Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Canals and Glasses: Glass Industry of the Republic of Venice

Murano Island
Venice was once a marshy swamp with no prospects of being a city. But with innovation of the early Venetians, a new city rose. Famous canals, today with its famous gondolas, erected that allowed a city to rise. With their engineering brilliance, they also showed skills in business. They appeared in ports across the Mediterranean Sea as good traders. Their opened mindedness allowed them to trade with the Muslims and other people along the region. As the city rose into wealth and prominence, they began to enter to different industry and worked for excellence. One of the most famous products of Venice was Glass.

The glass industry of Venice appeared to have begun during the 8th century. The dominance of Venice in maritime trade allowed the Venetian glass industry to find markets. The open mindedness of the traders of Venice allowed the rich Muslim technology of glass making to enter Venice. During the Fourth Crusade that Venice took part, the crusader forces trampled to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople in 1204. Constantinople was a city popular for its glass works, especially the gilded glass called the tesserae. The sacking of Constantinople allowed Venetians to take some glassmakers back to the city of Venice. The arrival of Byzantine glassmakers allowed Venice to expand its knowhow in glass making. New style and new products came out from the ports of Venice. It further raised the quality and prestige of its glass products. With the glass industry showing potential for great profits, many entered the field and began to establish their own glassmaking works. A guild in 1268 was founded by glassmakers to offer assistance, aid, and support to each other.

The rise of number of glass furnaces created, however, danger for the city. The glass furnaces, if not used properly, could cause wild fires. The houses of Venice, back then, were not yet made stone; it was still made of wood. Once a fire from a glass furnace begun, it would bring a considerable damage to the city. The fire could also cause damage to businesses like warehouses and other business related buildings, and lose of capital meant lose to the economy. In order to protect the city from fire hazards, in 1291, a decree was issued by the Venetian government. They established virtually an industrial zone for the glass industry. The decree ordered all glass furnaces and glass making activity to be moved to the nearby island of Murano, which was no stranger to the industry. Even as far as the 10th century when Domenico Fiolarious established his glass making business in 982 in the island, glass was already coming out from the island.  

The island of Murano was a stone that hit two birds. First it saved Venice from the troubles of fire. The second, it protected Venice’s glass industry from any competition abroad. They forbid glass makers from leaving the island. They gave them high pay and other incentives to entice them to stay. In 1376, they gave glass makers a status of Burghers or a status of middle class. The status allowed them to carry swords and marry of their daughters to affluent Venetian family. Along with incentives, they threatened them as well. All those who would leave and spill the secret of the glass industry of Venice could face death. Along with high privileges, they were prisoners of the island.

The 15th and 16th century was the golden age of the facon de Venise or Venetian style glass. Innovations and new skills poured to the city. In 1401, the great city of Damascus, famous for its very high quality of glass, fell in the hands of the Mongol conqueror, Tamerlane. Fearing for their lives, great glassmakers escaped the city. Many of the glass makers took refuge to the center of glass industry, Venice. Venice, eager to expand more its glass making skill, they opened the positions of master and assistant glass blower. In addition to high pay, it allowed foreigners to flourish in the glass industry. 

In 1450, a Venetian glass maker developed a new style of glass that would bring more prestige to Venice. The Cristallo, invented by Angelo Barovier, was a new crystal like and clear glass that would lead to the creation of new products. Luxury items like goblets and handheld mirrors with new style and elegance were exported. Following the beautiful Cristallo, another glass that would catapult the Venetian glass trade was the lattimo glass. The lattimo glass was a magnificent white glass that could be used to produce bowls, goblets, and others. It can be designed with gold and enamels and can compete with the beauty of Chinese porcelains.  These two glasses became the testament of the centuries old Venetian glass even to this day.

By the 1600, things began to turn against the Venetians. Other countries, envious of the Venetian glass, began to take secrets of Moreno. Foreign agents entered the island with the tours of the island provided by the government to visitors. Countries like France offered Murano glassmakers high pay and safety from Venetian backlash in exchange of revealing their techniques and teaching their skills. Eventually, glass making in France itself, Moravia, and England began to compete with Venetian ones. The loss of luster of Venice continued further as trade moved from Mediterranean to the Atlantic. The Loss of significance of Venice affected the Venetian glass industry. But lucky for the Venetian glass trade, it continued as time passes even as the Republic of Venice saw its downfall in 1797 under Napoleon Bonaparte.

See also:
Dancing Goats and Origin of Coffee
The Famous Phoenician Dye
Pennsylvania Oil Rush of 1859

Ramussen, S. How Glass Changed the World: The History and Chemistry of Glass from Antiquity to the 13th Century. New York: Springer, 2012.

Hess, Catherine & Timothy Husband. European Glass in the J. Paul Getty Museum. California: The J. Paul Getty Museums, 1997. 

Mokyr, J. Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. 

“Murano and Its Glass History.” Stardust Modern. Accessed January 27, 2014. http://www.stardust.com/murano.html

“History of Murano Glass.” Venetian Glass Info. Accessed January 27, 2014. http://www.venetian-glass.info/history.php

“History of Murano Glass: Its Birth, Rise to Prominece and Decline – and Magnificent Revival.” Murano Magic. Accessed January 27, 2014. http://www.boglewood.com/murano/history.html

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