As anyone from Alfred the Great to Dr. Moreau will tell you, an island is a great place for defending secrets. Italy’s Venetian Lagoon — and in particular the island of Murano — has been trading off its closely-guarded glassmaking methods for over a millennium (the earliest works dating back to the reign of King Alfred). It’s a true cottage industry, one that has enjoyed no less then two periods of global domination of the decorative glass market.
In that time, the island of Murano and its skilled workforce have been venerated, ostracized, plundered, restored, canonized, brought under the control of numerous empires and much imitated, but never bettered for sheer craftsmanship.
It must be something in the water right? Well yes, actually. One of the things that makes island culture so idiosyncratic is the special combination of elements that comprise the environment. Formations of local rock and local soil mix with local water to create a chemical brew unique to the area. If you’re seeking to create inimitable product, this fact is a goldmine. Often literally. To wit, an analogy. Not gold, but whisky: Off the west coast of Scotland lie the Hebrides, a chain of desolate islands renowned for their whiskys, exported throughout the world. Each island’s dram is noticeably different. The water is different. The grain is different. The wood in the cask is different. Each bottle is a literal product of the land, a flavor of what the earth is made of at a specific geographical coordinate.
Down at 45°27’29.88″N and 12°21’11.88″E, there are two special ingredients. One is silica, the raw ingredient in all glass. Silica is found in sand. Most common-or-garden-or-beach sand contains iron, which tends to give the glass a green hue. But the quartz pebbles found around the Venetian archipelago are unusually pure in silica, making for a fine, white sand. Add to this soda ash from the Levant (on which Venice held a monopoly) and you have the potential for clearer, finer glass. A potential that required the second special ingredient in order to be met: the role of Venice in medieval European geopolitics.
FROM SECRECY TO SCARCITY
It began, like so few things, in the Dark Ages. By the 9th Century, Venice was already a major maritime city-state and an important trading post. Glass production was already in full force to the east; throughout the first millennium, Islamic territories had capitalized on technology pioneered in Egypt way back in the pre-christian era. Venice’s strategic location allowed its craftsmen to steal a march on the rest of Europe.
And as if that level of access to Mesopotamian glassmaking practices wasn’t good enough, in 1204, the crusades took the Holy Roman Empire to Constantinople and conquered it. This watershed event gifted the valuable techniques of the middle east’s most powerful city to the enterprising merchants of Venice, who went home and built scores of glass furnaces. Here, the new skill was developed and honed over the next century.
In 1291, the entire glass industry was moved from the main port to the island of Murano. Documentation from the period is sketchy, but it is widely believed the purpose of the move was two-fold. One was a practical worry, the fear of fire breaking out in Venice’s largely wooden city. The other reason was to isolate the industry’s trade secrets from the outside world. Now, the glassmakers of Murano were kept as virtual prisoners – albeit highly regarded ones. It was a classic free market technique. With those in the know insulated from those in the want-to-know, Murano glass became scarce and highly sought-after. Murano’s first golden age as Europe’s leading source of fine glassware had begun.
But a monopoly on know-how is essentially unsustainable, island or no. Rival glassmaking industries and shifting trade routes undermined the golden goose of Venezia. As the industry declined, so did the republic. First came Napoleon’s army in 1797. Then the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1814. Habsburg sovereignty brought new regulation which favoured Bohemian glassmakers over Venetian, and restricted the movement of those raw materials such as soda ash, so integral to the Murano method. By 1820, there were just five glass-blowing factories on the island.
AN UNDYING TRADITION
But anyone gleefully anticipating the end of Murano’s glass industry was to be sorely disappointed. Glassblowing families remained true to their trade during the slump, doggedly passing down the techniques and dedication from generation to generation. This rich heritage kept an ancient tradition on life support until the turn of the 20th century, when a series of important investors stepped in to help restore Murano’s reputation. Importantly, the autonomy and integrity of the glassblowers was recognized and respected by this new money, itself a result of Victorian heavy industry. Looking at the best examples of the work, it’s not hard to imagine how a savvy modern businessman could see the potential. Exuberant, daring, uninhibited – by any objective standard, these are masterpieces of art, constrained by the limitations of the artisan tradition from which they arose. It’s a testament to their inarguable quality that they will could not be kept down by changing fashions or even tyrannical governments.
Perhaps there is a third special ingredient in Murano glass. Beyond the sand and geography is the weight of history. Simply, Murano is so good at glass because they’ve been doing it for so long, refining the process and developing new technology, unfettered by successive governments who weren’t prepared to mess with the secretive artisans on the island because, ultimately, they knew they had something special on their hands. The glassmakers of Murano may have been co-opted by the biggest empires in history, from Byzantium to Habsburg, but their art has outlived them all.