The Dark History of Antique Venetian Trade Beads

by on June 8, 2013

Exuberant and ornate, it’s not difficult to imagine why Venetian Trade Beads were so highly coveted by African tribespeople during the trade era. An essential component of trade between African tribes and European merchants, the demand for Chevron and Millefiori Beads in the 13th Century was such that by 1291, the number of glass factories in the Rivo Alto and Dorsudoro suburbs of Venice posed a very real fire risk to the city.

Seeing the commercial viability of glass-making, and the fire risk that such a proliferation of glass-making works posed to the city’s wooden buildings, the Maggior Consiglio (Great Council) ordered the relocation of its glass-making guilds to the nearby island of Murano. Unbeknown to the guilds, the move was actually motivated by the desire of the Maggior Consiglio to have greater control over the regulation of the guilds, and move the production of Venetian Trade Beads away from an area where competitors could easily infiltrate factories in disguise.

Some say the council was morally corrupt and motivated by greed – especially since it was they who largely benefited from taxes on sales, exports and imports. This is reflected by the fact that, four years after the move to Murano, the Council imposed a number of new legislations and sentences to prevent trade secrets being leaked abroad. Venetian glass makers were prohibited from emigrating from the country, and those who did, or were found guilty of leaking information were often never heard of again.

Although it has never been proven, numerous historical documents hint at the possibility that the Maggior Consiglio hired its own assassins to capture and execute any defectors from the island of Murano – of which there were many. Fortunately many more escaped, and it is they who are primarily responsible for the birth of glass-making across the rest of Europe.

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