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History of Murano Glass
Its birth, rise to prominence
, decline
--and magnificent revival


Murano Redux. Murano is a small group of islands lying on the edge of the Adriatic Sea in the lagoon of Venice, about 3,000 meters north of the larger group of islands comprising the city of Venice.

In the 100 years between 1860 and 1960 the glass producing firms located on Murano rose to world leadership in the production of decorative glass objects. One of the most remarkable aspects of this remarkable achievement is that it was the second time that Murano had attained that pinnacle--and the two occasions were separated by 500 years.

Early triumph. Glassmaking existed in the lagoon of Venice from as early as the 8th century. In ensuing centuries the artisans of Venice began to accumulate some singular skills in glass production--gathered presumably in the course of the Republic of Venice's extensive trade throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and in the Islamic territories of the Levant and North Africa. In this connection, the conquest of Constantinople in 1204 by the wayward Fourth Crusade was a watershed event, opening to Venice the practices of the glass producers of that great imperial city.

By 1291 the glassmakers of the Venetian lagoon had distilled all of that knowledge into unique and proprietary production skills. In that year the government of Venice banned glass furnaces from the central islands of Venice, relegating them to Murano. Most historians have assumed that the order resulted from a fear that the fires of the glass furnaces might create a tragic conflagration among the largely wooden structures of crowded Venice. However, it has been plausibly suggested that the move was made in order to isolate the master glassblowers and prevent their sharing their valuable glassmaking knowhow with foreigners. In fact, the glassblowers became virtual prisoners on Murano, insulated from any contacts who might divulge their production secrets to potential competitors abroad. Venetian--or Murano--glassmaking became the leading source for fine glass in Europe and a major source of trading income for the Republic of Venice.

Most of the glass of that period, though luxurious, was utilitarian. Mirrors, for example, were major revenue producers, but beautiful and intricate decorative objects were produced as well, often exhibiting complex new techniques developed by Murano's extraordinary artisans.

Slow secular decline. Yet trade domination built on monopoly--especially a monopoly in knowhow--is inherently unstable. By the 1600s important rival centers had begun to emerge, notably in France and Moravia. At the same time, shifting trade routes began to undermine Venice's strategic trading advantages. As a result, the decline in Venice's general political and commercial importance after 1600 was mirrored by the gradual, long-term decline of its glass industry on Murano. Final collapse for both the republic and the industry came with the conquest of Venice by Napoleone's French forces in 1797, followed in 1814 by the ultimate transfer of Venice from France to the Habsburg Empire centered in Austria.

Death by regulation. Austrian sovereignty brought swift regulatory strangulation to Murano, as the Habsburg government overtly favored the other glassmaking center within its Empire, Bohemia. The import into Murano of the requisite raw materials was severely restricted or punitively taxed. As a result, the number of active glass furnaces on Murano plunged from 24 in 1800 to 13 just 20 years later. Even more telling, only five of those 13 factories produced blown glass; at the others, production was reduced primarily to decorative beads and other small items that the Empire needed for trade abroad.

A gloomy realist might have predicted that the last furnace fire on Murano would soon be extinguished. Such a prediction, however, would have overlooked the fierce, centuries-old creative heritage of the traditional glassblowing families of Murano. They kept alive--or periodically rediscovered--the remarkable old techniques that had reached full flower in the 1400s, even though the new economic and political realities had virtually eliminated all demand for the elaborate and costly products that those skills could create.

New life. Like twin robins of spring, two events of the 1850s herealded a new and better period ahead. The earlier in time was the founding in 1854 of a promising new glass furnace on Murano by six enterprising sons of Pietro Toso. Their new firm, Fratelli Toso, concentrated initially on producing utilitarian glass, but they soon showed that they had grander ambitions and skills.

The second notable event came in 1859 when an industrious lawyer from Vicenza, Antonio Salviati, arrived on Murano with a vision of a new market niche. His new firm Salviati dott. Antonio fu Bartolomeo focused on producing glass tiles for repairing the ubiquitous old mosaics of Venice and creating new ones. Fortuitously, the master glassblowers that he assembled for the new business included Lorenzo Radi, who had devoted considerable efforts in the 1850s to resurrecting some of the sophisticated glassmaking techniques from Murano's first heyday in the 1400s.

chalcedony glassSalviati's mosaic glass production met with the success that he had anticipated, but his greatest innovation lay in the insights that he brought for marketing Murano glassware through new distribution channels. His first success came in England in 1862 when the firm captured international attention with its prize-winning display at a world exhibition in London. Salviati boldly used the occasion to present products in chalcedony glass, a medium that Radi had revived in 1856. Salviati followed up on that first success by opening a London sales office in 1868.

At last the Murano glassblowers had found the salesman they needed for exploiting their skills throughout the broad markets beyond Italy and the Habsburg Empire. The political winds were shifting as well, as the Veneto was wrested free of the Austrians in 1866 to become part of the expanded Kingdom of Italy. The new sovereign brought his own difficult taxes, but the business climate improved and the glass producers of Murano began to flourish again, led first by Salviati and Fratelli Toso, and soon by other innovative firms such as Fratelli Barovier and Francesco Ferro & Figlio.

Modern leadership. For the most part, the designs of the new and revitalized firms relied heavily upon their traditional Murano skills at creating intricate curlicue fantasies in glass, though influenced by the art nouveau movement near the end of the century. Designs were usually the invention of the glassblowers themselves. Many of their works were exhuberant masterpieces, but the glassblowers were ultimately constrained by the fact that they worked within an artisan tradition, not an artistic one.

New forces were at work, however, beginning to open Murano to changes stirring in the international art world. The first Venice Biennale was staged in 1895, bringing to Venice avant garde and innovative art from throughout Europe and challenging Murano glassmakers to stretch as well. Artists of Venice and Murano assembled in informal groups to exchange and espouse new artistic ideas. One such group, associated with Cà Pesaro and the Bevilacqua La Masa Foundation, included a number of artists who would bring new design ideas to the Murano glassmakers. Prominent among them Vittorio Zecchin, Napoleone Martinuzzi and, briefly but most importantly, Hans Stoltenberg-Lerche and Teodoro Wolf-Ferrari.

In 1921 there arrived the final element needed to propel Murano once again into world leadership in its field. From Milan came Giacomo Cappellin and Paolo Venini to found their own new glassworks, Vetri Soffiati Muranesi Cappellin, Venini & C., with a particular focus on modern design. Many of their key early designers were actually themselves from Murano, but they were selected and supervised by the new owners with a distinct sensitivity to the new design trends that were sweeping the world and were so fiercely felt and debated at Milan. Venini was a native of the Milan area; Cappellin, though a Venetian by birth, owned and operated an antique shop on Milan's via Montenapoleone. The new creative spark ignited by Cappellin and Venini quickly swept Murano. The competitive spirit of the glassmakers soon catapulted numerous Murano producers to the cutting edge of artistic design and artisan skill that continues to characterize Murano glass down to the present day.

2001-4 C. I. Gable