Glassmaking in Venice has an immensely rich history. From the 15th century onwards, the name of the small glassmakers' island of Murano has been virtually synonymous with glasswares of the finest and most sophisticated kind.
Venetian glassmaking has its roots in the great Roman glass traditions on the nearby mainland. Archaeological evidence from the 7th century points at the production of coloured glass 'tesserae' or cubes used for wall mosaics on the island of Torcello, and references to glassmakers dating from the 10th century onwards can be found in the Venetian archives.
A breakthrough for Venice as an aspiring trading nation came in 1204, when the crusaders used Venetian ships to sail to Constantinople and sack the city. As a form of payment, the Venetians claimed the treasures looted from the city, parts of which can still be seen in the treasury of St. Mark's Basilica. But their greatest gain was in the resulting economic changes, as from that time onwards Venice dominated the Mediterranean trade in luxury goods from the East.
The council of the city also made serious efforts to establish its own production of luxury goods, especially textiles and glass, and there is evidence that Byzantine craftsmen were brought in to help achieve this. The glass industry became heavily regulated by the Guild of Glassmakers. The first set of statutes governing glassmakers, the famous 'Capitulare de Fiolaris', dates from 1271. This contains rules and regulations for all those involved in glassmaking, from furnace owners to the youngest apprentices, all of whom were by now organised in the Guild of Glassmakers. The 'Capitulare' was regularly updated and amended until the last version was issued in 1776.
These documents, together with others in the Venetian archives, provide a vivid insight into the way in which the guild deliberately developed a highly organised industry, one geared towards export markets and striving for a worldwide monopoly. The guild encouraged technical developments by providing additional trade benefits and dispensations for their inventors. Once established and proven successful, new techniques became jealously guarded trade secrets. Glass-recipe books, containing glassmakers' families' secret formulae, were treasured and closely guarded. Handed down from father to son, they were regularly annotated with new or refined recipes and other discoveries. As the success of Venetian glass was to a large extent based on the careful selection and purification of raw materials, the export of these materials was either forbidden or heavily restricted. Most importantly, the glassmakers themselves were not allowed to practice their art outside Murano, and they could be heavily punished if they were caught doing so. Not only the deserters, but also the families they left behind, could face fines, imprisonment, or the galleys. We know of one case in which the inquisitors of the guild threatened to use a hired assassin. The concentration of all glass furnaces on the nearby island of Murano to reduce the risk of fires in Venice, which was the result of a decree of 1291, also facilitated control over the glassmakers' community.
One of the most important innovations around 1450 was the development of an extremely pure and clear type of colourless glass called 'cristallo', which was to become the 'trade mark' of Venetian glass. Named after naturally occurring rock crystal, this could be blown very thinly and tooled into the most intricate shapes. Cristallo laid the foundation for many other great developments of the 15th and 16th centuries, both in glassmaking techniques and in the opening up of a new repertoire of shapes and object types.
All these protective measures and technical and stylistic developments led to complete international dominance by the Venetian style of glassmaking. The finest glass of Venice found its way to the courts and the tables of the nobility and wealthy merchants across Europe. Such was the demand for Venetian glass that an exodus of Venetian glassmakers was inevitable. Generous payments and favourable conditions provided enough incentive for the Italians to risk the guild's wrath and set up workshops abroad. From the mid-16th century onwards, numerous Venetian glass-houses sprang up in the Netherlands, France, Germany, England, and other countries. There, Venetian glassmakers produced Venetian-style glass using raw materials which were as close a match as possible to the ones they used at home. The term for the glass they made, 'à la façon de Venise' (in the Venetian manner), was already in use by the middle of the 16th century. Depending on local demands, they often adapted their style and used indigenous shapes and vessel-types.
As most of the façon de Venise glass-houses were high-profile business enterprises, requiring substantial investments, there are many accounts relating to their operation. Often contracts with the Italian glassmakers stipulated that they should train local youths to become skilled glassmakers. In many cases, this led to fruitful collaboration. We know of frequent instances of Italian glassmakers marrying furnace owners' daughters, thus consolidating business alliances. But it is easy to imagine that there were also many frictions caused by the clash between different cultural backgrounds, perhaps fuelled by the heat of the furnace and the huge quantities of beer that glassmakers often drank to withstand prolonged exposure to such high temperatures.
The great period of bloom of glassmaking in the Venetian style lasted until the late 17th century, when such refined fragility was no longer fashionable. In Venice itself, glassmakers were not very successful at imitating the new types of much heavier glass from England and central Europe. The sturdy simple shapes and the engraved decorations that were now rapidly becoming popular did not suit the Venetian glassmakers, and a sharp decline in the industry set in. The only wholly successful and original Venetian products of the 18th century were exuberantly ornate and colourful chandeliers. The situation worsened after Venice was occupied by the French in 1797 and after Napoleon abolished the Guild of Glassmakers in 1805. A full-scale revival of the industry in the second half of the 19th century was largely fuelled by the growing antiquarian interest from tourists, collectors, and design reformers. Glassmakers re-learned lost techniques and took inspiration from the past at the glass museum at Murano, which opened in 1861. The industry employed chemists to develop new kinds of glass with dazzling new colours. The resulting products may now be considered by many to be over-ornate and top-heavy, and even a caricature of earlier Venetian styles, but with their vibrant colours and exuberant theatrical design they laid the foundation for the re-development of technical virtuosity on which all later developments are based.
