Murano: The artistry and culture of quality Glassmaking

Photos by Yelena Glukhovtseva

Historians still disagree whether moving the glassmaking industry from the magnificent city of Venezia, or Venice as we know it today, was to protect the city, or to protect the glassmaking craft and maintain its commercial rarity. It was in 1292 that the Grand Doge, and the Grand Council of Venezia announced that all glassmaking activity was to be moved to the small collection of islands, one mile further offshore, in order to protect the city, uniquely built on a series of canals, from the risk of fire.

Another, less romantic version, is that the glassmakers were evading taxation by selling their wares on the mainland, not in the city, so the council isolated them from their market in a protectionist and commercial move. There was also believed to be, at that time, a recognition of the value of glassmaking, and glassmakers, so throughout Italy many such craftsmen were actually murdered, or their homes and businesses were destroyed if they did not move to Venice, and ultimately to Murano. The Grand Doge and his council were obviously very powerful.

Whatever the motivation, the Grand Council of that day could not have foreseen the global reputation of Murano glassware becoming as prominent as it has today. Alongside such identifiable global craft brands and labels as Swarovski crystal, Omani silver, South Sea pearls and French Champagne, Murano glass stands ahead of its peers in terms of both quality, and artistic wonder.

With a population of only 5000, and almost all involved in the glassmaking industry, Murano is by no means a cultural backwater. The Church of Santa Maria et Donata is architecturally famous due to its hexagon inspired design and construction, which is enhanced by beautiful Byzantine mosaic paving and decoration. A second church, the San Pietro Martire, built in 1506, boasts artwork by Giovanni Bellini, Tintoretto and Veronese, and the Gothic façade of the Palazzo de Mula is immortalized in Monet’s tiny “two men in a boat.”

However, it is the glasswork that was the most prized here, and even though the industry was something of a hostage, Murano’s craftsmen were permitted to wear swords in public, a privilege which identified them as part of high society, and their fame, or in some cases notoriety, took advantage of their social standing to marry into long established and wealthy families. The downside of this was, of course, that they were forced to live under the yolk of Venice all their lives, and there are very few examples of Murano tradesmen successfully ‘escaping’ to Europe to produce and market their skills.

Given their monopoly on glassmaking, and the skills they bought with them, glassmakers jealously guarded their own techniques, however living so closely meant that what one craftsman practiced uniquely, would soon be copied by others, as human nature and the consequences of their isolation proved too difficult to fight. Eventually, a guild was formed, and the craftsmen decided that only their sons could ever take their places and be taught the skills of glassmaking and crafting. That rule still applies today.

Of the main techniques practiced on Murano throughout time, the most common is the Millefiori, literally interpreted as “thousand flowers” and is the process of creating a single long, thin, multi-colored rod, known as a murrine which is drawn longer and thinner while maintaining the cross-sectional art design. It is then cut into beadlike shapes for necklaces, bracelets and the like.

Aventurine glass was produced initially by the Miotti family, in the 17th century, its origins perhaps dictated by the name they gave it, which means “lucky” or “by chance’ and was discovered when workers accidentally contaminated a batch of glass with copper filings. Upon starting work with the glass Miotti noticed the sparkle throughout the glass, and so it was born. It remained a family secret until the widow of one unwittingly revealed the secret almost 200 years later. Also known as Stellaria, or goldstone, this stunning technique is created by adding copper, or copper sulphate, to produce a rich brown color. Other color variations are possible with the addition of other elements.

Cristallo, is a totally clear rock crystal glass which takes away the normal greenish tinge caused by impurities by the addition of manganese oxides. Pioneered by the Barovier family during the 1400’s the process of initially heating the original quartz to the highest possible temperature and stirring continuously to remove the impurities. The subsequent smaller (called frit) blocks are continually reheating, and each time water filtering the impurities, and they are left with a clear, very cool looking material to work with.

Watching a glassmaker at work, my favorite is Flamework, the technique of forming glass into a myriad of shapes using a handheld heat source, formerly lamps, but in modern times more often a bench-mounted propane torch, to shape the glass with the use of tongs, forceps, knives and other small tools. This is sculpture under pressure, as the glass must be shaped while it is still hot and pliable. The deft movements and actions of the artist made this look almost casual, but you just know it’s not that easy.

Speaking to the sales and marketing staff in the showroom later, they assured me that there is only one way to practice the skills and methods of all their glasswork, and that is by working with the molten glass. One slip, one mistake, and the glass must go back into the batch to be re-processed. It’s not like you can practice on any other material before you graduate to the ‘real thing.’ Photography is not permitted in the showroom, in order to help retain their intellectual and artistic property, however, my photographer can be very persuasive, and you can see some of the results of the Murano craftsmen’s artistry.

Prancing and rearing horses, birds, turtles, fish, almost all the animal kingdom is represented in the stunning showroom. Bowls, glasses, charms and jewellery are just some of the amazing sights on show, and for sale. Expensive for sure, but well worth it considering the artistry involved. Seeing and knowing a little of Murano and seeing the craftsman at work has been an unforgettable pleasure.