Towards the end of the 13th century, the glass industry of Venice was moved to the nearby island of Murano but was not allowed to leave Venice. The reason? The glassworks were the victims of their own success.
The wine glass is an elegant thing, but its history contains a lot of intrigue, including treason and the death penalty.
In the days of yore, people were less picky about wine glasses. (Perhaps because wine drinking was less pretentious?) In fact, they weren’t even picky about "glass" glasses. People drank wine from wineskins, which were pouches made from animal skin that had an opening at one end. You would have seen these in movies that depict ancient times.
Larger wineskins were used to transport large amounts of the dark red liquid before barrels and bottles were invented or became common. The ancient people of Mesopotamia and Egypt were the first to use wine glasses (which looked more like fancy mead goblets). For instance, when the legendary Tuthmose III was in power (~1450 BCE), glass vessels began to make an appearance. By 650 BCE, when Ashurbanipal was king of the Neo-Assyrian empire, the first recipe for the making of glass was part of his royal library. However, the glass-making process was rudimentary, leading to some very clunky glass. The glass was made using sand, sea plants, and chalk. They were melted and poured into a mold, leading to a thick, opaque glass. But the glass was sturdy, so artisans were able to paint designs on those vessels.
By 200 BCE, the Phoenicians had invented the blowing pipe. It was an iron tube that was five feet long and allowed the glass maker to blow the molten glass into various shapes. This also meant the process had more finesse than the Assyrian method. The ancient Romans used a similar process for making their wine glasses, which were more delicate. The Roman glasses had handles but were often quite shallow. So, to us, it sometimes appears as if the Romans were drinking from a dish. The Romans also used metal and earthenware cups, even animal horns! Over time, glass became less expensive and more common in the Roman Empire, until it fell in 476 CE. When the western Roman empire fell, Europe’s glass industry collapsed. In the eastern Roman empire (Byzantine), they continued to produce glass.
After that high noon of wine glasses, Western Europe's many tribes—Saxons, Norsemen, Franks, and so on—reverted to drinking from horns and wineskins. Meanwhile, in the Italian city of Venice, thanks to trade with Byzantium, glass-making continued to flourish. By the 12th century, the Italian city’s glass industry had grown significantly, taking up as much as a kilometer in length in a medieval city. Their glass-making had gained many fans, and the quality of the glass they produced was extolled far and wide.
Towards the end of the 13th century, the glass industry of Venice was moved to the nearby island of Murano but was not allowed to leave Venice. The reason? The glassworks were the victims of their own success. In a medieval city where most structures were made of wood, the furnaces of the glass works had caused too many fires. Safety was a growing concern, and the industry was relocated. But the glassworks also earned the city of Venice a lot of revenue. Enough revenue to warrant death threats. If any of the owners of those glass works tried to leave Murano, they were threatened with jail time or even capital punishment. The Venetian authorities did not want the glassworks to share their profitable trade secrets with outsiders.
Under duress and at the pain of death, the glassmakers of Venice kept improving their trade and skills. By the mid-15th century, they developed a method of creating glass known as "cristallo." The glass produced by this method was thin, clear, and brittle. Sometimes, it would just disintegrate in the air. But it was more refined than earlier glass and became prized across Europe. As with any successful product, imitations began appearing across Europe that were not up to snuff. Then, in 1453, the Ottomans seized control of Constantinople, and the glass industry in Venice was adversely affected.
Meanwhile, the glassmakers of another Italian town, Altare, had gotten pretty good at making glass of similar quality. The glassmakers of Altare had no restrictions, unlike the Venetians confined to Murano, and took their knowledge across Europe. The Venetians realized they were being beaten at their own game, so they took an unusual step: they embedded their glassmakers with the many royal houses of Europe and forbade the use of their goblets to anyone not from a noble family. Yes, their elite status was a differentiator in their trade. As a new middle class emerged in England and elsewhere in Europe, they wanted to move up the class ladder, and switching from ale to wine was one such desire. And what better signal of upward mobility and status in that period than glass?
By the 1600s, the British navy had become very successful. To maintain their burgeoning fleet, they needed wood to make ships. So, burning oak and creating glass were declared illegal. So, the glassmakers of England switched to another fuel source: coal. Since coal burns at a higher temperature, the glass became stronger. Later, lead oxide was added to glass, making it even more clear. Soon, even the stems were made of glass, not metal like earlier. The stems were made longer to reduce contact between the hand and the wine, which sometimes warmed the wine and ruined it.
Wine glasses were still small, holding around 60–100 ml of wine. These days, we even have wine glasses that can hold as much wine as a wine bottle! Glass was expensive because of taxes, so the makers produced glasses that were small and light. That tax was finally repealed in the mid-19th century. 24x7 glass work eventually became common. But it wasn’t until 1973, when Czech glassmaker Claus Riedel released his sommelier collection, that wine glasses were given modern, elegant shapes. Different types of wines were given different-shaped glasses. Research shows that the taste of wine can, in fact, change depending on the glass. However, different glass types for different types of wine had no basis in fact but were a great marketing success anyway. Let’s face it, we do want more than one type of wine glass in our bar, don’t we?