In 1291, all of Venice’s glass furnaces were moved to the ancient island city of Murano, the better to control the risk of fire and industrial espionage. For Venice made the finest glass in Europe – transparent crystal, spectacles, blown-glass mirrors and coloured glass and beads – and it held on to its secrets until the early 17th century. To meet the demand for cristallo di Venezia the kilns burned day and night, and the glass workers laboured in shifts in the searing heat, except in August and September, when they relaxed at bullfights and ‘other rowdy sports’.
But the glassmakers had other compensations. Even more than the arsenalotti they were treated as the aristocrats of Venetian artisans, ennobled, they claimed, by the French King Henri III on his way from Poland to France. Murano was permitted to govern itself as a kind of autonomous republic of glass, with a population of 30,000, minting its own coins, policing itself, even developing its own ‘Golden Book’, whose enlistees built solid palaces along Murano’s own Grand Canal.
Patricians and humanist scholars from Venice retreated here to summer villas with luxuriant summer gardens, where they strolled under the trees like the ancient Greeks discussing art and philosophy in their academies. In 1376, a law was passed declaring that any male child of a patrician and a glassblower’s daughter could sit in the Maggior Consiglio. Other laws were passed to discourage glassmakers from being tempted abroad and divulging their secrets. Their families would be imprisoned, the legend went, and the Ten would dispatch assassins on their trail (these stories were mostly bluster, for there are historical references to Murano glassblowers living quite openly in other cities).
The biggest diaspora of glassblowers occurred in the 1600s, when the Republic stopped paying them enough to avoid the lures of moving abroad. An even worse blow was the sudden popularity of Bohemian cut crystal in the 1670s. The ensuing crisis was only resolved when Murano learned to make cut glass as well. The death of the Republic set off another decline, and only towards the end of the 19th century were the forges on Murano stoked up again.
Visitors to the factories on Murano are more than welcome (it’s traditional – medieval pilgrims sailing out of Venice for the Holy Land chronicled tours of the glass works) but in exchange you have to take the solemn tour through the showroom, where you may feel as if you’ve gone through the Looking Glass the wrong way, with the Mad Hatter in charge of colour.
Vaporetto stop Colonna is at one end of Murano’s main glass bazaar, the Fondamenta dei Vetrai. Across the fondamenta stands an isolated medieval campanile; its church, like 15 others on Murano, was demolished after 1797. Murano’s palaces suffered the same fate, but around the corner from San Pietro Martire and beyond the Ponte Vivarini, there’s an exception, the Palazzo da Mula, a 14th-century palace altered in the 16th century to make a Renaissance pleasure villa, the perfect setting for Giovanni Francesco Straparola's early 16th-century Le piacevoli notti, the source book for many European fairy tales.