Above are some of the Venetian glass treasures of the Renaissance era in the collection of the Hakone Glass Museum.
Below we give a brief account of the History of European Glassmaking.
5000 BC The ancient-Roman historian Pliny (AD 23-79) wrote that it was the Phoenician merchants transporting stone who had accidentally discovered glass in the region of Syria around 5000 BC.
3500 BC Excavated artefacts in Egypt and Eastern Mesopotamia tell us that the earliest man-made glass objects, mainly non-transparent glass beads, date back to around 3,500 BC. In central Mesopotamia between 2,000 to 3,000 years B.C., the basic raw materials of glass were being used mainly to produce glazes on pots and vases. The discovery may have been accidental as calciferous sand found its way into an overheated kiln combining with soda to form a coloured glaze on the ceramics. Core-formed and cast glass vessels were first produced in Egypt and Mesopotamia as early as the fifteenth century B.C.
It was then that Phoenician merchants and sailors who spread this new art along the coasts of the Mediterranean.
1,600 B.C. Early hollow glass production The oldest fragments of glass vases found in Mesopotamia so the earliest evidence of the origins of the hollow glass industry that we have dates back to the 16th century B.C. Hollow glass production was also evolving around this time elsewhere: in Egypt, and probably independent other ancient glassmaking activities may have emerged in Mycenae (Greece), China and North Tyrol.
After 1,500 BC, craftsmen in Egypt developed a method for producing glass pots by dipping a core mould of compacted sand into molten glass and then turning the mould so that molten glass stuck to it. While still soft, the glass-covered mould could then be rolled on a slab of stone in order to smooth or decorate it. The earliest examples of Egyptian glassware are three vases bearing the name of the Pharaoh Thoutmosis III (1504-1450 BC), who brought glassmakers to Egypt as prisoners following a successful military campaign in Asia.
900 B.C. Glass production centre in Alessandria There is little evidence of further evolution until the 9th century BC, when glassmaking revived in Mesopotamia. Over the following 500 years, glass production centred on Alessandria, from where it is thought to have spread to Italy.
650 B.C. The first glassmaking “manual” we know of is dated back to around 650 B.C. Tablets from the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (669-626 BC) contain instructions on how to make glass.
27 BC-AD 14 Glassblowing technology begins A major breakthrough in glassmaking was the discovery of glassblowing some time between 27 BC and AD 14, thought to have been made by Syrian craftsmen from the Sidon-Babylon area. The long thin metal tube used in the blowing process has remained in use till today. In the final 100 years B.C., the ancient Romans learnt to blow glass inside moulds, which allowed the creation of a great many new shapes for hollow glass items.
The Romans contribution The Roman empire conquests did much to spread glassmaking technology as the Romans swept across western Europe and the Mediterranean. Glassworks flourished with burgeoning trade, road building, and effective administration. During the reign of the emperor Augustus, glass objects began to appear throughout Italy, in France, Germany and Switzerland. Roman glass has even been found as far afield as China, shipped there along the silk routes.
It was the Romans who began to use glass for architectural purposes, with the discovery of clear glass (through the introduction of manganese oxide) in Alexandria around A.D. 100. Cast glass windows, even with the poor optical qualities, emerged in the most important buildings in Rome and the most luxurious villas of Herculaneum and Pompeii.
With the geographical division of the empires, glass craftsmen began to migrate less, and eastern and western glassware gradually acquired more distinct characteristics. Alexandria remained the most important glassmaking area in the East, producing luxury glass items mainly for export. The world famous Portland Vase is perhaps the finest known example of Alexandrian skills. In Rome’s Western empire, the city of Köln in the Rhineland developed as the hub of the glassmaking industry, adopting, however, mainly eastern techniques. Then, the decline of the Roman Empire and culture slowed progress in the field of glassmaking techniques, particularly through the 5th century. Germanic glassware became less ornate, with craftsmen abandoning or not developing the decorating skills they had acquired.
The history of Venetian glassmaking
In 450, in the Venetian lagoon and in the surroundings there were glass-workers that produced the tesseras for the mosaics of the local churches. Venetian glass production dates back to 982, with a document that makes reference to a bottle maker called Dominicus Phiolarius (from it. fiole: bottles). In 1090 a Petrus Flabianicus was also mentioned.
Glass art mosaics for churches
During the early Middle Ages Objects from the late 7th and early 8th centuries excavated from the island of Torcello near Venice, Italy show the transition from ancient to early Middle Ages production of glass.
Towards the year 1000, a significant change in European glassmaking techniques took place. Given the difficulties in importing raw materials, soda glass was gradually replaced by glass made using the potash obtained from the burning of trees. At this point, glass made north of the Alps began to differ from glass made in the Mediterranean area, with Italy, for example, sticking to soda ash as its dominant raw material.
