate pieces, entirely worked in the glassworks. Certain documents preserved at the State Archives in Venice give evidence of Murano glass being sent out to Eastern Mediterranean and Northern European sites, to the German countries, France, Flanders and Great Britain. In 1416, Venetian glass pieces were included among the objects belonging to John of France, Duke of Berry. In 1399, Richard II, King of England, gave two Venetian galleys, which were mooring in the London harbor, permission to sell glass vessels called “verres” (“vasa vitrea vocata verres”). To even older times are to be dated some of the medieval glasses found in recent excavations in a number of sites in Great Britain, for which Venetian origin is accepted as probable by English experts.
Chapter Two: From the 15th to the 16th Century
Decoration with molten enamels is no longer documented between the middle of the 14th century and the 15th century. It obviously fell into disuse and was taken up again with renewed vigor after the technological revolution in Venetian glass in about 1450; a revolution so important that it marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance for Muranese glass. Angelo Barovier, owner of the family workshop which was already well-known in the 14th century, was not only a master craftsman but also had a scientific background acquired through his attendance at the lessons given by the philosopher-scientist Paolo da Pergola. As the impurities in Venetian glass came from soda ash, he worked out a series of operations to purify it; sifted, it was then dissolved in hot water, decanted, filtered, the water evaporated and crystalized. The result was a residue sufficiently pure so that, when added to Ticino quartz river pebbles, particularly prized for their purity, and to manganese dioxide as a decolorizer, a mixture was produced which was able to be transformed, with accurate melting phases proved for centuries, into clear colorless glass similar in its characteristics to rock crystal; and therefore this too was called “crystal”. This term appears for the first time in reference to glass both in a document of 1453 in the Archives of Ragusa (present-day Dubrovnik), a Dalmatian city closely connected to Venice by trade links, and in a document in the Archives of Venice of 1457. Angelo Barovier has also been attributed with the invention in the same period of ”lattimo”, a white opaque glass imitating Chinese porcelain, which had recently arrived in Venice and which none in Europe would be able to create for centuries. Besides, it seems probable that Barovier is also to be recognized as the inventor of “calcedonio”, a vitreous paste in imitation of zoned agate, a kind of natural chalcedony. Moreover, there was a great variety of colored glasses in many shades of light blue, red and green.
With such precious materials at their disposal, glassmakers forged glass of beautiful shapes, worthy of their place in the sumptuous palaces of the time. Then the cult of the house as the center of worldly and intellectual life began and those arts which were used to decorate the house flourished. Often solid shapes and shaped ribbing “ a mezza stampatura" (half-molded) of the blown objects were inspired by metallic vasemaking. Enamel painting, used for many precious goblets of the 15th century, dealt with profane themes, connected with the joys of earthly life.
The 16th century was the age of the greatest splendor for Murano glass. The glassmakers, strong from their 15th century experience, perfected the vitreous materials and elaborated very refined manual techniques for fashioning and decorating the blown objects. The forms became simpler and lighter and, even if enamel decoration continued to be applied, the most prized Venetian products without which the European rich could not graciously adorn their tables, was the fine and pure blown glass. The paintings of greatest artists of the time, like Titian and Veronese, demonstrate numerous examples of this supreme elegance.
The types of colored glass, transparent and opaque, elaborated in the furnaces of Murano were many, and proof of their variety is to be found, apart from the antique work displayed in museums, in secret recipe manuscripts passed down from father to son in the glassmaking families. Some of these are still preserved today and, even though they are difficult to read, they are a source of precious information. Despite the way the glass recipes and the working techniques were kept secret, every innovation soon became common knowledge in the island, thanks to a true network of industrial spying. The wile of Giorgo Ballarin, a poor Dalmatian boy called “ballarin” because of his lameness, is well-known. By pretending to be a simpleton, he was able to watch the preparation of the recipes by great master glassmakers without arousing suspicion. He then wrote them down, learned the glassmaking trade and set up his own business. When he died, he was one of the biggest glassmakers on the whole island, leaving generous bequests and paying for the erection of a magnificent tomb.
Often the glassmakers who introduced some important innovation to the glassmaking techniques could ask the Doge or other bodies of the Republic for protection by a “privilege” or a more or less unlimited patent. For example, a patent was issued to Filippo Serena in 1527 for the invention of “filigrana a retortoli”, a twisted filigree, in which the thin-walled crystal is patterned with a motif of parallel canes which are made of opaque-white or colored glass and twisted into a spiral. This, along with “filigrana a reticello” (in which a delicate opaque-white or colored glass network is embedded in the crystal glass), which presumably dates shortly afterwards, was the most important invention of 16th century Venetian glassmaking. At the expiry of the patent, filigree glass became a usual product of the best glassmakers.
Similarly, a patent was requested and obtained by the brothers Andrea and Domenico d”Angelo in 1507 for mirror production using a highly-perfected technique. In 1549, Vincenzo d”Angelo, son of Andrea, obtained a 10 year patent for engraving a diamond point, which he had used for some time on mirrors and which he then applied to blown glass. This, applied to blown crystal, created a very fine lace effect which highlighted the fineness of the glass. Both techniques, filigree and diamond point engraving, are still to be found in the present-day decorative repertoire of the Murano glassmakers.
