03-16 Venice glassblowers

[Image above] Murano glassblowers Mariana Oliboni, left, and Chiara Taiariol create glass pieces in their workshop. They are two of the many Murano glassblowers struggling to keep their workshop alive. Credit: Business Insider, YouTube

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine nears the end of its third week, the effects of this war are being felt around the world in both humanitarian and financial terms.

For many everyday consumers, the financial effects are most immediately apparent. Natural gas and gasoline prices are reaching near record highs, and a lot of people are pointing to the current crisis as the reason for these prices. However, for those who watch the energy markets, they know the Russian invasion is contributing to a trend that has been in place since last fall.

A confluence of factors, including increasing demand and restricted supply, has driven an increase in natural gas and gasoline prices over the past few months. These surging prices not only affect individual consumers but industry as well.

Europe’s ceramics industry has been struggling due to these increased prices. Last November, we reported on these challenges and highlighted Italy specifically because the country, along with Spain, dominates Europe’s ceramics trade.

Yet ceramics is not the only industry in Italy threatened by soaring prices—Venice glassblowers are struggling to keep their centuries-old tradition alive.

The origins of glassmaking in Venice go back to the Roman Empire, when molded glass was used for illumination in bathhouses. By the late 1200s, production of glass objects was the city’s major industry.

In 1291, Venice officials passed a law requiring that all furnaces used for glassmaking be moved from Venice to the nearby island of Murano. They claimed the law would help avoid the risk of fire spreading to the largely wooden structures of overpopulated Venice. However, many historians believe that the true motive was to isolate the glass craftsmen so they couldn’t disclose trade secrets. (A subsequent law passed in 1295 forbidding the glassmakers from leaving the city supports this theory.)

Venetian glass reached the peak of its popularity in the 15th and 16th centuries, following the discovery of the process for producing clear glass, which allowed Murano glassmakers to become the only producers of mirrors in Europe. By the 18th century, though, the industry was on the decline due to a worsening political climate and increased competition from glassmakers in Bohemia and France. Fortunately, initiatives in the 19th century helped revive the art, and today Murano is again viewed as the “glassblowing capital of the world.”

In January 2022, The Washington Post reported on the challenges that Murano glassblowers are facing due to the surge in natural gas prices. Unlike other industries that can simply turn off unused machines, glassblowers must maintain their furnaces at the required holding temperature 24 hours a day because shutting down and starting up again is a hugely expensive process.

“The cooling process cracks the crucibles—the clay vats in which glass is cooked. Both those and the fire-resistant bricks have to be replaced. It then can take two weeks to get back up to the right temperature,” The Washington Post explains.

Though the Italian government set aside several billion euros to help curb energy bills, the current crisis in Ukraine has exacerbated the situation. “If the situation keeps going like this, we cannot continue for sure,” Murano glassblower Chiara Taiariol states in a Business Insider interview.

The Business Insider video, which published March 11, talks with several Murano glassmakers about their struggles to continue the centuries-old tradition. In addition to discussing the current challenges caused by fuel prices, they also discuss a challenge that is years in the making­—the lack of young people joining the profession and the potential loss of traditional glassblowing techniques. Watch the full interview below.

Credit: Business Insider, YouTube