The 11th century saw the Germans invent glass sheet production – to be further developed by Venetian craftsmen in the 13th century. By blowing a hollow glass sphere and swinging it vertically, gravity would pull the glass into a cylindrical “pod” measuring as much as 3 metres long, with a width of up to 45 cm. While still hot, the ends of the pod were cut off and the resulting cylinder cut lengthways and laid flat. Other types of sheet glass included crown glass (also known as “bullions”), relatively common across western Europe. With this technique, a glass ball was blown and then opened outwards on the opposite side to the pipe. Spinning the semi-molten ball then caused it to flatten and increase in size, but only up to a limited diameter. The panes thus created would then be joined with lead strips and pieced together to create windows.
Glazing remained, however, a great luxury up to the late Middle Ages, with royal palaces and churches the most likely buildings to have glass windows. Stained glass windows reached their peak as the Middle Ages drew to a close, with an increasing number of public buildings, inns and the homes of the wealthy fitted with clear or coloured glass decorated with historical scenes and coats of arms.
In the Middle Ages, the Italian city of Venice assumed its role as the glassmaking centre of the western world. The Venetian merchant fleet ruled the Mediterranean waves and helped supply Venice’s glass craftsmen with the technical know-how of their counterparts in Syria, and with the artistic influence of Islam. The importance of the glass industry in Venice can be seen not only in the number of craftsmen at work there (more than 8,000 at one point).
1271 The ban on foreign non-Venetian glassmaking craftsmen working in Venice and the development of Venetian glass factories was quick: in 1271 a first “capitulary” was introduced to regulate the art of glass making. A 1271 ordinance, a type of glass sector statute, laid down certain protectionist measures such as a ban on imports of foreign glass and and foreign glass makers were prevented from working in the city. Non-Venetian craftsmen were clearly seen threat.
The Guild of glass makers was under the authority and protection of the Republic, and their formulas were highly valued and kept strictly secret. These “partite” or recipes, were handed down from father to son and transcribed into secret books. In fact these secret techniques were of such great importance as to make the difference between the glass produced in Venice and that of other European glass centres. In 1295 another strict “capitulary” was issued: in it the emigration of Venetian glass makers abroad was forbidden.
However, the frequent fires caused by the furnaces led the city authorities, in 1291, in order to counter the risk of fire to order all of the furnaces of Venice to be moved to the island of Murano. The art and traditions of Murano glass have been kept alive till today. Thus until the end of the 13th century, most glassmaking in Venice took place in the city itself. The measure also made it easier for the city to keep an eye on what was one of its main assets, ensuring that no glassmaking skills or secrets were exported.
15th C. Venetian glassmaking at its peak – the production of decorative pure crystal
In the second half of the 15th century, the craftsmen of Murano started using quartz sand and potash made from sea plants to produce particularly pure crystal. By the end of the 16th century, 3,000 of the island’s 7,000 inhabitants were involved in some way in the glassmaking industry. However, no Venetian glass preceding the XVth century has survived, while the glass of the Islamic art arrived to Venice from Constantinopole after the IVth Crusade (1204), is kept in the Treasure of St. Mark.
Venice came to know of the “enamelled” glass of Syrian origins that influenced enormously the creation of those goblets and stem glasses with enamel decoration that date back to the XIVth and XVth century, like Aldrevandin’s glass and the one kept in Switzerland in the Cathedral of Coira.
The decoration of Venetian glass was also influenced by the craftsmen arrived from the Middle East, after the Fall of Damascus in 1400 and of Constantinopoles in 1435, which closed definitively the history of the Roman Empire.
Towards the half of the XVth century, above all because of these external influences, the production of glass with dark colours decorated and painted with bright coloured enamel was successful.
Decorative Venetian glass
At the mid of the XVth century, the invention of crystal – a perfect clear, flawless glass — the chemical composition of this kind of glass allowed complex and long works typical of the Murano tradition. The glass was produced by Angelo Barovier which became called “vetro cristallo” or “cristallo veneziano”. The Venetian factories that made goblets, glasses, dishes, bowls etc., exported their objects all around Europe, where the elegance and lightness of this material was appreciated.
Venice kept guarding the secret of the production of glass and of crystal but, notwithstanding it, the Republic partially lost its monopoly at the end of the XVIth century, because of some glass makers (e.g. Verzelini) who let the secret be known in many European countries.
Venice reacted to this competition producing more and more original objects, with fancier and more exuberant decorations: glasses and goblets with handles and decorated by figures of animals, “acquerecce” and “versatoi” (jugs and ewers) ship-shaped, entirely made of glass, fruit-stands supported and decorated by serpents, dragons, sea-horses, dolphins etc.