The ever-increasing refinement and specialization in the working of glass which took place in the 16th and 17th centuries, led the Venetian authorities to impose protective measures against the export of the technology. From the Middle Ages, whoever wished to practice the art of glassmaking had to be registered at the guild or the corporation and was bound to obey the “Mariegola” or “Capitulary”, which held the dispositions which were gradually given to the glassmakers, often at their own request, by the public authorities. There was, therefore, a manuscript of statutes in continual evolution. In the Middle Ages, the “Mariegola” forbade the expatriation of the glassmakers, but foreign glassmakers were easily accepted at the furnaces so long as they paid their enrolment fee to the guild. After the invention of crystal glass, the measures became more severe and it was soon established that only those who had full Murano citizenship could work glass as makers and as apprentices. In order to define more precisely the conditions necessary to have the title of Murano citizen, long debates took place during the 16th century and in 1605, the “Libro d’Oro”, the “Golden Book”, containing the names of those who belonged to the “Magnificent Community of Murano”, was drawn up. Only these men and their descendants could practice the glassmaking craft as owners and masters. It is for this reason that we can talk about a Murano glass nobility.
From the middle of the 15th century, the penalties imposed by the Mariegola on those who emigrated abroad to work glass became more and more severe. The Republic of Venice aimed at preventing the formation of glassmaking traditions of high standard, and therefore competition for the Murano tradition, in other states, wanting to remain the only producer of luxury glassware. It failed in this attempt. In the 16th century, Murano glassmakers emigrated to all European countries so that glass furnaces were set up by Muranese workers adopting the same materials and the same techniques as those used at Murano and their products are known as glass “à la façon de Venise”. Murano glassmakers spread illegally to all the important Italian towns: they came to Florence, for instance, on request of the Medicis. In Europe they emigrated to Austria, Germany, Sweden, France, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Great Britain. In London, a, merchant from Antwerp named Jean Carrè set up a glass furnace in 1567 to produce Venetian crystal glass; after his death in 1572, Jacopo Verzelini, a glassmaker of Italian origin, obtained the monopoly for the production of glass “à la façon de Venise” and some of his pieces still survive. After his death in 1595, this activity was pursued by other glassmakers. The emigration continued in the 17th century and the presence of Italian glassmakers, probably Venetians, is known even at Jamestown in Virginia. The documents of the Virginia Company of London, between 1621 and 1625, show “Italliyans” [sic], who were to set up a furnace for the production of blown glass and “conterie” or small beads. However, the enterprise soon failed because of technical difficulties, illness, attacks by Indians and, it seems, the lack of enthusiasm and the difficult characters of the Italians. The production of “conterie”, small colored beads obtained by cutting a perforated glass cane into sections, began in Murano in the 16th century and flourished in the 17th and following centuries also because of exchanges with the natives of the colonial countries.
Chapter Three: From the 17th to the 18th Century
The 17th century was a period of great inventive richness and of notable technical research. Renaissance types of glass continued to be produced, even the most simple forms, like the classical stemmed goblet with a wide, blown bowl and the goblet with a tall conical bowl which was even then called a “flute” and which was mainly exported to the Flemish countries. For the Germans, glasses with an elaborate stem in the shape of a serpent were forced, and for the English, mugs made of thick crystal. The Englishman, Richard Lassels, visiting the Murano furnaces in about the middle of the 17th century, observed that the Murano glassmakers, adapting styles to the foreign buyers, seemed to have “taken measure of every nation’s belly and humour, to fit them with drinking glasses accordingly”.
It is always impossible to distinguish the Murano glass of this period from that executed by emigrated Murano glassworkers who worked “à la façon de Venise”, in the Venetian style. It is not even easy to distinguish between the simple blown glass of the 17th century and the same styles worked in the previous century.
Some more elaborate shapes were typically 17th century, following Baroque taste: goblets with a repeatedly expanding bowl or with a stem made of entwined glass threads, oil lamps in the form of animals, ornate jugs decorated with molded glass mask and hands with pincered denticulations. The diamond-point engravings became richer and more naturalistic, the filigree pattern became more complex. The “ice-glass”, with apparent cracks, of 16th century origin, was widely used as decorations with festoons of superimposed glass threads, later called “graffito” or “Phoenician”. A new vitreous material in harmony with the new Baroque taste, the “aventurine” was invented and is still produced at Murano today. The “aventurine” is a vitreous paste characterized by small foliated and shining copper crystal inside the glass. These are called “stelle” or “stars” and they have also given it the name of “stellaria”. The more common name, “aventurine”, derives from “ventura”, adventure, because its production is linked to chance in so far as even when all the technical indications are followed with care, the result is never certain. Mentioned for the first time in a manuscript of 1626, “aventurine” was one of the most ambitious of the Murano glassmakers’ secrets and its recipe was lost and then recovered more than once.
