Antonio da Ros Momento vase, 1977 cm 26 h

Murano has been the crucible of glass-making innovations for centuries. Emma Crichton-Miller welcomes some 20th-century masterpieces

The exquisite quality of Murano glass is well known, yet there is a shyness about many of the greatest Venetian glass workshops. The source of this reticence lies deep in their history. From its earliest times, Venice and the islands of the lagoon were a refuge for people fleeing violence. Among them were the glass-makers of Aquileia, chased onto the remote marshy islands by Attila the Hun in AD 452. These artisans had been making fine Roman glass for centuries, drawing on influences from across the eastern Mediterranean.

As luck would have it, the islands carried a rare ingredient: an almost pure silica sand derived from the local quartz pebbles. Mixed with oxides, coloring agents and soda ash, this sand enabled them to create a particularly pure vitreous material, founding an industry that became one of the most fiercely defended trades of the powerful Venetian Empire. In 1291, the Republic ordered the glass-makers to move their foundries to neighboring Murano. Some say it was for fear of fire destroying the city's mostly wooden buildings, but it was also a canny means of preventing the spread of Venetian glass-making expertise to other parts of Europe. Glass-makers were forbidden to leave the island, already an hour by rowing boat from Venice, without permission; revealing technical secrets was punishable by death. In return, the glass-makers were accorded extraordinary privileges.

By the 14th century, they were allowed to wear swords, enjoyed immunity from prosecution by the Venetian state, and their daughters were permitted to marry into Venice's most prominent families. On this concentrated patch of seven linked islands, families, organized into guilds, built up dynastic businesses, innovating and experimenting for an expanding international market.

Today, the industry is still alive – thriving, in fact, with Venice Glass Week and the opening, in 2012, of the Stanze del Vetro by collector David Landau and his wife, the glass-maker, Marie-Rose Kahane. Some workshops can trace their descent back through the centuries – and something of a tradition of secrecy remains. When, in December, a special single-owner sale in New York, Fire & Light: Highlights from the Cenedese Archive, offers more than 150 lots from the Cenedese workshop, many of the pieces will not have been seen in public since they first appeared to great acclaim.

One of the five leading glass manufacturers on the island, Cenedese was founded in 1946. Like many Muranese children, Gino Cenedese – born in 1907 – began working in the foundries young: at the age of nine. During his apprenticeship as a glass-blower, his most influential master was the great glass-master Giacomo Cappellin. And Cappellin, by establishing a glass-making company in Murano in 1921 with young Milanese lawyer Paolo Venini, kick-started a radical reinvention of Murano glass. As well as returning glass to a purity of line and delicacy of color characteristic of the Renaissance, Cappellin and Venini encouraged artists like Vittorio Zecchin and a young Carlo Scarpa to take the medium and run with it, introducing new processing techniques, new colors and a range of startlingly simple, rigorous shapes. As well as the possibilities, Cappellin and Venini's venture illustrated the perils of this strategy – the only one available to the glass-makers of Murano. They had to make a play for high artistic quality, since cheap decorative glass was easily manufactured elsewhere. Cappellin split from Venini in 1925 and went out of business in 1931, unable to balance profitability with artistic achievement, but Venini's business flourished under a different name, surviving the war with its reputation enhanced for daring and technical brilliance.

It was in the chaotic exuberance of the aftermath of the Second World War, with many companies vying for the best glass artists, that Gino Cenedese set up his own company. In 1946 he entered into partnership with the maestri Alfredo Barbini, Gino Fort, Angelo Tosi and Pietro Scaramal, establishing his furnace on the Fondamenta Venier where once Casanova had waited in disguise for his lover, a nun from the local nunnery. Although the business partnership lasted only a short time, it produced highly original works. Three of the pieces here, for instance, come from a series of outstanding sculptures created by Alfredo Barbini (1912- 2007) for the 1948 Venice Biennale, finished in the corroso style, where the surface is textured with acid, mimicking natural corrosion. These won such great acclaim that Barbini was able to open his own factory.

Cenedese himself was "a convinced exponent", as the Venetian glass historian Rosa Barovier Mentaste has written, "of glass experimentation". In 1953, he embarked on a highly fruitful collaboration with the revered Napoleone Martinuzzi (1892-1977), considered one of the greatest 20th-century artist-designers in Murano. Martinuzzi, who trained as a sculptor, produced entire series of sleek and surreal pieces, using a variety of glass techniques. With Cenedese, Martinuzzi produced a range of consistently inventive pieces from solid glass female figures and bas-relief tiles to splendid chandeliers. The sale features a strikingly abstract vase from 1952, one of only a few vases he executed at Cenedese, with a rough, pale, opaque scavo surface – looking as though it had only recently been excavated from the sand.

The next turning point for the company was the arrival in 1960 of Antonio da Ros (1936-). Da Ros specialized in the beautiful, intensely colorful sommerso technique, first popular in the 1930s, where layers of clear glass and transparent glass are superimposed, still attached to the blowpipe, and then repeatedly immersed during the process in pots of molten colored glass, to create a fluid, dreamy multi-layered effect. As Bonhams specialist Dan Tolson puts it, "These became incredibly iconic works for the 1960s." The Sasso vase – among those offered by Bonhams – is one of the first Da Ros made, winning the glass art prize at the Venice Biennale in 1960.

Another star through this later period was Ermanno Nason (1928-2013), who, often inspired by ancient European cultures or African or Asian art, made scavo his own, producing highly individual glass vessels with abraided, textured surfaces. He also offered a clue to what lay behind Cenedese's success. In his memoirs, he reports being given great artistic freedom, frequently spending more time fishing on the lagoon, in search of inspiration, than working in the furnace. Cenedese would simply say to him, "Maestro, for me it is enough that you make two masterpieces a week." Bringing these masterpieces to auction, as Cenedese's grandson (also called Gino) has said, is a unique chance to celebrate "the artistic achievement of the company and the stories of the people, including my grandfather, behind it".

Emma Crichton-Miller writes about art and design for Apollo and the FT.

Sale: Fire and Light: Highlights from the Cenedese Archive
New York
Friday 14 December at 1pm
Enquiries: Dan Tolson +1 917 206 1611

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