Discontinued Collectibles Guide

Murano Glassware & Venetian Glass Collectables

For the collector of glassware who prefers to specialise in one particular genre, Venetian glass is likely to be high on the list of preferences. That being the case the name of Murano will soon be familiar to them. In the world of glassware collectibles, Murano is right up there in the upper echelons.

The name Murano comes, not from a famous glassware maker, but from a group of seven small islands, lying just under a mile from Venice in the Venetian Lagoon. The islands are about the same distance across. They had a population of just over 5000 in 2004 and are connected by bridges to each other, but not to the city. Today, Murano is a frazione or civil parish of the comune i.e. township/municipality, of Venice whereas in times gone by it was for many years an independent comune in its own right.

The islands of Murano have long enjoyed worldwide fame for the beautiful glassware collectables produced there. The reputation of their craftsmen and women for quality and artistry is second to none in the world of glassware; but why there in those little islands isolated from the celebrated centre of art and craft that is Venice?

The answer to that question is fear: First of all fear of fire and then fear of industrial espionage and emigration of skilled workers. The history of Venetian glassmaking helps to give us some understanding of those fears.

Venice has been a centre for glass making since at least the time of the Roman Empire. Then, the public bath houses used moulded glass to allow natural light to illuminate their interiors. Venice was an early trade hub for routes connecting the Far East with Europe and the Byzantine Empire. Soon Venetian glass makers picked up from their counterparts in those parts of the world, skills which differed from those inherited from the Romans. This blend of skills meant that, by the 8th Century, Venice had become probably the most prominent centre of excellence in the art and craft of fine glassware design and manufacture. Collectibles were being produced, probably long before anyone ever thought of collecting them!

By the 13th Century the production of the finest glassware had become Venice’s principal industry employing the vast majority of its working population. The Glassmakers Guild was founded, its principal objectives being to maintain the secrecy of the industry’s processes and ensure its profitability. The Guild introduced rules and regulations governing the conduct and activities of the craftsmen and formalised apprenticeships.

In 1271 a new law prohibited the import of any glass of foreign manufacture into Venice and also the employment of glass workers from outside the city state. Another law passed in 1291 not only reinforced these prohibitions but also brought the Murano islands into prominence as a glassware centre. Most of the buildings in Venice at that time were of wooden construction with the perceived high risk of fire from all the glassmaking furnaces in the city. The new law decreed that all glassmaking furnaces must be removed to Murano, well away from Venice itself to reduce the risk of a disastrous fire in the overpopulated city.

With the benefit of 900 years of hindsight we can see that there was almost certainly another motive behind the move. Moving all the craftsmen to Murano, with no easy access to the city and its comings and goings of travelling traders, made it much more difficult for them to reveal trade secrets, either deliberately or by accident perhaps in their cups! In fact, only four years later in 1295, as if to confirm how jittery the city fathers were about this risk, yet another law forbade glassmakers from leaving Venice, which included Murano, at all!

Virtual prisoners in Murano though they were, glassmakers enjoyed a good living with social privileges. By state decree, daughters of artisan glass workers could marry into the wealthiest and most noble families in Venice. Treating glass workers as a privileged elite was a shrewd policy on the part of the rulers of Venice. It ensured that fathers encouraged their offspring to follow them in the trade and used family loyalties and pride to protect trade secrets and maintain the highest standards with an innovative approach which avoided stagnation.

All this, combined with its geographical position at the crossroads of world trade, provided Venice with a virtual monopoly in fine decorative glassware. This monopoly ensured Venice’s prosperity for several hundred years, peaking in the 15th and 16th Centuries. During that growth period many new techniques were discovered or invented in Murano resulting in ever finer and more beautiful products for which any 21st Century collector’s eye teeth would be on offer!

It was not only decorative glass that benefited from all this research and development. In the 15th Century a Murano master craftsman called Angelo Barovier discovered the secret of producing flat, crystal clear glass. This led to the glassmakers of Murano being the only producers of mirrors in the whole of Europe. No one else knew how!

The boom times couldn’t last forever though. The 17th Century saw the beginning of a progressive decline in Venice’s importance as a commercial power base and the consequent erosion of Murano’s monopoly position in glassmaking. There were now new competitors in Bohemia, France and England. However Murano responded to the unprecedented competition with new techniques, even greater artistry and completely new products. It would never again enjoy the total domination of earlier times but it remained a significant player.

However, throughout the 18th and early 19th Centuries the situation was aggravated by the complex political upheavals and wars which beset Europe. Following Napoleon’s conquest of Venice in 1797, all of Venice’s guilds were abolished by the new ruler. The glassmaking industry shrank as a result and then, to make matters worse still, in 1814 the Habsburg Empire took over Venice. The Habsburgs protected the glassmakers of Bohemia by imposing swingeing levies on the importing of raw materials into Murano and on the export of its products.

In 1800 there were 24 furnaces producing glass. By 1820 there were only 5 left. However it was not the end of the story! The few remaining artisans were determined that their craft, handed down through the generations should not die out and they struggled on despite the odds stacked against them.

Then, in 1854, the tide of fortune turned. The Toso Brothers set up Fratelli Toso to make window panes and ordinary household items in glass. Once established they started reviving old, almost forgotten techniques to produce decorative items. In 1859 an enterprising lawyer from Vicenza established a factory to produce traditional Murano glass, starting with tiles for restorers of old mosaics in Venice. His name was Antonio Salviati and he soon secured a contract for restoration work in St Mark’s Basilica.

Thus reborn, the Murano glass industry continued to prosper, through the 19th and 20th Centuries. Development of new ideas and techniques continued with a growing variety of products, now collectables of course, to delight the glassware connoisseur. World War II was a significant interruption but Murano soon recovered its pace and is still producing those sought after collectable items.

Murano will never again enjoy the monopoly it did in its early years of course. That would be impossible in the world of today. However it has, for a long time now, been right up there among the very best producers of fine glassware collectibles. Murano glass makes a superb subject for a glassware collector who wants to specialise.

The following is a list of live auctions for "Glassware Murano" currently listed on eBay. Hover the mouse cursor over the current price for details of postage and packaging. If you would like to see more information on a particular piece and maybe even bid on it, simply click on the item description to be magically whisked away to the wonderful world that is eBay. Alternatively you may use the search box to look for a specific piece for your collection.

Please also check out the Glassware Murano Books, Related Dealers and Useful Resources listed at the end of this page.

Useful Resources

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