Glassmaking in Medieval Europe and Renaissance – Venetian Glass, Murano Glass
After the fall of the Roman Empire, glassmaking in Europe came almost to a halt; in fact, the quality of glass even declined. Artistic glass ceased to be created, while some utilitarian glassware was still produced. Most pieces from the early medieval period are green or brown, with little variation in color. Bubbles and striations are also common and decorations were limited.
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However, one region that developed a flourishing glass industry after that dark medieval period was Venice. A glass industry existed in Venice by the late 10th century, but it was not until the 13th century that the industry was fully established. Since 15th century, Venetian glass was exported to northern Europe, and during the Renaissance demand for Venetian glass greatly increased.
Venice had several advantages besides the quality of its glass. First, the geographical location was ideal. Second, eastern glass manufacturing declined after the fall of Constantinople, so that its glassmakers migrated to Venice and brought eastern glassmaking techniques. Third, Venice had strict rules concerning the migration of Venetian craftsmen; they were virtual prisoners in this Republic, while the rule was indeed effective in keeping the glassmaking secrets of Venice intact from outsiders. Penalties included imprisonment and even death.
In 1271, the center of Venetian glass industry was moved to the island of Murano. Some say this was a continuation of the strict rule of keeping secrets from outsiders; some say that it is because of fear of fire spreading from the furnaces. For whatever reason the industry was moved, most of what is called -Venetian- glass is actually made in Murano. Beads, beakers, and dishes were produced in the early periods.
Since around 1450, artistic glassware was also produced, stimulated by the Renaissance. Armorial flasks with gilded and enameled decorations were produced. Pictorial scenes took the place of simple geometric patterns.
The biggest change may be the shift from colored glass to cristallo. Cristallo was a clear glass which was almost colorless, with a pale yellow or brown tint. It was light and thin, and could be used for fancy decorations, so that Venetian glass using cristallo became famous throughout Europe. Another interesting type of glass was ice glass; hot glass was plunged into cold water, then immediately reheated and blown for a crackled ice effect.
Venetians also produced mirror glass and chandeliers, and the period of prosperity continued until the 18th century. After that, Bohemians and Germans took their place. Some Venetian glassmaking families still survive; for example, the Barovier family from the 15th century still makes Venetian style glassware.
Later, the English would create lead glass in an attempt to create more superior glass than the cristallo – it turned out that lead glass can sustain deeper cuts than cristallo. What we know as lead free crystal today is essentially the same type of glass.