Tuesday, April 15, 2014
M IS FOR MURANO
I know I already posted about glassblowing, but this post is different. It's about a very special place at a very special time: the tiny island of Murano, off the coast of Venice, during the 16th century.
There were glassblowers in Venice dating back to about a thousand years ago. But they didn't work in big factories; glasshouses were tiny buildings that would get suffocatingly hot from the kilns, which had to be perpetually stoked with wood to create roaring fires.
In the 16th century, Venetian glass was the best in the world, coveted by the wealthy everywhere that Venetian traders could transport it. The government wanted to ensure that the trade secrets of the Muranese glassmakers remained secret, so that the local industry remained extremely lucrative. It accomplished this goal by decreeing that the glassmakers were forbidden, under penalty of death, from ever leaving their island, or even speaking to visitors.
But some glassmakers dared to violate these laws, despite the threat of being pursued by assassins sent by the government wherever they might flee. Terrifying as it must have been, some of them did escape, and survive, and establish their own glasshouses in London or Paris or German cities. By the 18th century, Venice had lost its monopoly over top-quality glassmaking.
When I first heard this story, I was instantly hooked. The more I read, the more I realized that 16th-century Venetian glasswork was not primitive, as a modern reader might think. The facilities and the tools were primitive, but the work produced was anything but. The image at the top of this post, for example, is of a lamp made in Murano in the mid-1500s. And here is a chalice from the early part of that century:
And a wine decanter, also from the early part of the century:
And a fruit container, from the mid-1500s:
The source of all of these images is a book, "Glass from Antiquity to the Renaissance," by Giovanni Mariacher, translated from the Italian (Hamlyn, 1970). I chose them to illustrate that the level of 16th century Venetian glassmaking has (in my opinion) never been matched before or since, let alone surpassed.
And maybe someday my middle-grade novel, GLASS ISLAND, will be published, and then I'll be able to share a lot more about this magical, dangerous, thrilling place and time.