Venice - Murano
Written by Nan McElroy
Whether artistic or workaday, glass is ubiquitous. We drink out of it, put flowers in it, peer through it, cook in it, are protected by it. For centuries, the word Murano signified excellence in every aspect of this fascinating artisan craft.
Murano was certainly not the original home of glass expertise. Objects produced in Islamic lands stretching from Egypt to Persia had been prized for centuries when Venice relocated its glass works to Murano in AD 1291, ostensibly to protect the city from potential fire risk, but also, quite possibly, to maintain better control over this burgeoning industry. Not surprisingly, the island became a crucible as intense as any furnace for refinement and innovation of glass production and technique.
When a populace of artisans and entrepreneurs is isolated on an island just over two kilometres square to concentrate on a single industry for hundreds of years, it’s inevitable that they become obsessed – and brilliant. Here’s a little of why, who, and where to find out more.
There’s red, and then there’s rosso…
“For me, it’s the colour,” says Dario Stellon, the production manager at Salviati, holding up a just-cooled indescribably coloured amethyst vase recently removed from the annealing oven. “For all the history, techniques, and innovation that have occurred here, it is the colours we create that distinguish us.”
The vase he holds was produced using the incamiciato technique, with five paper-thin layers: cristallo, the deep amethyst, milk-white (lattimo) for opaqueness, another layer of amethyst, then of cristallo. This vase is not hand-blown, but moulded, or stampato – well executed but not extraordinary. But the colour? Intoxicating. “If I was a painter, I would mix my pigments on a palette until I achieved the colour I was looking for. Instead, it’s more like baking a cake,” explains Dario. “From experience, you combine various elements to create what you hope will be the colour you have in your head – though it’s only after the cake is baked that you know if you’ve succeeded.”
Whereas glass artisans normally order high-quality but standard-coloured cane or frit (premixed silica and flux created to fuse at high temperatures) from a catalogue, furnaces on Murano fashion individual colours for clients. These colours also become proprietary, and unavailable for use by anyone else.
Murano is known the world over for incomparable colour creation; it inspires local artisans and is the reason many move there. But the extraordinary use of colour is easily discernible by even the most casual visitors.
Wander into a boutique such as Giordana Naccari’s Angolo del Passato on the Campiello dei Squelini in Dorsoduro, and handle one of the riotous goti de fornasa perched along the wall. (Traditionally, glass workers blow these fanciful tumblers themselves from remnants lying about, to drink from as they work. They are as individual and different as one artisan is from another.) You assume that a glass of a certain size would have a certain weight; yet you’ll find the goto weighs just a fraction of what you’d expect – it seems that if you opened your hand it might float up to the ceiling, like a balloon. This is not only because the cup walls are paper-thin, but also because unlike English lead crystal or potassium-based Bohemian, Murano cristallino is sodica, or soda based, and is the hallmark raw material of any blown-glass product. No lead – no weight.
The absence of lead also gives the glass an inherent elasticity, and while glasses like these goti are far from unbreakable, they are also much more resilient than their delicate touch suggests. (For more lighter-than-air glassware, seek out that of maestro Alberto Striulli.)
A closer look
The more exposure you have to glass as an artistic medium, the more you’ll come to discriminate and appreciate the beauty, subtlety, and variety. There are a number of opportunities in Venice for doing just that, before you consider a purchase.
Seek out exhibitions
To walk through Lino Tagliapietra’s ‘From Murano to Studio Glass’ on display at the Palazzo Franchetti is to witness the evolution of late 20th-century Murano – moving from commercially utilitarian to pure artistic expression. At only 11 years old, Tagliapietra (whose name translates as ‘stone cutter’, oddly enough) began his apprenticeship with glass great Archimede Seguso; Lino obtained maestro status at 21. He continued to develop not only his technical artistry but also his creativity, so much so that even working for other producers, he was eventually awarded full creative autonomy – quite a rarity.
There is more than artistry that distinguishes Lino among Murano artisans: it is a broader view of Murano’s place in glass. After participating in a series of seminars at the Zanetti Scuola del Vetro, Lino began travelling to forge collaborative relationships. Acting as both ambassador and instructor, Lino took Murano expertise beyond the confines of its own limited shores, sharing and being inspired by the artistry he encountered along the way – all masterfully evident in works displayed in this fine exhibit.
Visit the museum
New for 2011 at the Museo del Vetro is ‘Glass in Action’, a multi-faceted introduction to Murano glass. The tour includes not only a narrative history, but also an overview of glass composition, techniques, and fine examples of early through to contemporary works by some of the island’s most famous maestri. The second portion of the overview takes place at the Scuola Abate Zanetti, a five-minute walk (with maps provided), and includes both a short film and a glass-blowing demonstration.
Hundreds of visitors pour off the Murano vaporetti daily seeking fiery furnaces and entertaining exhibitions to discover what for many artists and collectors makes this tiny island glass’s holy grail. Follow the suggestions above and even if all you do is browse, you’ll have had a fascinating look at a scintillating subject.
Selected Who's Who
Look out for Angelo Barovier, who was responsible for the game-changing purification technique of cristallino in 1450. Rosa Barovier recently curated renowned artist Lino Tagliapietra’s 55-year retrospective at the Palazzo Franchetti.
MUSEO DEL VETRO
GLASS of VENICE 3 artists, 3 visions
The following galleries have broad selections of representative works produced by a variety of artisans.
Domus Vetri d’Arte
Formia - Vivarini
Novantesimo Venini, 1921–2011