Welcome to Venice

Day 19: Friday, April 29, 2005
Photos by Pat Tyler at the glass factory

Master Artisan and Apprentice

First, we were treated to a demonstration of the art of glass blowing.


In the United States, glass artisans are usually found at craft shows or Renaissance fairs, blowing glass baubles for a few dollars each. But there was a time when the trade of glassblowing—indeed, glassmaking in general—was dominated by an elite group of craftsmen in the Venetian Republic, most notably on the island of Murano.

Murano was a commercial port as far back as the 7th Century, and by the 10th Century it had grown into a prosperous trading center with its own coins, police force, and commercial aristocracy. Then, in 1291, the Venetian Republic ordered glassmakers to move their foundries to Murano because the glassworks represented a fire danger in Venice, whose buildings were mostly wooden at the time.

Small Samples

It wasn't long until Murano's glassmakers were the leading citizens on the island. Artisans were granted the right to wear swords and enjoyed immunity from prosecution by the notoriously high-handed Venetian state. By the late 14th Century, the daughters of glassmakers were allowed to marry into Venice's blue-blooded families.

Such pampered treatment had one catch: Glassmakers weren't allowed to leave the Republic. If a craftsman got a hankering to set up shop beyond the Lagoon, he risked being assassinated or having his hands cut off by the secret police—although, in practice, most defectors weren't treated so harshly.

Glass Blower Admirer

What made Murano's glassmakers so special? For one thing, they were the only people in Europe who knew how to make a mirror. They also developed or refined technologies such as crystalline glass, enameled glass (smalto), glass with threads of gold (aventurine), multicolored glass (millefiori), milk glass (lattimo), and imitation gemstones made of glass. Their virtual monopoly on quality glass lasted for centuries, until glassmakers in Northern and Central Europe introduced new techniques and fashions around the same time that colonists were emigrating to the New World.

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