I recently visited the Museo del Vetro di Empoli, which offered a pretty thorough history of glassblowing in Tuscany, or at least the side pertaining to the city of Empoli.
Here is my translation of the historical information provided there:
The earliest evidence of glassblowing in Tuscany was found near the town of Gambassi Terme (FI), in a locality called Germagnana and date back to the beginning of the 13th century, possibly earlier.
The remnants of 5 medieval glass furnaces were found at the excavation site, which is thought to have been placed there because of the abundance of woodland, and the fact that it was located far enough away from the town of Gambassi Terme, to pose a threat to its habitants.
The glassmakers called "bicchierai" made mostly functional utilitarian items including drinking glasses, bottles, flasks, urinals, and lamps.
During the mid 1300's some "bicchierai" migrated to the valley of the river Arno where they spread the art of glass by making typical products such as flasks and the drinking glass that was known as the "gambassino".
Until the 1500's the Tuscan glassmakers continued to make almost exclusively functional items that were commonly made during the 13th century.
The remains of glass furnaces, dating from the mid 16th century to the early 1700's, found in the historical center of Pisa, the town of Montopoli Val' d'Arno, and at the studio of Francesco I dei Medici located in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, confirmed the continuity of glass production systems across the centuries.
Only from the early 17th century were new modifications found in the glass facilities such as the addition of the glass annealing oven.
During the 1500's and 1600's the was a number of luxury objects produced by the glassmakers that worked for the Medici family of Florence. A large number of bizarre forms of glass were made, most notably the 1600 various forms of drinking glasses made by Giovanni Maggi.
In the course of the 16th and 17th centuries some glass and flask makers, originally from the valley of the Elsa river (Val d'Elsa), came to Empoli and began producing, and selling thier manufactured glass inside and in the area surrounding the Castle of Empoli.
Manufacturing and production of glass began by the mid 1700's, most notably with the glass factory built by Domenico Lorenzo Levantini in the "Borgo d'Empoli" for the production of functional products and initiated the practice of covering the bottom of the bottles with straw, (like the classic Chianti bottle), for transport purposes.
By the early 19th century they had began producing the large demijohn bottles.
In the same location of the Levantini glass factory, Francesco Del Vivo and Michele Ristori operating a factory for the longest continuous period from 1830 to 1984.
In 1901 the Busoni factory flourished with the advent of the glass press. They were able to make many new forms and various shapes by pressing hot glass into a metal mold.
Empoli is famous for its green glass.
The color occurred naturally due to the impurities present in the sand (found along the Arno river) which was very rich in Iron. The glass became known as "Verde Empoli" because of the enormous amounts of products produced in the green glass from the end of the 18th century to the 1960's.
"Vetro Bianco" or clear, transparent glass began being produced in small quantities under the shadow of the prevalent green glass industry. The production was started in the 1920's and was reserved for special uses such as window panes, lamps, crystal tableware, and artistic objects.
The Taddei factory was the first major factory to began the production of artistic glass at the end of the 1920's using the green glass.
In the 20 years preceding WWII the Taddei factory popularized their production of green artistic glass by participating in some of the most important exhibitions of the time, and advertising in the magazines Moda and Arredamento.
Other glass factories in Empoli competed for the artistic glass market including the Etrusca green glass factory and the CESA factory which produced clear, transparent glass.
At the of WWII the Taddei, Etrusca, and CESA factories closed down.
In the 1950's a new glass society was born which in part continued the tradition production of flasks and demijohns made with green glass, and in part began to invent new artistic glass products.
During the 20 year period between 1960 and 1980, the production of green glass for functional items and artistic glass products slowly came to an end, and was replaced by an artisan and industrial productions of colored, semi transparent and transparent glass.
From the 1950's, amongst the traditional glass factories,there was a surge of semi automatic and automatic glass blowing machine technology used to make products for food use including demijohns, bottles, and various containers for the kitchen, home, and for stores.
Initially the machines produced with the traditional green glass, but then changed with the times to semi transparent, and then to clear transparent glass which was used to produce bottles of various sizes for water, wine, oil, soft drinks, and liquors.
In 2001 there were still 15 factories operating, (including those who use fully automated devices to create glass products), employing about 650 workers. 5 of the 15 companies were considered historic.
Today 2 of the historic companies remain, and only 3 factories continue to work by hand.
About the Museum:
The museum is housed in the historic salt depository of Empoli, which was built in the year 1365 on the deliberate construction request from the Republic of Florence.
I was surprised and disappointed to find that the museum itself was not selling any glass.
They had recently done a promotion in December where a factory produced a limited production of hand made green glass replicas, but after most of the products were sold they stopped selling them because it was a one time promotion and not an ongoing production for the museum. A few of the replicas remained on display.
There were a few plastic pens and wooden pencils with the museum's logo that were for sale, that I assume were made in China, and number of books on glass and its history in Empoli that were mostly out of print I gathered that they were not planning to print them again.
The museum had many artistic glass pieces on display as well as some machine made bottles and wares described in the history above.
Info:Museo Del Vetro di Empoli
Via Ridolfi, 70
Another site that has good historical glass information about Tuscany in English:http://www.centrovetro.it/tradizione_eng.asp
Vetrerie Empolesi is 1 of 3 factories who continue to work by hand, and is the only factory still manufacturing with glass. Their society was formed by 30 glassblowers who came together after the factories Azzurra, SAVE, and Cristalleria Arno closed down in the period between 2008-2009.
There are some good photos of the glassbowers at work if you click on "Our Master GlassMakers at work".
I am friends with 2 master glassblowers at this factory who share an interest in expressing themselves using glass as an artistic medium.
They often stay after hours to make their personal work during the limited time they have before the furnaces are refilled with glass.
Here in Tuscany this is a rare occurrence.
After working in a factory in Tuscany myself, talking with other glassblowers here, and visiting the factories that still work by hand here, I have found that most glassblowers see it as a manufacturing job and have little, or no ambition to test the limits of the material or realize their own ideas in it, or invest any of their time off the clock.
Cristalleria Stilvetro is 1 of 3 factories who still work by hand in Empoli, but only work with crystal.Cristalleria
Nuova CEV is 1 of the 3 factories who still work by hand in Empoli, but only work with crystal.
The crystal factory where I worked in Colle d'Val d'Elsa is called Colle Vilca, they are one of 2 that I know of who still work by hand in that area, however I heard that they had recently laid of 10 workers.
Empoli Artistic Glass