A (Very) Brief History of Venetian Glass

You might be curious about this whole glass-blowing thing and who ever discovered it. Well, we’re going to give you a hint at the answer. Glass blowing originated in Venice in the 12th century. Perhaps “originated” isn’t quite the right word, since many of the craftsmen were actually Byzantines displaced from Constantinople by the Crusades and Ottoman invasion. Venice seemed like a pretty sweet place to set up shop, until the Republic decided that having a bunch of fires in the center of their mostly wooden town was asking for trouble. And thus was born the idea to move all the fires to the island of Murano. It wasn’t long before the glass makers were esteemed as local celebrities, and enjoyed a variety of benefits usually reserved for the nobility: carrying swords, immunity from prosecution and marrying off daughters to rich suitors. Of course, the price for such extravagancies was steep: the craftsmen and their families were not allowed to leave the island, on penalty of death. Transit to and from the island was closely monitored. Clearly, the other benefit to having all this talent on one, tiny, isolated island: the secrets to creating such masterpieces were contained and thus Murano and Venice could maintain a monopoly on the glass trade of the day.

One of the biggest secrets was the art of making mirrors.  Now, obviously the idea of a mirror wasn’t novel but it was really hard to get oneself ready in the morning when all you had to look at was a polished piece of metal. Eventually, these glass craftsmen perfected a method of coating glass with a tin-mercury amalgam to create a very reflective surface.  Murano had a monopoly on mirrors for several hundred years and enjoyed it. Mirrors from Murano were extremely expensive and were considered quite the luxury.

The Venetian style was known for being hand tooled rather than molded.  The artists used hollow metal rods to gather and molten glass and then a series of tools and forms to shape the hot glass into dishes, jewelry, and a number of home and personal goods.  The amount of skill required took years to master and the level of craftsmanship was unmatched.  This fact, combined with the rarity of the glass coming out of the tiny island, made Venetian pieces highly coveted even to this day.

This isn’t to say that only these crazy Italians knew about melting sand to make glass…German and Irish craftsman also had styles of glass blowing, and these methods are what the early US glass industry was born from. The Irish were known for their cut glass crystal – every woman registering for her wedding knows the name Waterford and the tell-tale ring of a high-quality crystal wine glass. German glass blowers brought their art to the US after the Civil War. Like a lot of things German, the style is thick, heavy, and mostly molded. Glassware produced under this method made glass accessible to the masses, and became known as depression glass.  In general, the 1900s saw glass being a huge industry in the US. Bottling companies sprouted up for various industries: dairy, pharmacy, and beverages. Unfortunately, Wall Street ended up creating a hot mess in 1929 and almost all of the glass industry collapsed; for the next 40-50 years the glass blowing industry in the US was all but dead.

Even though some of the early artisans did manage to escape the island and relocate their furnaces, it is only within the last 40 years or so that the Venetian masters have started sharing their secrets with the outside world. One Harvey Littleton – essentially the father of American studio glass – was essential to getting the secrets of Venice into the United States. In 1962, along with Dominick Labino, he organized the first glass blowing seminar with the goal of taking glassblowing out of the manufacturing setting and put it in the hands of ordinary people.  (Harvey got it honest, his father was the director of research for Corning glass works, and is remembered today as the developer of pyrex glass.)  In the following years, Harvey put on many seminars and was influential in acquiring Venetian masters to come and demonstrate the celebrated techniques here in America. All in all glass blowing is certainly in the infant stages in America, even though the art has been around for centuries and we have only scratched the surface (pun intended) of its history. TtF founders have our roots in the Venetian style and we’re thrilled to be a small part of bringing this awesome creative media to the forefront of American – and Pennsylvanian – art scenes. We hope you’ll come visit us soon and make your own masterpiece!

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