Behind the Craft: Murano Glass
Artists and designers have always been fascinated with Murano glass given its wonderfully unique qualities, flexibly and artistic form. Whilst stunning glassware and crystals are created all over the world, Murano glass has arguably one of the richest production histories. A history that forms a stunning marriage of art and craftsmanship.
But where did Venetian/Murano’s rich history begin? How is it made? In our latest Behind the Craft article, we discover the origins of Murano’s history, how the glass is traditionally made and why it is so special.
THE ORIGINS OF MURANO GLASS
Murano Glass is the name for Venetian Glass objects that were produced in the island of Murano from the late 13th century. Contrary to popular belief, glass was not invented in Murano, although arguably the Murano islands played a vital role in the glassmaking industry for hundreds of years. It is thought that the most ancient examples of glass actually originated from Egypt and Eastern Mesopotamia around 3500BC. Historians have discovered that the first signs of the glassblowing technique used in the process actually originated from Syria dating back to the 1st century BC. This glass shaping techniques paved the way for the production of thinner and lighter glass objects.
Venetian glass was originally made in Venice and it is thought that Venetian glassmaking existed as early as the 8th century. In the late 13th century, during the period of the Venetian Republic, glassmakers were asked to leave Venice for risk that their glassmaking furnaces could destroy the city which was built predominantly from wood. Glassmakers left Venice and the Murano islands were chosen as the ideal location to perfect the craft. The Murano islands became so synonymous with glassmaking, that they are often referred to as the Glass Islands.
Murano glass first became a popular status symbol during the Middle Ages with requests from all over Europe. To protect the Murano glassmaking secrets and to stop the makers from travelling outside the republic for more money, fines and prison sentences were introduced. However, makers would still risk fines and even imprisonment for travelling out of Italy. If the glass masters left Italy, they could no longer be part of the Arte (the guild) on their return. Essentially, Murano glassmakers held a monopoly on European glassmaking until the 16th century. During this period the glassmakers pioneered many glass technologies including enamelled glass, lattimo (milk glass) and optically clear glass.
Eventually, Venice lost its monopoly at the end of the 16th century because glassmakers began leaking their secrets across Europe. Today, Murano glassmakers pass on their glassmaking techniques and secrets from generation to generation, crafting everything from contemporary art glass and jewellery to chandeliers.
HOW IS MURANO GLASS MADE?
Traditionally, Murano glass is made from mineral sands melted together in a high-temperature furnace at 1200°C to 1400°C. At this temperature, the sands fuse into liquid glass. The furnace temperature is then lowered to stir the glass and obtain the intentional colour to fuse. The glass will be reworked and tested for elasticity before it is gathered on the end of the blowpipe. Traditionally this is carried out by one of the assistants known as the “sirvente” or “garzonetto”. The assistant continues to roll the pipe in the furnace, spinning the pipe to remove any excess. At this phase thin layers of real gold leaf, pastes of colour, and silver can be added to give the glass its unique colour and design. Coordinating with the assistant, the Glassmaster takes the prepared liquid glass and continues to shape it, pulling, crimping, lengthening, and cutting the glass where required.
Depending on the complexity of the piece, the glass may need to be reheated and reworked at several stages. Every artistic movement made gives the glass its desired shape. Pipes with small holes at the end allow the glass to be blown to create pressure inside the glass. The air blown creates bubbles which will make the shape of the glass rounded for goblets, vases, and many other forms. Traditionally the assistant blows and turns the glass as the master works it into shape with blocks of wood soaked in water. When the piece is finally finished it is placed in a furnace to harden, gradually bringing down its temperature so that the glass does not crack. The glass is also placed on a bed of sand so that it does not collapse in on itself.
The final stage of the process is called “Moleria” which is the delicate cold working process where imperfections are smoothed, and the glass is embellished with various shapes. Cold work has been used by many glass masters to add their unique stamp and artistic style to the piece.
HOW TO IDENTIFY ORIGINAL MURANO GLASS
Owning an authentic and original piece of art is owning a piece of history. Here are our key top tips for identifying original Murano Glass:
- No two pieces of authentic Murano Glass are the same. Look for slight differences between two pieces of the same design. Natural imperfections with vary between each piece.
- Authentic Murano Glass often comes with a Certificate of Origin, detailing the name of the artwork, the name of the master, the year of production. Ask the seller for this before purchasing.
- Murano Glass is a luxury work of art made using expensive materials such as 24-carat gold, silver leaf, platinum, agate, alexandrite. Therefore, it will have a higher price. If you find a piece that is considerably cheaper, it is likely not authentic.
WHY OUR DESIGNERS LOVE MURANO GLASS
Murano glass is a union of art, design, and craft. Murano production is not just a versatile and useful innovation, it is also a stunning example of craftsmanship that has stood the test of time. Today, some of the companies that own the historical glass factories in Murano represent some of the most prestigious glass brands in the world. You can’t help but love the dedication to the old artisan methods and how they are fiercely protected.
Venetian glass may have wavered in popularity during its long history, but through the innovation of the artisans behind it and its remarkable versatility it has managed to find its identity throughout the years. The glass gained popularity during several style movements from 1920’s Art Deco to Utilitarian décor which became popular after WW2. Murano glassware was continually reinvented to follow style trends, interests, and the needs of the time rather than art pieces that were created in isolation or without function. From practical glassware to glass figures of animals, female nudes and gods, the artisans kept innovating to stay relevant. Its resilience is just one of its endearing qualities.
Murano glass is a proudly Italian art and craft that is as synonymous to Venice as St. Mark’s Basilica, which just so happens to feature some of the most stunning Murano artwork mosaics ever created. What’s not to love?