In the XVIth century the quest for new materials led to the realization of an opaque white glass called “lattimo” (from it. latte: milk). Subsequently the “filigree” and the “retorti” glass were created; in 1527 Filippo Catani patented the “zanfirico” (or “retorti”) filigree with milky canes included in cristal and twisted as spiral – techniques still representive of the classic Murano glass today.
Towards the end of the XVIIth century and in the XVIIIth, the production of mirrors imposed itself: mirrors were all pretty small, because they were made out of sheets of blown glass, unlike those of other countries which were melted in big surfaces and then polished. These mirrors were decorated with cut figures or enriched by big glass frames or with coloured glass applications.
In the XVIIIth century there was the rise of Giuseppe Briati’s industry who created the ciocche chandelier.
As consequence of the political collapse with the fall of the Republic, the economic crisis and the foreign dominations, between the end of the XVIIIth century and the mid of XIXth didn’t produce anything new in the artistic field, and the glass factories were content with the production of beads for necklaces and rosaries.
The art glass production industry was revitalized in 1840 by Pietro Bigaglia through the innovation of millefiori paperweight. With the end of the XIXth century, Murano re-started practice of art glass, reviving the techniques of its past. During this part of the century was born a new generation of master glassmakers focused to re-learning the manual and technical skills which until just a few years before might seem to have been lost.
In the following century some glass factories led by craftsmen or industrialists such as Venini, Barovier, Salviati, Toso, Cenedese, Barbini, abandoned the repetitive production and copies of old classical pieces, to create a big variety of artistic glass upon new designs, thanks to innovative contemporary artists.
From Rome to Japan
6th C glass bowl found in ancient tomb thought to be Emperor Ankan’s – probably a Silk Route trade item
The history of glass in Japan, apart from locally sourced obsidian glass) begins with Roman glass found in the 5th c. tumulus mounds of Japan, indicating that the ancient Silk Road trade had reached the furthest terminus at East Asia. Evidence of this long-distance trade are the Roman beads (see photo below) and other glass articles found in 5th c. tombs in Japan.
By the time of the Roman Republic
), such vessels, used as tableware or as containers for expensive oils, perfumes, and medicines, were common in Etruria (modern Tuscany) and Magna Graecia (areas of southern Italy including modern Campania, Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily). The Roman glass industry owed a great deal to eastern Mediterranean glassmakers, who first developed the skills and techniques that made glass so popular that it can be found on every archaeological site, not only throughout the Roman empire but also in lands far beyond its frontiers.
The Roman glass industry had sprung from almost nothing and developed to full maturity over a couple of generations during the first half of the first century A.D. Rome’s emergence as the dominant political, military, and economic power in the Mediterranean world was a major factor in attracting skilled craftsmen to set up workshops in the city, but equally important was the fact that the establishment of the Roman industry roughly coincided with the invention of glassblowing. This invention revolutionized ancient glass production, putting it on a par with the other major industries, such as that of pottery and metalwares. Likewise, glassblowing allowed craftsmen to make a much greater variety of shapes than before. Combined with the inherent attractiveness of glass—it is nonporous, translucent (if not transparent), and odorless—this adaptability encouraged people to change their tastes and habits, so that, for example, glass drinking cups rapidly supplanted pottery equivalents. In fact, the production of certain types of native Italian clay cups, bowls, and beakers declined through the Augustan period, and by the mid-first century A.D. had ceased altogether.
The invention of glassblowing led to an enormous increase in the range of shapes and designs that glassworkers could produce, and the mold-blowing process soon developed as an offshoot of free-blowing. See examples of Roman mold glass here
. Although blown glass came to dominate Roman glass production, it did not, however, altogether supplant cast glass. In the first half of the first century A.D.
, much Roman glass was made by casting, and the forms and decoration of early Roman cast vessels demonstrate a strong Hellenistic influence. By the beginning of the first century A.D.
, merchants, diplomats, and travelers crossed the ancient world
from Britain and Spain in the west to engage in trade in China and Japan in the east.
Glass dish, bowl and beads from Niizawa Senzaku tumulus, 5th C. Nara (Tokyo National Museum)
A word about the Hakone “Glass Forest” Museum … it is a beautiful and marvellous place to spend the day. You’ll feel like you’ve been plucked right away into some fairy-tale Hansel & Gretel-like forest (Italian actually) for an enchanted outing. This is one forest you’ll want to lose your way in… for more photos, see this page
Below, the earliest encounter with glass in Japan – the Palaeolithic volcanic obsidian glass trade in Japan (photos: Heritage of Japan):
Palaeolithic era obsidian glass tools from Hokkaido, Japan 13,000-12,000 B.C. Photos: Heritage of Japan