When you speak about “Murano Glass” you are actually referring to a wide variety of products: everything from micro-beads to huge chandeliers.
In 1291 the Venetian government made an important decision regarding glass production: all glass furnaces in the city had to be moved to the island of Murano. In this way, the risk of fires in the city centre was reduced, and it became easier for the authorities to control the production of glass and protect it from imitations by foreigners. In 1638 it was decided that only the members of Muranese families were allowed to be glassblowers: glassmaking had become a privilege.
Since then different craftsmen, families, and companies have developed their own styles and traditions, and specialized in different types of production.
Let’s try and make a list of the main handicrafts that you can still find in Murano and Venice.
These are tiny beads, just a few millimeters wide, with a hole in the centre where you can insert a thread and create necklaces, bracelets, or decorations for many different objects.
The word “conterie” probably comes from the verb “contare”, meaning “to count”, because they were used as exchange tokens in trade.
The women who create jewels and accessories with conterie are called impiraresse. In the past, it was common to see many of them seated in front of their houses chatting and working, but they were often exploited by their employers: many of them joined the labor unions and in 1904 they became the protagonists of a famous riot.
No one who visits Venice would dare miss Saint Mark’s Basilica and its 8,000 square meters of mosaics.
The production of glass tiles in Venice dates back to the Middle Ages, and there are still a few factories creating mosaics today, including gold tiles like the ones covering the ceilings of churches. Gold tiles are made placing gold leaf between two layers of transparent glass.
Tiles created with an artisanal method are very different from the ones mass-produced in bigger factories: artisan tiles have an irregular surface which gives them different shades of color and makes every single tile unique.
These are not yummy candies, but pieces of a long glass cane that has been cut into slices. The murrine were produced since the ancient Roman times, but it was in Murano in the 19th century that this technique was restarted and became extremely popular.
Using glass of different colors and molds to create the shapes of stars, flowers, letters, hearts, and many more, there is an incredible variety of murrine, which can be fused together to make bigger pieces or beads.
Originally created to imitate precious stones, glass beads themselves became precious items and were used as tokens to trade with African, American, and Indian populations.
There are two main types of beads: the rosetta (or chevron bead), the production of which is similar to the murrine, and the beads created with lamp-work and then decorated with gold-leaf, silver-leaf, or strings of colored glass to create flowers and other motifs. In the creations of contemporary designers we can also find blown beads or square shapes!
Vetri a lume (lamp-work)
This type of production uses glass canes that are fused together with a small flame to model the glass into many different shapes: goblets, figurines, pendants, or little sculptures of animals and flowers reproduced with extreme precision.
This production requires a blowtorch instead of a furnace, so many artisans who specialize in lamp-work set their workshops in Venice.
The furnaces dedicated to the creation of bigger pieces – vases and cups, sculptures and other objects – can only be found in Murano.
The two main techniques used by glassmakers in the furnaces are:
Vetro soffiato (blown glass)
In this process, air is blown into molten glass using a blowpipe. The glob of glass can eventually be blown into a metal mold to create a specific shape or a pattern on the surface.
Vetro a massello (solid glass)
In this case the glassmaker uses metal pincers and scissors to sculpt the hot glob of glass, creating a solid sculptural piece.
Other important products are:
Venetians started making mirrors in the 15th century, and this product became so popular and profitable that the French soon tried to steal the Venetians’ manufacturing secrets. In the 17th century, the French Prime Minister Jean Baptiste Colbert convinced some Muranese glassmakers to move to France. The Venetian government reacted immediately to try to bring them back. This was the beginning of the so-called “war of the mirrors”, which ended with the return of the Venetian glassmakers to the lagoon, but only after the French had learnt how to produce the precious mirrors!
The production of chandeliers reached its apex in the 18th century, thanks to the activity of glassmakers like Giuseppe Briati. Inspired by Bohemian crystal, he created a new type of chandelier which was extremely rich in decorations, including flowers, leaves, and even fishes!
The most famous example among Briati’s production is a chandelier still visible in the Museum of Ca’ Rezzonico: it was made around 1750 in multicolored glass and displays 20 lamps arranged in two tiers.