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Great Venice Souvenirs: Glass
Perhaps it's a matter of character that Venice, a city whose beauty depends so much upon the effects of shimmering, reflected light, also developed glass—a material that seems to capture light in solid form—as an artistic and expressive medium. There's not much in the way of a practical explanation for the affinity, since the materials used to make glass, even from earliest days, have not been found in the Venetian lagoon. They've had to be imported, frequently with great difficulty and expense.
Glass production in the city dates back to the earliest days of the Republic; evidence of a seventh- or eighth-century glass factory has been found on Torcello. Glass was already used as an artistic medium, employing techniques imported from Byzantine and Islamic glassmakers, by the 11th century. You can see surviving examples of early Venetian glass in the tiles of the mosaics of San Marco.
By 1295 the secrets of Venetian glassmaking were so highly prized that glassmakers were forbidden to leave the city. Venice succeeded in keeping the formulas of Venetian glass secret until the late 16th century, when some renegades started production in Bohemia. In 1291, to counter the risk of fire in Venice proper, Venetian glass furnaces were moved to the then underpopulated island of Murano, which has remained the center of Venetian glassmaking up to the present day.
The fall of Damascus in 1400 and of Constantinople in 1435 sent waves of artisans to Venice, who added new techniques and styles to the repertoire of Venetian glass factories, but the most important innovation was developed by a native Venetian, Angelo Barovier. In the mid-15th century he discovered a way of making pure, transparent glass, cristallo veneziano. This allowed for the development of further decorative techniques, such as filigree glass, which became mainstays of Venetian glass production.
Angelo Barovier's company, now called Barovier e Toso, still exists today—it is among the oldest continually operating firms in the world. It and such "newcomers" as Cenadese, Venini, Seguso, Pauly, Salviati, Moretti, and Berengo make up the premium line of Venetian glass production. These firms all have factories and showrooms on Murano, but they also have showrooms in Venice. While their more elaborate pieces can cost thousands of dollars, you can take home a modest but lovely piece baring one of their prestigious signatures for about $100, or even less.
Venice and Murano are full of shops selling glass, of varying taste and quality. Some of it is made on the Venetian mainland, or even in Eastern Europe or China. Many minor producers on Murano now have formed a consortium and identify their pieces with a sticker, which guarantees that the piece was made on Murano. The premium glass manufacturers, however, do not belong to the consortium—so the sticker guarantees only where the piece was made, not necessarily its quality or value.
On Murano you can visit a factory and watch Venetian glass being made, but among the premium manufacturers only Berengo allows visitors to its factory. If you go to a minor factory, you'll generally get an adequate demonstration of Venetian glassmaking, but expect a high-pressure sales pitch at the end. Berengo, on the other hand, is quite dedicated to educating the public about glass, and their excellent demonstrations of glass making are not part of a sales promotion.
The major Venetian glass producers are now distributed worldwide, and the prices you will pay at home is about what you will pay in Venice. But in Venice the selection is much greater. Also, some showrooms offer discontinued models that you won't find elsewhere at a substantial discount—but you have to ask. Because glass is a Venetian passion and central to Venetian culture, antique pieces and even vintage pieces from the 1920s to the '60s by the major producers are quickly bought up by locals, and the prices are actually higher for them in Venice than elsewhere.
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