Since ancient times man has paid an almost mystic attention to glass, attributing something magical and supernatural to this transparent material. Magicians of legend could predict the future by gazing into a crystal sphere, chemists and alchemists studied prisms in search of a stone which would turn metal into gold, magic that was born in flames and like that fire that gave life to the popular belief of the Phoenix, the mythological bird with the golden plumes, glass is synonymous with beauty.
Still today, for the visitors who come to Murano, the same scenes which inspired writers and legend are represented. In fact the furnace structures have remained unaltered over time and new technology is seen only in small details. All this is because of the attachment the master glass-blowers have towards tradition. Like a clock, they seem to have stopped time in the more than one thousand years of history of glass-blowing in Venice. The glass masters "battono" (beat, i.e. use) the same glass-blowers pipes and the same instruments which were knowingly forged in the machine shops which were built up over the island which, together with other small activities, has made Murano one of the centers of Venetian commerce.
The origins of the art of glass blowing in Venice go back to before the first millennium. This is confirmed by a document written by a Benedict monk, Domenico called "Fiolario", who manufactured phials for use in the home. There is no certainty as to the shape of this phial since not one, neither whole nor in pieces, survived to the present day. We can only hypothesize as to the aspect of the phial from some iconographic documents. The technique used to make the phial was that of blowing into glass using those instruments that the late Roman glass blowing activities had passed down through the ages. It is presumed that later the technique was refined in Venice more than any where else in Europe because of the trading contacts that the Venetians had with the Orient and above all with countries that already had an ancient tradition in glass blowing such as the Fenici, the Syrians and the Egyptians. Such traditions, renewed in the celebrated furnaces of Islam, were an occasion to reconstruct both Western and Oriental knowledge and techniques there by giving the Venetian production a particularness that made their glass so important throughout the world over the course of centuries. Today Venetian glass production is at it's pinnacle, and is world renowned for it's quality and form.
In the mean time, the old Amurianum, as the island of Murano has been called in honour of one of the ports of Altino, grew in prestige. So much so as to be considered separate from the other Venetian islands, enjoying a certain liberty afforded by the "Signoria" (ruling class). Such privilege was assigned in virtue of the furnaces that were installed there and consequently the economic importance that Murano began to have in the social fabric of the Serenissima.
By verdict of the Doge and carried over by Doge Tiepolo in 1291, the island of Murano was declared a true and proper industrial area and soon became the capital of glass production in the world. The Doge was represented by a head of state and flanked by a popular council called Arengo, among the various privileges they were afforded was the so called "Libro d'Oro" or golden book where the names of the most important families were recorded. The icon of the "oselle" or the conservation of the symbol (the rooster carrying a fox on it's back and a serpent in it's beak) is the extraordinary concession that the families of Murano shared with the nobility of Venice. The affinity between Venice and Murano is curiously seen in the morphology of the two cities which presents the same public squares, streets, internal canals and even the same "Grand Canal" which runs through it.
It was deemed necessary to construct an order in the productive cycle from the buying of raw materials to the formation of Glass Masters and the preservation of the product. These rules were transcribed from classic latin into a more known language. This transcription took place in the first half of the 1400's with the writing and approval of "Mariegole della arte dei verieri de Muran" (rules of the art of glass-blowing of Murano) and is preserved at the Correr Museum in Venice. The manuscript with a frontispiece illustrating Saint Anthony Abate, patron saint of glassblowers, is bound in a velvet and gold cover (17th Century). Along with the category of glass-blower who was dedicated to the production of blown or hollowed out glass other catagories were added such as mirror-maker and window-pane maker and in particular rolled glass bound in strips of lead (leaded glass maker). There was also the category of glass flower-maker, bead and "conterie" maker. The name "conterie" or counter is thought to have come from the habit of using beads almost like currency considering the quantity and diffusion throughout the countries with which the Venetian Republic traded. All of the glass-making specialties were represented in the internal council which were elected each year and were composed of furnace owners and the "Stazionieri", that is to say the sellers who were intrusted with the job of selling the final products. Hierarchies grew up around the furnaces that governed the production activities in the "Piazza" (local square) with the "maestri" (glass masters), "garzoni" and "garzonetti" (lackies), "serventi" and "serventini" (trainees) and not least of all the "forcelanti" (glass-cutters) who were at the direct dependence of the Glass Master to whom which he paid solicitous respect seeing in him not only a teacher but above all as mentor.
Murano glass has know moments of glory over the centuries as well as moments of decline. However it has always been characterized by an obsessive search for quality. In fact Murano's motives in its pride has always been its aesthetic quality which has often contrasted with its competition and has frustrated attempts at imitation. Through out the history of art, the hollow blown glass of Murano has forged it's own path, it's strength being in its variation of type and class. From its poly-chromatic glazes and the gold in the cobalt blue of the Barovier cup to the lightness and transparency of its glasses; from the delicateness of the lattice-work to the originality of Murano glass; from the mosaics to the counting beads; from the panes of glass to the mirrors, it all represents the original history of glass. Just as painting and sculpture, interior design, mode and jewelry have become entwined in the history of Murano, considering the versatility of the material to adapt to other forms of artistic expression. Especially today, in fact many artist have felt the need to shape, through the knowledgeable hands of the master glass-blowers of Murano, their ideas through the magic of glass, in search of significance in their works of art in the very profoundness of the material's transparency.
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