Legacy of Venetian Glass
Glass is one of the most commonly used construction and decorative materials in the world today. However, not too long ago, glass was very rare and precious, and was only used in the most luxurious circumstances. It is not clear when humans first discovered glass. However, during the Stone Age, people started to use obsidian, a type of volcanic glass, and tektites, glass from extraterrestrial or other origin, to produce sharp cutting tools such as knives and arrowheads, as well as jewelry and money.
The 1st century Roman philosopher and writer, Pliny the Elder, suggested in his book, “Naturalis Historie”, that Phoenician traders were the first to stumble upon glassmaking around 5,000 BCE at the site of the Belus River, known today as the Na’aman River. Archaeological evidence suggests that the first “true glass” was made in the coastal area of northern Syria, Mesopotamia or Ancient Egypt around 3500 BCE. The first glass vessels, on the other hand, were made about 1500 BCE in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Glass, in any case, has a long history of over 5,000 years.
During the late Bronze age, there was a rapid growth in glass making technology. By the 15th century BCE, extensive glass production was carried out in Western Asia, Egypt and Crete. The Egyptians were among the first to use glass in their art and culture. Extensive glass manufacturing in Egypt started with the Eighteenth Dynasty of the New Kingdom at around 1550 BCE, the earliest examples being three vases bearing the name Pharaoh Thutmose III. Large quantities of colored glass ingots, ubiquitous beads and glass vessels were found in the Palestinian and Egyptian areas around the New Kingdom period. Then during the Late Bronze Age, technical progress, including glass manufacturing, suddenly came to a halt around the Mediterranean area. This sudden stop of development is theorized by some as caused by sudden climate change.
Development and glassmaking picked up again in the 9th century BCE when the first colorless glass was discovered. The first glassmaking manual existed as far back as 650 BCE in the cuneiform tablets in the library of the Assyrian King, Ashurbanipal. In Egypt, glassmaking was reintroduced around 300 BCE in Ptolemaic Alexandria.
After the invention of the blowpipe by Syrian craftsmen in the 1st century BCE, the glass blowing technique was discovered in the Babylonian region. Suddenly glass vessels became as cost competitive as pottery vessels and the fast growth of glass usage occurred. Although Roman glass production developed from Hellenistic technology, glass as a household material was as ubiquitous in Rome by the first century as plastic is to us today. By 100 CE, Romans began to use glass for architectural purposes. Glass showed up in the windows of the most luxurious villas in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Glass mosaic tiles also became popular. Alexandria was the glass making center in the eastern Roman world glass, and as one of the most important trade items beyond the Roman world, was found as far away as China.
Unfortunately, Roman glassmaking did not continue after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century. The Islamic world picked up where Rome had left off and became a major glass producer. By the 8th century, the Persian chemist Geber had close to 50 glass-making recipes in his book, “The Book of the Hidden Pearl.” European glassmaking did not really start again until the end of the Medieval period. However, on the island of Torcello near Venice, archaeologists have unearthed 7th to 8th century glass objects, bearing witness to the transition of glass making from the Roman world to Venice.
Venice became a major glass manufacturing center in Europe in the 13th century. During the Fourth Crusade of 1204 CE, Venetian war galleys and the rest of the European Crusaders sacked Constantinople and took away countless riches from the Byzantine Empire. The Venetians took away more than gold and jewels; they took many of the best Byzantine craftsmen, including glass makers who had acquired the latest techniques from the Islamic world. When Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman conquerors in 1453, more glass makers departed for Venice. Venetian glass was unique because local Venetian quartz pebbles were almost pure silica and Venice had a virtual monopoly on the importation of the Levant’s soda ash, another critical glass making raw material. During the 13th century, Venetian craftsmen perfected sheet glass making, a technique invented in Germany. The Crown glass process was used until the mid-19th century. Murano also developed many other glass making techniques which enabled this Venetian island to become a center of the lucrative export trade in dinnerware and mirrors.
In 1291, all Venetian glass making foundries were ordered to move to Murano due to the fire hazard glass production posed to the city’s mostly wooden buildings. “Cristallo”, colorless glass, or Venetian crystal, was invented by Angelo Barovier on the island, and Murano produced the largest proportion of Venetian glass. Murano’s glassmakers became Venice’s most prominent citizens. They were allowed to wear swords, had immunity from some prosecutions by the state and were allowed to marry into the most affluent families. However, to guard Venice’s glass making secrets, they were not allowed to leave the Republic. Anyone who left was hunted down by state assassins.
Despite the Venetian authorities’ seemingly water tight control, glass making technology eventually spread throughout Europe. Facing difficult competition from Bohemia, the Anglo-Saxon world and France, around 1700 Murano glassmakers developed a new type of chandelier called “ciocca”, translated as a “bouquet of flowers”. This design was inspired by an original architectural concept: the internal space is left almost empty and all the polychrome floral decorations are spread around the central support, distanced by the length of the arms, which enabled the enormous chandeliers to look and feel extremely light, but still with a triumphant posture. This design immediately became immensely popular with European royalty and high society who wanted it for their large palaces and theaters. One of the most famous producers was Giuseppe Briati who made a chandelier for the noble Venetian Rezzonico family. The renowned Rezzonico Chandelier is still hung in their palace, “Ca` Rezzonico”, on the Grand Canal. It is now the paradigm of Murano chandeliers and one of the best examples of Venice’s ability to face challenges and adapt to the world.
After 800 years, Venetian glass is still pouring out of Murano furnaces every day to meet the demands from Europe and the rest of the world. Like everything else in Venice, Venetian glass carries with it beauty, history, spirit and vitality. It also has a touch of archaic tradition, but like all of the living traditions, it is changing and adapting to the world of the 21st century, yet still with a little romantic caress of “antica”.
The modern word “arsenal” means a storage for weapons or munitions and has its origins in the Venetian word “arzenale”, which means a large shipyard or wharf. Venetians had one of the strongest fleets in the 15th and 16th century. However, “arzenale” was borrowed from the Arabic word “dar as-sina’ah”, which means workshop.