History of Murano Glass

(research by Marilena Calcara)


I / The oldest map of Murano is in the bird’s eye view made by Jacopo de’ Barbari in 1500.


Glass art is steeped in old tradition, it is said that it was discovered by the Egyptians and, as Plinio il Vecchio said in “Naturalis Historia”, it was born like a guess. Documentation certifies both the presence of the glass itself and glass art that were found in the Mediterranean basin about 1500 B.C. Until the 1st century B.C., glass was cast on moulds and the majority of production was constituted by small bottles and jars for cosmetic items. The technique of glass blowing was the most important innovation in glass history. Invented in the Syrian-Palestinian area about 50 B.C, it spread throughout the entire Roman Empire. Probably glass art spread to Venice from Rome. This supposition is supported from finding some remains such as “murrina”, bracelets and pearls on the Adriatic coast, from Adria to Aquileia, down as far as Venice. Anyway, the most active glassmaking centres of the Roman world was in Egypt and Syria. The production continued in these places also when the Islamic empire was formed (632-750). The diffusion of glass in Venice is testified in a document of 982, where it is said that glass manufacture began in one of the monasteries situated in the Lagoon. In this document the name of a certain Domenico can be found; the first known glassmaker of Venice. The document is particularly interesting as it confirms to us that glass art has been practised in Venice since the tenth century.

In 1291 the foundries were moved to Murano, an island of the Lagoon. The fear of fire was the reason for moving as Venetian buildings were almost totally wooden, however, there was also a politcal reason. Glass art was secret and although glassmakers had many privileges they were banned from leaving the Lagoon. For as long as they remained on the island of Murano, their movements became more controllable. The first of Murano’s foundries was built in “Rio dei Vetrai” (“Glassmakers Creek”), where the oldest workshop still remains. In 1450 there was a big increase in production, this was due to Angelo Barovier, descendant of a family of Murano’s glassmakers. Ballarin was another family of notorious glassmakers. Giorgio Ballarin opened glassware works since he had stolen the technique instructions and he became rich and famous.


II / old map of Venice and Murano island, Italy

In the 15th century Murano’s production focussed on the production of blown glass, but the glassmakers also started to imitate precious stones, such as: sapphire, emerald and amethyst. Murano’s glass diffusion increased both in the East and in the West, it became much appreciated. In 16th century Murano’s glass achieved its higher glory. The Venetian Republic established art awards for the glassmakers that introduced new techniques in glasswork and preserved and defended the inventions of that age, like that one of  “filigree at ritortoli” (with twisted wires in the pattern) or the one of “filigree at reticello” (with a grid pattern). The autorities tried to restrict the glassmakers emigration with the “Gold Book”, edited in 1605, where the names of the “Wonderful Murano’s Community” were written. From then, they were considered the noble glassmakers of the island.

Murano didn’t arrange raw materials to do glass, like soda or the wood for the combustion. In the other countries of the world the foundries, instead, were born near provisions places. In Murano’s island the raw materials were imported from other countries. So the greatness of Murano’s glass depends only on the creativity of glassmakers. Murano’s glass was much apreciated since the Middle Age, however it became very popular in the Renaissance, when crystal was invented. Many royal courts collected it. Ferdinand IV of Augsburg, for example, collected many works of Murano’s glass (he was able to move some glassmakers from Venice to his court in the Ambras Castle in Innsbruck). The production of Murano’s glass became variegated during the Baroque, and began to turn out also mirrors.

III / Murano, Italy, late 17th century

In the 18th century new items like chandeliers and centre-pieces were made, but in 1797 the Republic collapsed and in 1806 the Glassmakers corporation dissolved, so the production went down. Since 1861 Murano’s glass was glamorized, due to the creation of the Glass Museum and of the School of drawings of glassmakers by the town of Murano and the abbot Vincenzo Zanetti. In the 20th century Murano’s glass teachers were successful in following new evolutions of artistic contemporany movements.

Many techniques were invented over the years to make Murano’s glass, they continue to be used to produce wonderful collection. Blowing glass is one of the most important innovation. Initially there wasn’t the blow cane and there was a glass cane closed at one point and the glassmaker blowed at the other point. The work became easier with the invention of metal cane. Another invention is that one of solid wood, where the glass is modeled with the same tools of the blowing. All these techniques are used today to create a variegated quantity of items: furnishings, jewels, chandeliers, etc.  Some of the Murano's historical glass factories continue to produce wonderful Murano glass collections. Some of them are Mazzega, Venini, Barovier & Toso, Pauly, Seguso, Ferro Lazzarim. Murano’s glass today still holds this value, due to its handmade work. But its value is also connected with its long history that involves many cultures and customs.


IV / Murano canals, Italy, 20th century

Today Murano’s glass is used like an artistic medium for sculptures. It may be included the sculpture made by Robert Wilson in the Victoria & Albert museum of London or the recent exhibition of a Murano’s glass sculpture at the Ermitage museum of Saint Petersburg made by the young glassmaker Alessandro Mandruzzato. An important japanese designer, Yoichi Ohira worked in Vincenzo Zanetti’s school for around thirty years.



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