Tradition holds that, after the fall of the Roman Empire, glass makers were among the refugees from the Gothic invasion of Italy in the fifth and sixth centuries AD who founded the city of Venice.
The earliest record of glass being made in Venice of a “phial maker” named Domenico who lived there in 909. By 1255 there were enough glass makers in Venice to form a guild. In 1291 the city authorities became so concerned about the risk of fire from the growing number of glass foundries that they ordered that they should all be transferred to the island of Murano, where they have been located ever since.
Very little Venetian glass made before the fifteenth century has survived. By the 1450s, Venice was producing mainly dark-coloured vessels similar in shape to the silver vessels of the time. These were delicately painted with mythological figures, portraits, coats-of-arms or designs of dots and semi-circles in bright colours.
The golden age of Venetian glass began early in the sixteenth century. The grouping together of the glassmakers at Murano resulted in a period of great experimentation. This eventually produced “cristallo”, a clear, transparent glass which was extremely easy to work in its molten state. Soon Venice was exporting cups, bowls and dishes of the new glass to all parts of Europe. Although some were engraved, most of the Venetian crystal glass vessels produced in the sixteenth century were left undecorated.
The production of coloured, opaque glass also continued with a new, milky white glass, called “lattimo” being discovered. This proved to be an excellent background for enamel decoration.
The sixteenth century also saw the introduction of filigree glass, decorated with a pattern of crisscross white threads.
The forms of decoration remained relatively simple until the end of the sixteen century when the new Baroque style led to goblets being produced in the form of dragons, lamps in the form of horses and jugs fashioned like ships with elaborate glass rigging.
In spite of all the efforts of the Venetian Guild to keep its techniques to itself, workmen from Venice travelled to many parts of Europe. Many of these settled in the Netherlands. The Netherlands glass makers were particularly fond of winged-stem goblets. These became more and more elaborate, using coiled and coloured ropes and twisted stems.
From the 1540s, Antwerp became the most important glassmaking centre in the Low Countries and remained so for the next hundred years. The glass produced here is virtually indistinguishable from that produced in Venice. Such glass, made elsewhere but in the Venetian tradition, is called “facon de Venise”.
By the end of the seventeenth century, crystal glass much clearer than that produced at Murano was being made in many other parts of Europe.
During the eighteenth century, Venetian glass is mainly distinguished by its bizarre designs and brightly painted decoration. At the end of the century, fashions changed from the rococo to the neo-classical and the Venetian glassworks fell on hard times.
Venetian Glass – Revival
The Murano glass factories were revived in the middle of the nineteenth century when Pietro Bigalia, the owner of one of the glassworks, started producing reproductions of old wares.
Venice again became a leading glass producing centre of Europe. These nineteenth century wares, although they are unlikely to win the wholehearted admiration of collectors, still have many of the qualities of the best Venetian glass – lightness, brilliant colours and fantasy of form.