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Venice's Signature Crafts: Glass

Perhaps it's a matter of character that Venice, a city whose beauty depends so much upon the effects of shimmering, reflected light, also developed glass—a material that seems to capture light in solid form—as an artistic and expressive medium. There's not much in the way of a practical explanation for the affinity, since the materials used to make glass, even from earliest days, have not been found in the Venetian lagoon. They've had to be imported, frequently with great difficulty and expense.

Glass production in the city dates back to the earliest days of the Republic; evidence of a seventh- or eighth-century glass factory has been found on Torcello. Glass was already used as an artistic medium, employing techniques imported from Byzantine and Islamic glassmakers, by the 11th century. You can see surviving examples of early Venetian glass in the tiles of the mosaics of San Marco.

By 1295 the secrets of Venetian glassmaking were so highly prized that glassmakers were forbidden to leave the city. Venice succeeded in keeping the formulas of Venetian glass secret until the late 16th century, when some renegades started production in Bohemia. In 1291, to counter the risk of fire in Venice proper, the glass furnaces were moved to the then underpopulated island of Murano, which has remained the center of Venetian glassmaking to the present.

The fall of Damascus in 1400 and of Constantinople in 1435 sent waves of artisans to Venice, who added new techniques and styles to the repertoire of Venetian glass factories, but the most important innovation was developed by a native Venetian, Angelo Barovier. In the mid-15th century he discovered a way of making pure, transparent glass, cristallo veneziano. This allowed for the development of further decorative techniques, such as filigree glass, which became mainstays of Venetian glass production.

Glass studios such as Venini, Pauly, Moretti, and Berengo make up the premium line of Venetian glass production. These firms all have factories and showrooms on Murano, but they also have showrooms in Venice. Although their more elaborate pieces can cost thousands of dollars, you can take home a modest but lovely piece bearing one of their prestigious signatures for about $100, or even less.

On Murano you can visit a factory and watch Venetian glass being made, but among the premium manufacturers only Berengo allows visitors to its factory and they are quite dedicated to educating the public about glass. At minor factories, you’ll generally get an adequate demonstration of Venetian glassmaking, as well as a high-pressure sales pitch.

Venice and Murano are full of shops selling glass, of varying taste and quality. Some of it is made on the Venetian mainland, or even in Eastern Europe or China. Many minor producers on Murano have formed a consortium and identify their pieces with a sticker, which guarantees that the piece was made on Murano. The premium glass manufacturers, however, do not belong to the consortium—so the sticker guarantees only where the piece was made, not necessarily its quality or value.

Updated: 2014-04-10

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