An ancient legend says that glass was created by chance on sandy river banks in Syria: Phoenician merchants saltpeter blocks to make campfires on the sand, and the mix of these elements and the heat produced this new surprising material. Starting from 1000 B.C.E, glass spread throughout the Balkans and southern Europe, reaching the whole Mediterranean around the IV Century B.C.E. Finally Romans were the first who focused on glass production and made its use widespread.
In the I Century B.C.E glass-blowing was invented in Palestine, giving new possibilities and flexibility in the making of objects. Ancient crafts from Syria, Palestine, Greece and especially Roman production are thought to be a source of inspiration for Murano glassmakers.
Murano Glass History
The first Venetian glassmakers copied the renowned and elegant glasswork of Middle East production and even imported raw materials from directly from that area. By the XIV Century, however, Venice had twelve glass factories producing everyday objects and became the leader in the art of glass, thanks to the decline of the Islamic production to which Venice itself contributed. A key to the Venetian success was the invention in Murano of clear glass by Angelo Barovier: glass was now transparent and pure like rock crystal! The success was immediate, and transparent glass works decorated with fusible enamels became a must for rich families, doges, and even the Pope.
The sixteenth century saw the birth of new techniques such as the “ghiacciato”, or iced glass, and the “filigrana”, or filigree, which is still very popular today. It was during this time that the shift from artisanal to artistic production took place, delivering new shapes, colors and combinations highlighting the glass masters’ skills.
The seventeenth century witnessed the invention of “avventurina”, an extremely complicated process for creating a shiny and rock-hard vitreous paste, as well as the first emigration of glassmakers from Murano to other parts of Europe. The migration came as a result of the financial crisis that struck the Serenissima after the devastating plague in 1630 and the birth of Bohemian glass. Nonetheless, Murano glass makers’ fame was untouched and the surnames such as Barovier, dal Gallo, Serena or Ballarin were internationally recognized as dynasties of glassmakers.
To contrast the growing competition of the Bohemian glass in mid XVIII century, Giuseppe Briati got hold of the secrets of the Bohemian production and adapted it to the Murano fantasy and expertise. Briati’s greatest merit, however, is the invention of the famous glass chandeliers with multiple crystal arms, decorated with festoons, leaves and multicolored flowers, which boosted once more Murano’s popularity. Apart from chandeliers, the demand was strong also for engraved and decorated Murano mirrors, whose complex procedure was known since the XVI century.
After the fall of the Serenissima in 1797, the Venetian guilds of arts and trades were abolished by Napoleon in 1806 and from 1815, when Austria took over, Bohemian products flooded the markets. Many Murano glass masters emigrated, and countless secrets and techniques were lost. Apart from a constant beads production, the depression forced many glass furnaces to close: in 1820 only 16 furnaces were left and only 5 of those produced blown glass. Here, particularly skilled and proud glass masters reacted to the crisis with innovation and revival of ancient techniques: researches on chalcedony and murrine, and the rediscovery of filigree and aventurine, sparked the rebirth that took place in the second half of the XIX century. In the 1860s, Toso and Salviati furnaces produced ever more complex works testifying their incredible skills, producing crafts of unrivaled beauty and complexity. These pieces got displayed and admired in exhibitions worldwide, making Murano once again the center of artistic glass production.
In the 1900s, furnaces began doing occasional works together with artists and designers, but in 1921 Venini decided to create the role of “artistic director”: the union between art, design and the Murano masters’ skills produced a great variety of forms of expression and styles. Since then, artists such as Guido Cadorin, Alfredo Barbini, Umberto Bellotto, Carlo Scarpa and many others, began working on glass production with growing frequency. The works resulting from this union won prizes and awards at the Biennale and many international exhibitions.
After WWII, both the newly invented “submerged” glass technique (the overlapping of multiple layers of transparent glass) and the traditional blown glass technique worked using the “mano volante” (freehand), delivered once more pieces of outstanding quality and beauty.
The last big revolution took place in the 80s, when Murano glass masters, on one hand, felt the need to make their own creations rather than just producing the ideas of others, and on the other hand artists decided to learn themselves the art of glass making and glass blowing or to work in close contact with the masters to have a tight control over the making of their ideas and concepts.
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