Or should we say, the centuries old love-affair that put Venice on the map.
And we say a love affair because Murano glass, truly, is a brilliant example of a love affair between a material and its craftsman; because nothing else could give birth to something this beautiful, if not love. Perhaps it is this love affair that burns an artist’s heart with raging passion for the art he pursues. This love affair becomes the adrenaline that makes humans superhuman. It is this love affair that makes craftsmen hunch over a tiny piece of glass, perfecting details that probably no one would notice. And this love affair, between an artist and his tools is sacred. This kind of love stands the test of
But that’s not the only reason we call it a love affair. The history of Murano glass also makes for art history’s most fascinating tales. The gregarious rise, becoming the muse for the mighty, slathered with passion and obsession, love and betrayal, and suddenly crumbling to nothing to its rise again…the story of Murano can very well, and rightfully, be an epic.And I would go as far as to say that it is to the glass world what Romeo and Juliet is to love and English literature.
The glass island
In the late 13th century, the Serenissima ordered all glass furnaces to be moved away from the city of Venice to the island of Murano, an archipelago located a mile north of the city. A city constructed mainly of wood feared that the big glass ovens would prove hazardous.
Murano, as a result, became the hub of master glass blowers, or maestri, which gave rise to a very competitive environment. And as in all competitive settings, new techniques and new ideas kept emerging making Murano the seat for very high-quality, sought after glass. So much so that it became one of the major sources of income for the Republic of Venice.
With great art came great grief
Venetians enjoyed true monopoly when it came to Murano glass, guarding their trade secrets well. But it also meant that the maestri would never be able to leave the island- becoming prisoners of their own craft. The prices were monitored stringently by Venetian rulers and the glass masters became cogs in a larger wheel, bound by a set of guild.
The secret was too dear to share
Ofcourse with great production a lot of new techniques evolved, however- and much like good food- the secret to great Murano glass was the ingredient and not so much the techniques. Silica, the common form of Sand, was the starting point of glass.But along with its virtues it also possessed a lot of impurities that discoloured the final product. The Venetian glass masters however figured how to remove all impurities and produce a crystal clear, transparent, color less glass called Cristallo which was difficult to make, was expensive and thereby limited. This cristallo glass formed the basis of all Venetian glass.
Cristallo, Cogoli, AlumeCatino
To maintain the clarity of glass, they replaced Silica/sand with quartz pebbles called Cogoli. They also held monopoly on the fluxing agent- which enables the glass to melt at lower temperatures- Levant soda ash or alumecatino which they procured by burning plants from the levantine region.
The third secret was manganese which would further add to clarity and also help by lengthening the time the glass would stay molten and pliable. This allowed class masters time to perfect their designs as glass solidifies quickly.
From Venice to Versailles to Austria to being forgotten
King louis XIV of France had it enough with the Venetians and lured a few fearless craftsmen to France, to work for him. This is when glass making really flourished in Europe, with the secrets being out. By early 19th century, Napoleon conquered Venice, handed her to Austria and Austria restricted imports of raw materials to Venice because it favoured Bohemian glass. The thriving Murano industry was brought to selling beads and in just a few decades, hundreds of years of tradition were almost forgotten.
6 Italian brothers
In 1854, 6 brothers, sons of Pietro Toso, opened Fratelli Toso, a new glass company to produce pharmaceutical and domestic glass. In 59, Antonio Salviati, an industrious lawyer came to venice with an idea of a niche market: glass tiles to replace old tiles in Venice. Soon, Salviati became a raging success at the London World Expo in 1862. In 64, a gentleman named Vincenzo Zanetti opened Museo d’ArteVetraria or a museum for Murano glass. He also began teaching the lost art of blowing glass. It is in this museum’s inauguration that Fratelli Toso made a magnificent glass chandelier.
And this, in history, marked the official re-entry of the venetians in glass industry. The chandelier evoked all the nuances of Murano glass and the rest is history.
In 1866, Venice was freed from Austrian rule and once a part of Italy, Murano found its footing again.