The 17th century also saw the publication of the first manual of glassmaking technology, L’Arte Vetraria by Antonio Neri, a Florentine priest, expert in alchemy. He was summoned by the Medici, the nobles of Florence, to undertake the position of “master of compositions” in a furnace they had opened in the gardens of one of their palaces in Florence with the collaboration of clandestinely expatriated Murano masters. Antonio Neri’s book, edited in Florence in 1612, was a collection of Venetian glassmaking recipes taken from secret Venetian recipe books and which he had experimented with through the help of Muranese masters. The book circulated for more than a century in the whole of Europe. It was, in fact, translated into English in 1662, then from English into Latin in Amsterdam in 1668, from Latin into German in 1679, from German into French in 1752 and from French into Spanish in 1778. The book contributed to the spread of the Venetian glass technology which was already taking place thanks to the emigration of the masters who worked “à la façon de Venise” to the whole of Europe. Towards the end of the 18th century, a glass tradition as refined as the Murano one, but with technical features and a style of its own, grew up in some foreign countries. These new glassmaking cultures, which used local raw materials, different from those used by the Venetians, were indebted to the Muranese masters who had perfected the long processes for the purification and preparation of the materials and the accurate working phases indispensable for refined production. Without the contribution of the Venetian technology, the English lead glass and the Bohemian potassium glass could not have reached the purity of crystal nor could they have been adequately worked. Probably in 1673 George Ravenscraft set up a glassworks in London and in 1674 he obtained a patent for making “a sort of crystalline glass resembling rock crystal”. This was a lead glass of startling brilliance which was certainly quite different from the kind of lead glass which had been produced for centuries in Italy and particularly in Venice.
The latter was used only to make vitreous gems imitating natural stones, whereas George Ravenscraft blew his lead glass into solidly shaped pieces; a number or them, marked with a raven’s head seal, are still surviving. The Venetian techniques for making lead glass were known in Great Britain through the English translation of Antonio Neri’s “Arte Vetraria” (1662), a whole chapter of which was devoted to this sort of glass; however, the relationships between the Venetian techniques and the new English ones are still unexplored. Gradually the “façon de Venise” forms were replaced by different styles in the Northern European glassmaking factories, styles which were more suitable to the new types of crystal.
The competition of the new glassmaking centers and the saturation of the market, by then tired of the traditional Venetian products, created a period of crisis for Murano in the 18th century. Recourse was taken in a kind of unemployment benefit for the master glassmakers, introduced by the 17th century Mariegola. At the beginning of the working year, the owners employed the necessary glassmakers and the unemployed masters were divided between the various glass workshops according to their own dimensions. They did work but the owner had to pay them, over the working year, a total sum of 70 ducats. The situation was serious because the same Venetian nobles attracted by the fashion which tended towards the thick and brilliant English and Bohemian glass, often succumbed to the temptation or buying foreign products.
Then the genius glassmaker, Giuseppe Briati, intervened with the invention of a potash crystal that was more brilliant than the traditional Venetian one and which, at least within the Republic, managed to counteract the Bohemian competition. What is more, he created new forms like the “ciocca”, that is, the typical chandelier decorated with multicolored flowers, and the “deser”, a sumptuous multi-component table-piece. Wheel-engraving was also applied to the new potassium crystal. This was introduced at the end of the 17th century with the arrival of German craftsmen. The engraving practiced in the Venetian workshops was different, as it was more delicate and superficial in comparison with the plastic engraving of the decorators from beyond the Alps
Traditional techniques, like filigree, naturally continued to be used and the pure and graciously-decorated mirror production did not suffer any crisis even if the mirrors were small because they were cut from a blown cylinder which was opened in order to obtain a pane. Neither did the production of colored glass pastes, “chalcedony”, “aventurine” and “milk glass” decorated with multicolored enamels, feel the consequences of foreign competition. These were all considered Venetian specialties and as such were admired by travelers and buyers alike. Daniele Miotti distinguished himself in this sector.
He, with his father and his descendants, was perhaps the only person who held the secret for the production of the “aventurine” in the 18th century. He produced some noteworthy enamel decorations on milk-glass, some pieces of which bear the trademark of his workshop. The 18th century was a period of economic and institutional crisis for the Venetian Republic, which was masked by refined luxuries and carefree worldly life. The republic had reached its end, however. In 1797, after 1000 years of independence, it was occupied by French troops. In 1798, Napoleon I passed the Veneto region to Austria which then in 1806 became part of the Napoleonic Empire. With the Congress of Vienna in 1814, Venice was returned to Austria until 1866. A deep and seemingly irreversible decline hit the commercial and industrial activities of Venice. The Murano glassmaking industry, too, had difficulty in surviving and this was heightened by the Austrian government which imposed excise duties on the importation of raw materials and on the exportation of the finished products. The only sector of productions that retained a certain importance was the “conterie”, beads, destined for the colonial countries. The prestigious glass blowing industry almost disappeared, also, because of the continuation of the fashion for English and Bohemian glass.