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History of Venetian glass from Murano. Now in a special Melbourne exhibition

The origins of glassmaking in Venice go back to the times of the Roman Empire when moulded glass was used for illumination in bathhouses. Blending Roman experience with the skills learned from the Byzantine Empire and trade with the Orient, Venice emerged as a major glass-manufacturing centre as early as the C8th. One of the earliest furnaces for glass was found on a Venetian island!

By the late 1200s, high quality glass objects became the city’s major industry. So the Glassmakers Guild laid out craftsmen’s rules, to safeguard the trade secrets and en­s­ure the in­dustry’s profits. A 1271 law prohib­it­ed the imp­ort of foreign glass or the employment of foreign glass workers. An even more rad­ical law was passed in 1291, requiring that all furnaces used for glassmaking be moved from Venice to Murano Island, to avoid the risk of fire spreading onto over-populated Venice’s wooden structures. A law passed in 1295 forbade glassmakers from leaving the city.

 Venetian cristallo glass, 1580 

Perhaps because of Venice’s location at the crossroads of trade, as the cultural bridge between East and West, the city’s glass reached the peak of its popularity in the C15th and C16th. In the C15th, master Angelo Barovier discovered the process for making clear glass/cristallo that allowed Murano glass mak­ers to become the only mirror makers in Europe. And the popularity of Chinese porcelain among European nobility fuelled discovery and production of the white glass mimicking porcelain/lattimo.

New glassmaking techniques became popular eg enamelling and gild­ing glass, which originated in the Middle East, filigrana glass which is made using glass rods with inner threads of white, golden or coloured glass that twisted or ice glass which appeared finely crackled. Shapes and colours increased in variety.

But Murano glass went into a gradual decline in the C17th. As Venetian power on the trade routes reduced, so did its mon­­opoly power in glass­making; new centres of the craft emerged in Bohemia and France instead. Yet the C17th was also a period of strong baroque trends that spread via European architecture, painting and interior decoration.

Venetian (C16th revival) amber glass carafe 
made by Salviati in c1880
with applied floral paterae to either side 

Brightly coloured, intricate glass decorations with floral and an­imal motives became popular. New glass techniques included metal flecks embedded for sparkles and illusion of semiprecious stones, raised decorations on glass and millefiori beads. These new tech­niques were so success­ful that royal courts like King Frederick IV of Denmark ordered glassware from Murano artisans.

In the C18th, there was a worsening political climate and increased competition from Bohemian and French glass makers. New techniques were introduced eg engraving on glassware and mirrors, but they made little impact. The industry reduced further with Napoleon’s con­quest of Venice in 1797 and his abolition of Venice’s guilds.

In 1814, the transfer of Venice from France to the Habsburg Empire created another crisis for Murano glassmaking as Habs­burg rulers preferred their native glassmaking centre in Bohemia; they passed laws making it expensive to bring neces­sary raw materials into Murano and export the final product. As a result, only 5 furnaces in Murano continued to produce blown glass by 1820.

The industry didn’t die completely. But the breakthrough didn’t come until 1854 when six Toso Brothers opened the firm Fratelli Toso that produced household glass items. Five years later Antonio Salviati moved to Venice to open a factory dedicated to tradit­ional Murano glass. He wanted to produce tiles that could restore old Venet­ian mosaics and he hired the best Murano masters to work in his factory.

Venetian authorities signed a 15-year contract with Sal­viati’s firm for restoration of the mosaics in St Mark’s basilica. In 1861, Venice’s mayor Antonio Colleoni built an Archive ded­ic­ated to both the writings and the objects of art prod­uced in Venice. Building the archive caused renewed interest in Venice’s history and its glorious past. And prompted officials to set up a proper school for glassmakers.

There was an Archive Exhibition (1864) and then internat­ional shows followed eg the highly successful Universal Exposition in Paris in 1867 where Salviati exhibited 500+ works made by his firm and received international acclaim. This publicity led to com­­plete revival of Murano, employing 3,500 people by 1870. And the well attended Murano and Ven­ice Exhibition of Choice Glass and Glass Objects was staged in 1895 inside Murano City Hall.

The first Venice Biennial Ex­hib­ition (1895) showed new works of art in the Art Nouveau style. This highlighted the gap between the modern trends gaining strength in Europe then and the works of Murano artisans who were somewhat foc­used on the past. This gap became even more obvious at the Univ­er­sal Exposit­ion in Paris in 1900, followed by Expositions of Decorative Arts in Turin in 1902 and Milan in 1906. The Art Nou­veau style was becoming more popular.

In the 1920s, Art Nouveau was replaced by more modern styles with simpler and more functional designs. Art Deco gave more focus on glassware as part of an overall interior design, not as a piece of art in itself. A new company, founded in 1921 under Vittorio Zecchin as its head designer, championed the style.

Sommerso glass vase, tricolour
c1950, 11” high. 

Important 1930s innovations were production of glass stat­ues of female nudes, classical figures of gods, and eng­raving on glass and modern lighting fix­tures. During WW2 the glass industry did not thrive, but after the war the Murano makers returned & created pieces reflecting modern interior design trends: minimalism, funct­ionality, simplicity. Sommerso i.e sub­merged was a technique used to create several layers of glass with contrasting colours inside a single object. It was and is beautiful.

Liquid Light: 500 Years of Venetian Glass draws upon the National Gallery of Victoria’s extensive holdings of Venetian glass, rang­ing in date from the C16th-20th. The NGV’s Collections are very rich in material from the C19th revival of the glass ind­ustry on Murano Island. This Melbourne Exhibition continues un­til 12th July 2020.


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