For the past seven centuries, the tiny island of Murano has been completely dominated by glassmaking. To anyone walking around its canals now, and visiting the countless glass factories, this sense of history is tangible. Many glassmakers of today are direct descendants of the great masters of the 15th century. The essence of glassmaking on Murano has always been a thorough understanding of the material and a complete reliance on hot-working techniques. Everything is made in the heat of the roaring furnace, in an atmosphere where every movement is orchestrated and perfect timing is essential. Masters have to start working at the furnace at a very early age to learn the secrets and techniques, the skills and tricks that have been passed on in their families for hundreds of years. But it is also crucial that they learn how to operate as part of the small team of makers around the master's chair.
It is likely that the medieval glassmaker worked more or less alone on the beakers and bottles he produced. A rare surviving picture of a 16th-century glasshouse in Florence, which was set up and operated solely by Venetian glassmakers, gives us a glimpse of a more advanced way of working. The master glassmakers, who would have been responsible for most of the important stages in the process, sit on simple three-legged stools at one of the 'mouths' of the furnace. Through these openings they could reach the molten glass inside, but the openings were also used for re-heating the glass at various stages of the process of blowing and tooling. To the right of each of the seated masters in the painting can be seen a standing figure of a glassblower. These are almost certainly their assistants, who would have blown separate parts of the object and handed them to the master at precisely the moment he needed them. Every master had access to his own opening to the annealing chamber at the top of the furnace. The finished hot objects were placed in this chamber to cool gradually, thus preventing them from breaking. In the 17th century, the invention of the glassmaker's 'chair' or 'bench' as we know it today, with long slightly sloping supports to roll the blowpipe, was a step further in the specialisation of the team. The glassmaker would from now on remain seated most of the time, performing only the most difficult procedures that required the highest levels of skill. This makes perfect economic sense, as none of his valuable time was wasted. Obviously, the degree of complexity and size of the objects produced have always determined the exact size of the team.
In Murano, the technical bravura of the master often goes hand in hand with an inherent sense for the theatrical. Through the ages, a visit to the glass factory has been a standard item on the itinerary of the foreign visitor to Venice, and this might well have encouraged the glassmakers to perform their skill with even greater flair. But the best glass-houses are usually well off the beaten track, allowing the masters to concentrate wholly on their work. The traditional Venetian techniques almost all rely on advanced hot-working skills. One of the few exceptions to this was the technique of enamelling, which was largely abandoned after the early 16th century. Other techniques, such as 'chalcedonio', 'millefiori', and filigree glass, all involve creating decorative effects incorporated in the material itself. These techniques rely heavily on the technical knowledge and experience as well as the skill of the glassmakers. During the latter part of the 16th and the 17th centuries, new shapes and new types of vessels were introduced. The glassmakers used predominantly colourless cristallo, often adding a single clear blue glass trail to emphasise the shape. While they continued to make quite simple-shaped glasses with flowing lines, there was also a tendency towards more complex designs. The most complex objects were designed by artists and were probably intended for special banquet feasts. Technically, these combined mould-blowing and manipulating at the 'mouth' of the furnace (also called the glory hole) with intricate 'lamp-worked' details, blown from the thinnest, prefabricated tubes over an oil or paraffin flame which was powered by foot-operated bellows. Such complicated follies were probably not intended to last, and indeed, unfortunately, only design drawings and a few fragments have survived.
Although the quality of craftsmanship suffered during the period of decline in the 18th century, the sense of theatricality and the exuberance of colours and shapes was further explored. The same is true for the revival glass of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Modernism arrived relatively late in Murano. In the 1920s, designers began to look back at the simplicity of form of the early Renaissance, using subtle monochrome colours. In the 1950s and 1960s, Italian design became a dominant international force, and Venetian glass was very much part of this. Designers of international calibre, working in close relationship with the best masters of Murano, went back to the roots of Venetian glassmaking. The best designers and masters used traditional Venetian techniques, such as 'filigree' and millefiori, in innovative and stimulating ways. Today, technical virtuosity has again become a hallmark of the glassmakers of Murano. This can be observed equally well in their highly artistic products and in their more standard repertoire, and is even a feature of the best wares produced for tourists. Many of the best masters have specialised and have become particularly accomplished in one particular technique or way of working. Again, the tradition of passing skills on in a closed and concentrated environment, from generation to generation, has produced the most wonderful fruits. Murano now has specialised glassblowers, makers of filigree glass, and sculptors in hot glass, all of whom rank among the very best in the world. Nowhere in the world can we find such technical skill, combined with understanding of the material, as in this small island off the Adriatic coast. But there is a real danger of artistic inbreeding in this tiny community. This is not helped by the fact that the glassmakers of Murano cannot even produce enough to supply their tourist market, a consumer group which does not demand artistic innovation. It is of paramount importance that the best masters challenge and renew themselves continually.
This can be done only by looking beyond the direct horizon, just as their predecessors did. It is vital that the masters travel to work abroad and also welcome foreign artists into their workshops. This is exactly how the industry prospered in the golden age of the 15th to 17th century.
Chihuly was one of the first modern foreign artists working in glass to come to Venice, and he was lucky to work with some of the world's best masters. Many contemporary glass-artists have abandoned blowing for other production methods, but for Chihuly blowing and manipulating hot glass are the quintessential glassmaking techniques. The main attraction of Venice was that he could engage with the most experienced teams of highly skilled glassblowers. But the process was entirely reciprocal; Chihuly has brought to Venice a new way of thinking and new ideas about scale and meaning of works of art, which have had an enormous impact on the masters with whom he works.
What is so special about Chihuly's collaboration with Venetian masters such as Pino Signoretto and Lino Tagliapietra is that the ideas and technical abilities are compatible and complement each other so well. In both cases, this has led to the creation of something truly wonderful and unique.
Published in Chihuly at the V&A, Portland Press, 2001
Also from Chihuly at the V&A:
Chihuly at the V&A, Jennifer Hawkins Opie
Chihuly and Venice, Dan Klein
CHIHULY AT THE V&A