Venetian glass production is deeply rooted in ancient tradition and was directly based on the already thriving Roman and Byzantine traditions. On the island of Torcello, glass furnaces with fragments of glass and mosaic tesserae have been unearthed at archaeological sites dating back to 600–650 CE.
It is not easy to prove any continuity between Roman and Venetian glass production, as the latter was likely influenced by the cultural legacies inherited from Aquileia and the diaspora of coastal populations pushed out by the barbarian invasions. It is, in any case, logical to maintain that the cultural and commercial ties between Constantinople and the Eastern Mediterranean made possible the “industrial” development of Venice during the Middle Ages.
At the beginning of the sixth century Venice was a relatively modest Byzantine colony, but beginning in 828, under the protection of Saint Mark, it began to assert its independence. From a vassal it became an associate of Byzantium in the fight against the Slavs, Saracens and Arabs who threatened the peaceful state of the Adriatic.
In 1082, the emperor – or basileus – opened the gates of the East to Venice with the “Bolla d’Oro”, the so-called Golden Bull with which it conceded exceptional advantages to the Venetian merchants, exempting them from all duties within Byzantine lands.
At the end of the first crusade in 1099 the Venetian established bases in the kingdom of Jerusalem, the countries of the Levant and in Central Asia. Diplomats residing on a stable basis in the “colonies” guaranteed the success of the merchants’ work, to whom assistance was also given to assure their safety and interests.
In the twelfth century, the island of Candia became the crossroads of Venetian maritime traffic. The routes from Euboea arrived at Constantinople and continued on towards Trebisonda, on the Black Sea, establishing additional warehouses (fondachi) in Cyprus, Syria and above all in Beirut, where the Silk Road arrived. Alexandria was the destination of the Serenissima’s ships, which brought spices from the Indian Ocean.
In Egypt, the Fatimids were succeeded by the Abbasids and the Mamluks, but the Venetian always negotiated for their commercial privileges, even when the Mamluks took control of the holy sites, and managed to organise pilgrimages to the Holy Sepulchre. Venice had participated in several crusades in order to prevent the Genoese, Pisans and Normans from benefiting from the commercial advantages available in Tyre and Acri, but Venetian diplomacy had also managed to preserve and reinforce their commercial relations with the Kingdom of Granada, Morocco, Tunisia, Fatimid and Mamluk Egypt as well as the Seljuk Emirates of South-eastern Anatolia.
By the thirteenth century Venetian glass production had reached such proportions that the artisans felt the necessity of joining to form a corporation, and in 1291 the Maggior Consiglio (Major Council) decreed that all the glassworks be concentrated on the island of Murano. The aim was to better preserve and defend the secrets of their work, in addition to reducing the risk of fire in the historic city centre, given the essential presence of fire in the glass furnaces.
After the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1453, many of the glassmakers in Byzantine lands moved to Venice to avoid falling into the Ottoman yoke, as had previously occurred in 1205 when the crusades conquered and looted the metropolis on the Bosphorus.
The sheer diplomatic ability of the Venetian was such that, by the end of the fifteenth century, forty-five percent of the global maritime commerce of the Serenissima was done with the Mamluk Caliphate. While these dramatic events transformed the political order of what had been the cradle of several different civilisations, to the West a determining change took place towards the end of the fifteenth century with the Portuguese circumnavigation of the Cape of Good Hope, which rendered the traditional, ancient trade routes increasingly obsolete on a global scale. Vasco da Gama landed in India
Trans-Saharan trade – which for centuries had assured the commercial, cultural and spiritual/religious ties between Sub-Saharan Africa and the populations along the Mediterranean coast – was reduced to scanty solitary caravans with extremely reduced frequency, as is recorded in the diaries of explorers who crossed the Sahara between 1700 and the early 1800s, leaving from Maghreb towards equatorial Africa.
The Gulf of Guinea became the new commercial pole at which Portuguese, then Spanish, Dutch and English ships unloaded their goods for barter; among these goods were glass beads (by now ones of Venetian and Bohemian origin), once again reaffirming their role as “coins”, being practical, small and resistant.

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In the sixteenth century, the means and techniques of navigation had been so perfected that, thanks also to the audacity of its great navigators, Europe had established maritime ties with almost all regions of the world. In many of these countries, glass was a novelty, and as such it was rarer than gems and other precious stones; thus enormous earning opportunities opened up for European merchants and gave increased impulse/strength to a rise in glass bead production, which up to that point had been fairly limited because of the scarce demand of the traditional markets.
In order to satisfy the demand of the major companies trading with Africa, America and South East Asia, in 1592 the authorities allowed the return of the glassworks/factories to the islands circling the city. The law of 1510 – decreed by the Consiglio dei Dieci (Council of Ten) to punish whomever divulged the secrets of glass science outside of Murano (now the ban extended to the entire city), or whomever established glassworks anywhere else, with capital punishment – remained untouched.In 1525, Venice had only twenty-four glassworks; in 1606, the register of glass bead producers included a hearty 251 members. In 1764, the entire production of the twenty-two most important glassworks on Murano reached 19,000 kilograms per week, almost exclusively made for export.
The gold of the African empires was no longer competitive with respect to American gold. This was one of the causes for which the kings of Ghana, Benin and the Ivory Coast, who had seen a notable fall in the exchange value of the precious metal, raided the African interior for the workforce that the new overseas colonial activities called for. They sold this workforce like ivory and precious wood, receiving in exchange arms that would serve to increase their military supremacy over the populations of interior Africa.
The overturning of the traditional trade routes, discovery of new worlds and resulting European colonial ventures of the nineteenth century were, therefore, the beginning of the great fortunes of the Venetian glassworks.
The continuity of the traditional Alexandrian and Roman glass arts can still be seen today by comparing the Venetian glass production with that of the classical period. The bead production of Murano included all the techniques of traditional glass art: from lamp work of cane cross sections to bona fide mosaic glass. Over the course of centuries the attentive master Venetian glassmakers perfected the ancient techniques they had so ingeniously and faithfully preserved, and didn’t overlook any of the things their predecessors had done, taking back the ancient ornamental motifs that the Arabs had already proposed anew. But the great success of the Venetian glass industry also (and above all) depended on the masters’ great capacity to adjust to the tastes and requests of local markets, so different from one another, and to adapt their product to the markets’ demands.
The master glassmakers were masters above all in the fabrication of the raw material used by the glassworks. Each workshop had centuries’-old recipe books that constituted the cultural inheritance of glassmaking, where the secret mixtures for obtaining coloured, transparent and opaque glasses for any and all of the market’s needs were kept. It has been estimated that the different types of beads produced in Venice for exportation to Africa and overseas exceeded 100,000 and that each of these developed its own range of chromatic varieties.