History and Art of Venetian Glass

Venice, and specifically its neighboring islands of Murano and Giudecca, are world-renowned for their elaborate glass creations. When you’re in Venice, venture to the islands to watch these master craftspeople work.

History of Venetian Glass

Documents dating from the 10th century make note of Venetian Fioleri, or bottle-makers, who produced glass bottles and vials. By the early 13th century, glassmakers were producing tiles for use in mosaics across Venice. The first trade association for glassblowers was formed in 1224, however, a major change occurred in the decades that followed: all glass production was moved to the island of Murano by 1291.

This move was mandated by the Venetian government, likely for two reasons. The first was that the extremely hot furnaces used by glassmakers were a major fire risk for the densely-populated city. By moving furnaces across the lagoon, officials hoped to protect the city from potentially catastrophic fires. The second, and perhaps more substantial, reason was to protect trade secrets. Venetian glassmakers essentially had a monopoly on European glass production, so government officials wanted to ensure that other countries wouldn’t steal their techniques.

This meant that glassmakers were not allowed to travel outside the republic, nor were foreign glassmakers allowed inside. Eventually, however, the secrets got out, and by the 16th century—when Venice had declined as a commercial power—glassmakers in other European countries were producing work in the Venetian style.

Glassworkers in Murano suffered another blow when Napoleon conquered Venice and abolished its guilds in 1797. And in the early 19th century, the Habsburg empire, which now ruled Venice, raised prices on the import of raw materials and export of glassware.

However, six brothers—the Toso family—breathed new life into the industry in 1854 when they opened Fratelli Toso, a firm that specialized in traditional Venetian glassmaking techniques. An exhibition in 1864, along with international trade shows, renewed interest in the work produced in Murano, making it a destination for art lovers.

That international interest has remained steady, and glassware produced in Murano is now certified with the trademark Vetro Artistico, which ensures that products are genuine.

Art & Techniques

Master craftsman Angelo Barovier perfected a process for producing cristallo—clear glass—in the 15th century, which paved the way for glassworkers’ innovative drinking glasses in the 16th and 17th centuries. These glasses often featured intricately-detailed symmetrical wings on either side of the stem. Venetian glassmakers of the time were also renowned for their mirrors, which were a luxury found in palaces across Europe.

Glassworkers had also discovered a way to add color to glass, which allowed the millefiori technique to flourish. This technique bonds different colored glasses together to create intricate patterns.

Other popular techniques included murine, which creates a mosaic effect and was used by early glassmakers to mimic the shape and style of Roman vases. Latticino glass features elegant striped patterns, often made from white glass, while the Calcedonio technique allows glassblowers to simulate marble and semiprecious stones in their creations.

The Avventurina method infuses metal particles into the glass to create an eye-catching sparkling effect, which has made it extremely popular for jewelry and home décor.

Witness the Craft of Venetian Glassblowing