Light, Color, Magic: The Fascination of Venetian glass

The word “Murano” is synonymous with the highest quality glass made in the world. For hundreds of years, the artisans of Murano have been innovators in the design and production of all kinds of glass objects: vases, bowls, mirrors, light fixtures, glasses, dishes, paperweights, jewelry and precious art.

You can find all of these and more in factories and showrooms on Murano, and in shops in central Venice. Murano is a lagoon island, which, like the city of Venice, is made up of a cluster of smaller islands connected by bridges. Just seven minutes by boat from Venice, Murano is easily reached by taking a vaporetto, water taxi, from the Fondamente Nuove or from San Zaccaria.

Beginning in the 9th and 10th centuries, Venetians have excelled at the chemical industries: making glass, soaps, dyes, tiles. In other words, they’ve been good at converting one kind of chemical substance into another. Traditionally, the process of making glass begins when the raw ingredients of sand, limestone, soda ash, potash and other compounds are melted in furnaces; the transformation of these materials into glass takes place above 2000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Before the 13th century, glassmaking was carried out in Venice proper. But in 1291, fearing a fire hazard, the Venetian government decreed that all glass-making be moved away from the main Venetian centers to the island of Murano.

Also, by consolidating all of the glassmakers to Murano, the government could keep a close watch on the industry and maintain a monopoly. Therefore, glassblowers were forbidden to divulge the secrets of their craft, or to work in other countries.

So, the various glass masters, working in close proximity on the small island of Murano, competed with each other. As a result, innovative glassmaking techniques developed and the quality of the glass grew to become ever more refined and exquisite.

During the Renaissance, in the 15th and 16th centuries, glass masters created cristallo, a type of white glass resembling porcelain, and developed the practice of enameling glass. As Murano’s fame spread, the wealthy, including crowned heads of Europe, started traveling there to shop.

Eventually, some glass artisans defected to other countries, disrupting Venice’s glass monopoly. However, in the 1860s, Vincenzo Zanetti established The Glass Museum of Murano; and, around the same time, the famous glassmaking family of Antonio Salviati began again to produce pieces of glass based on ancient designs.

In 1896, the first Venice Biennale — the international art fair that, to this day, takes place every two years — brought renewed attention to Venice’s glassmaking industry. Masters from Murano and other countries met, shared ideas and techniques, and paved the way for a new sense of cooperation among glass craftsmen the world over.

And then in the 1920s, the glass industry of Murano experienced another renewal. Famous masters such as Toso, Zecchin, Venini, Cappellin, Venini, Barovier and Seguso opened companies and created new techniques.

In the 1950s, Peggy Guggenheim (the art collector whose Venetian palazzo eventually became The Peggy Guggenheim Museum) organized a collaboration between Venetian glass masters and world renowned artists such as Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and Max Ernst. This cooperative was called the Fucina degli Angeli, the Foundry of the Angels, and led to museum exhibitions both in Europe and in the U.S.

Venetian glassmaking continues to thrive and spread, with new artists elaborating on the ancient tradition. Lino Tagliapietra, born on Murano in 1934, apprenticed with master Archimede Seguso at the tender age of 11. At 21, Tagliapietra was named a master in his own right. Tagliapietra has spent many years sharing his knowledge and experience with glass artists from many countries. He has won numerous awards and his work is exhibited in major museums.

Another modern-day glass master is American Dale Chihuly. Influenced by the Muranese glassblowing tradition, he established the Glass Department at the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1996, a project entitled ‘Chihuly over Venice’ included the hanging of 14 chandeliers at various Venetian venues.

But one current danger to Venice’s glass market is counterfeiting. Copies of characteristic Venetian designs are being made in Asia for sale overseas. In response to this threat, a Murano trademark was registered with the European Union in 2002. Before making a purchase, look for a lilac-colored sticker with a cana de soffio, a glassmaker’s blowpipe, and the inscription: “artistic glass Murano.”

Glass Museum

Once you arrive on Murano, stop first at Il Museo Vetrario-The Murano Glass Museum, housed in the 17th century Palazzo Giustinian (on the Fondamenta Giustinian). It’s open all year round.

Here you can see glass pieces dating from the 1st century all the way up to the present, including world-famous masterpieces.

Many factories on Murano hold glassmaking demonstrations. You can also take a tour of the factories and purchase glass. Sometimes it’s possible to strike a bargain.

While on Murano, stop in and visit the Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato (also on the fondamenta Giustinian) built in the 12th century. The relics of St. Donato, and the bones of the dragon he is supposed to have killed, were brought to Murano after the Second Crusade (1147-1149). The church has a beautiful mosaic floor, whose designs incorporate some ancient fragments of glass from the island’s foundries.

Shops

You’ll see glass shops wherever you go in Venice. It’s been estimated that there are 1,000 shops in the San Marco district alone! And you can find a glass gift to fit into any budget. Here are just a few of the best names in Venetian glass:

Seguso. In Murano: Fondamenta Radi, 20; In Venice: Piazza San Marco, 143; www.seguso.com

Barovier & Toso. In Murano: Fondamenta Vetrai 28; www.barovier.com

Venini. In Murano: Fondamenta Vetrai, 47; In Venice: Piazetta Leoncini, San Marco 314; www.venini.com

L’Isola. In Murano: Fondamenta Manin; In Venice: Campo San Moise’, San Marco 1468; www.CarloMoretti.com. This is the shop of Carlo Moretti, a renowned contemporary glass artisan.

Galleria Marina Barovier. In Venice: San Marco, Salizada San Samuele 3216; www.barovier.it. Here you can buy 20th century Venetian glass and contemporary international glass.

For more information on the Glass Museum, and on all the museums in Venice: www.museiciviciveneziani.it

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