By Rebecca Ruger-Wightman
Murano glass is synonymous with Venetian glass, and the origins of glassmaking in Venice go back to the times of the Roman Empire when precast glass was used for lighting of bathhouses. One of the earliest furnaces for glass on a Venetian island, dating from the 8th century, was discovered by archaeologists in 1960.
Glass was considered a luxurious status symbol in medieval times, delicate and difficult to make well. Venice became a major glass manufacturing center in Europe in the 13th century. This was most likely realized by the Fourth Crusade of 1204 when Venetians and other European crusaders ravaged Constantinople; but while most crusaders took away gold and jewels, the Venetians took away many of the finest Byzantine craftsmen, including glassmakers. Back home, they were making amazing glass because Venetian quartz was almost pure silica and Venice at the time had a near monopoly on the importation of soda ash, a critical ingredient in fine glass making.
Crystal blown decorated with milk glass festoon (lattimo) 18th century
By the 13th century, Venice had made quite a name for itself and glassmakers enjoyed an elevated status that allowed them to mingle and marry with the aristocracy, carry swords which was forbidden to other citizens, and protected them against prosecution by the Venetian government for small crimes. Glassmakers were organized into guilds and operated under a strict set of rules governing their working conditions and their personal lives. They were not allowed to travel outside the Republic (of Venice) and sharing trade secrets could be punishable by death. Family tradition dictated that new generations were trained in the glassmaking trade, ensuring the production of glass would continue.
In 1291, citing too great a risk of fire to the city of Venice, the Venetian government moved all the glasshouses and glassmakers to the island of Murano. Historians since generally agree that the true motive for this law was to isolate the glass craftsmen to a location where they wouldn’t be able to disclose trade secrets. This is essentially confirmed by a 1295 law passed which forbade glassmakers from leaving the city.
Murano’s glassmakers held a monopoly on high-quality glassmaking for centuries, which reached the peak of its popularity in the 15th and 16th centuries. Around 1450 master Angelo Barovier discovered the process for producing clear glass, (cristallo) but Murano glassmakers are also known for advancing or creating many glassmaking works including enameled glass (smalto), gold-threaded glass (aventurine), multicolored glass (millefiori), and milk glass (lattimo), which was modeled after Chinese porcelain. The legendary Murano glass works are seen in paperweights, figurines, art glass, chandeliers stemware, sculpture, and dishes.
Glass Blowers of Murano, by Charles Frederic Ulrich, 1886
The artistry, the tools, and the process hasn’t changed much over hundreds of years. Jared Pearman wrote in his “You’ll Be Amazed by Italy’s Island of Glass” article that “After hundreds of years, the Italian masters remain unrivaled in their art”. Pearman added, “To watch Murano glassmakers at work is to see art come to life. Even the most elaborate and colorful sculpture begins as a glob of molten sand on the end of a blowpipe. With the precision of a surgical team, the craftsmen twirl, guide, smooth, and blow the formless mass, feverishly inserting and removing it from the fire as it takes structure.”
Samples of Murano made paperweights
Millefiori glass had been around since possibly the 8th century, as evidenced by artifacts found at archaeological sites in Ireland. Millefiori refers to a distinctive patterned glass, which involves combining glass rods or cane, known as murrine, with multicolored patterns which would only be seen at the cut end of a rod. The rods are cut into beads of patterned glass and assembled into further patterns or designs and inlaid into a transparent glass shell. Millefiori, the word, is a combination of the Italian mille (thousand) and fiori (flowers). Though this glassmaking art had been around for a thousand years, the term millefiori wasn’t used until Apsley Pellatt did so in his book, Curiosities of Glass Making, published in 1849. Previously, the millefiori beads were simply called mosaic beads. Presently, millefiori is now most frequently associated with glass paperweights; glassmaker Pietro Bigaglia produced the earliest Murano millefiori paperweight in 1845.
Murano glass as sea glass is easily identifiable by its multi-colored and patterned existence. These are not end-of-the-day shards without designs, but remnants of once elaborate and colorful true artisan pieces.
Example of aventurine glass, which uses copper or copper salts to achieve the gold-flecked appearance
Today, there are about 1,000 glass artists working in Murano. Given that the island is only about one mile across with a population of 5,000, it’s easy to understand why glassmaking governs every aspect of the culture. Sadly, only about 15 years ago, there were closer to 6,000 working artisans on the island. But with the advance of knock-offs and copy-cats, traditional Murano glass has lost much of its market. Nevertheless, the traditions live on, as current glass masters had learned their trade at the side of old masters, many of whom could trace their lineage back to the end of the Middle Ages.
The colorful canals of present-day Murano, Italy
This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine January/February 2018 issue.