In English-speaking countries, glass artisans are often performer-pitchmen at craft shows and festivals, where they blow glass baubles for a few dollars or pounds each.
But there was a time when the trade of glassblowing--indeed, glassmaking in general--was an elite pursuit dominated by craftsmen in the Venetian Republic, most notably on the island of Murano in the Venetian Lagoon.
"Supplying quality glass products since 1291"
Murano was a commercial port as far back as the 7th Century, and by the 10th Century it had grown into a prosperous trading center with its own coins, police force, and commercial aristocracy.
Then, in 1291, the Venetian Republic ordered glassmakers to move their foundries to Murano because the glassworks represented a fire danger in Venice, whose buildings were mostly wooden at the time.
It wasn't long until Murano's glassmakers were the leading citizens on the island. Artisans were granted the right to wear swords and enjoyed immunity from prosecution by the notoriously high-handed Venetian state.
By the late 14th Century, the daughters of glassmakers were allowed to marry into Venice's blue-blooded families. (This was roughly equivalent to Archie Bunker's daughter being invited to wed a Cabot or a Peabody.)
Such pampered treatment had one catch: Glassmakers weren't allowed to leave the Republic. If a craftsman got a hankering to set up shop beyond the Lagoon, he risked being assassinated or having his hands cut off by the secret police--although, in practice, most defectors weren't treated so harshly.
What made Murano's glassmakers so special? For one thing, they were the only people in Europe who knew how to make glass mirrors.
They also developed or refined technologies such as crystalline glass, enameled glass (smalto), glass with threads of gold (aventurine), multicolored glass (millefiori), milk glass (lattimo), and imitation gemstones made of glass.
Their virtual monopoly on quality glass lasted for centuries, until glassmakers in Northern and Central Europe introduced new techniques and fashions around the same time that colonists were emigrating to the New World.
Commerce, art, and kitsch
Murano is still an exporter of traditional products like mirrors and glassware, and its factories produce modern items such as faucet handles, glass lampshades, and electric chandeliers.
At the retail level, there's a growing emphasis on art glass and--most important of all--the souvenir trade.
Visit the ubiquitous glass shops on Murano or in Venice, and you'll find countless paperweights, glass beads and necklaces, knickknacks, and items of glass jewelry.
Some are amusing: e.g., colored fish in transparent glass aquariums, or wrapped hard candies of multicolored glass. Others are pretty--glass necklaces and beads, for example. Still others are "hideous," in the words of Jan Morris, who adds:
"The Venetians still profess to find Murano glass lovely, but sophisticates in the industry, if you manage to crack their shell of salesmanship, will admit that bilious yellow is not their favorite color, and agree that one or two of the chandeliers might with advantage be a little more chaste."
To be fair, Murano's artisans do produce beautiful works of contemporary art from glass, although some of the designs are by foreign artists. Visit the better galleries and showrooms on Murano, and you'll find works that are technically and aesthetically stunning.
Also, don't miss the island's glass museums and leading churches.
To plan your trip to Murano (which is only a few minutes from central Venice by public waterbus), use the navigation table or the "Next page" links at the bottom of each page.
If you collect Murano glass, be sure to see our descriptions of books about Murano and its glassmaking industry, along with our page on Murano glass restoration and repairs.
Next page: Murano glass museums
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Inset photos copyright © Michel Velders (1), George Green (2), José Antonio Santiso Fernández (3), Eliza Snow (4).