When I think about Murano glass, I immediately imagine a glassmaster blowing a pipe in an artisanal way at a dusty-looking furnace. There is however much more to it. Even though it is still done in a similar way as hundreds of years ago, it is more than an old trade which is now an attraction for tourists. The current glassmasters are modern businessmen who integrate modern design and create artisanal works of art. At the same time, they have to deal with the challenging circumstances in the glass industry.
Artisan: a worker who practices a trade or handicraft
Artist: a person skilled in one of the fine arts
In this post, I will first give you a definition of a glassmaster and some background on the history and characteristics of glass in Murano. Afterwards, I will explain you what the artisanal way of glassmaking entails, before I tell you about the link with art. Finally, I will give you some information on The ‘Venice Glass Week’.
Glassmaster (maestro) is not an official title, but an honorary title you earn. There is no school or test to pass. You have to be recognized by other glassmasters, glass experts, glass lovers, the glass community or, at least, by your master. Most importantly, you need to be respected as the maestro of your team at the furnace. To realize this, it takes at least 10 to 20 years. During this period, you have to work hard, demonstrate your ability to succeed in different techniques, consistently produce at a very high level, gain a 360° knowledge of all aspects of the work at the furnace and be able to steer your team. It requires passion and a special talent to make your pieces come alive. And even then, it’s not guaranteed that the others think you deserve this title. In that case, you’ll just have to persist because you cannot call yourself a glassmaster.
There are currently approx. 60 glassmasters in Murano. They all have their own specialty, such as glass sculptures (vetro artistico), chandeliers, drinking glasses, murine or paperweight.
DID YOU KNOW? As there are no official rules on how to become a master, there is also no rule that it is limited to men. However, in the past, women were not allowed to work in the furnaces. Luckily, this attitude is now changing. Several female students, from Venice but also from abroad, are now working with glass and trying to break this untold rule. This is not easy, but maybe one of them will be the first female glassmaster.
In the text below, I will always use the word glassmaster and not glassmaker or glassblower. It might not be politically correct in all cases, but it makes it easier to write. You can consider it as my sign of respect for everyone working with glass.
History of Murano glass
Glass was not invented in Murano but the island played an important role in the development of the glassmaking industry. The most ancient glass came from Egypt and dates from the 16th to 14th century BC. The first signs of glassblowing, in which a pipe is used to inflate and hollow the glass, were found in Syria and date from the 1st century BC. This was a crucial step as it made it possible to create thin and light objects.
The first evidence of glassmaking in Venice is a document from 846. However, the most relevant date for the glass industry in Murano is 1291. At that moment, the Venetian council obliged all glassmakers to leave Venice. The risk was too high that a fire at one of the furnaces would destroy the whole city with its wooden buildings. Only beads could still be created in Venice. The Murano island was chosen as the perfect location and has since then become famous as the glass island.
DID YOU KNOW? This rule was only in place during the period of the Venetian Republic. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, there were several mosaic furnaces in Cannaregio. The only one which is still active is Orsoni. You might not know their name, but you have probably already admired their glass mosaics at the San Marco basilica. You can find more information on glass mosaics are made in my post ‘Three thousand and one colours of mosaics in Venice’.
Murano glass was very popular and a status symbol in the Middle Ages, so the glassmasters were in high demand by royal courts all over Europe. (More information on this can be found in my article ‘How important was Venice in the history of perfumery’.) To avoid that they would flee to other countries to make more money and to protect the secrets of the Murano glass, several penalties were put in place. If a glassmaster would leave the island, he would no longer be part of the Arte (the guild) on his return. At a later stage, they even risked to be chained to the oars of a galley for 5 years. (I have to admit I’m not sure if the latter penalty is a tale or really true, but it certainly gives a sense of the threats they received.) Even today, many glassmaking secrets stay in the family and are transferred from father to son.
Characteristics of Murano glass
One of the main peculiarities of Murano glass is the use of sodium carbonate as a flux to lower the melting point. It is therefore called soda glass. Other glassmakers use potassium carbonate (e.g. Bohemia) or lead oxide (e.g. England). Murano glass is also very light, malleable and can be hot-formed into very thin pieces.
The glassmasters of Murano are famous for inventing new techniques. The first person who realized a major breakthrough was Angelo Barovier in the 15th century. His ‘vetro cristallino’ (crystal glass) was a perfectly transparent and colourless glass. Until then, glass had never been clear. It became the first Murano classic. Examples of other typical Murano techniques are lattimo (opaque white glass), pulegosa (with air bubbles inside the glass) and filigrana (with threads of lattimo inside).
INSIDER TIP: When you wander along the shops in Venice or Murano, you are bound to find something that fits your taste and your interior, whether it’s classical or modern. Unfortunately, even in Venice, you can buy glass that is made in other parts of the world. You can recognize the glass made in Murano according to the glassmaking tradition by its ‘Vetro Artistico® Murano’ label. You can find more information on the site of Promovetro, where you can also verify the authenticity of your product.
If you want to know more about the history of Murano glass and the different techniques, you can find plenty of information on the website of the Museo del Vetro (glass museum), or you can visit the museum on your next trip.
The art of artisanal glassmaking
Glassmaking appeals to many people. The artisanal aspect, the hypnotizing effect of fire and the immediate result of a finished product explain the popularity of the demonstrations in Murano. The glassmasters always impress the visitors with their unique set of skills.
As I was interested in learning more about the process of glassmaking, I asked Marjorie of OG Venice for advice. She suggested me to follow an individual workshop to really grasp what glassmaking is all about. Whether you are making a small object or a large piece, the different steps are similar, albeit at a different scale. I followed her advice and I have to admit that I was really impressed. I can certainly recommend to do this before you visit the glassmasters. It will add so much value to your trip. Marjorie will be more than happy to organize such a tour for you.
INSIDER TIP: I followed this workshop with Alessia Fuga, a young Venetian woman who is a lampworker and beadmaker. She is extremely nice, a perfect teacher, and she’s fluent in English. She gives you plenty of information about the process and the different steps. If you are considering to do this, I strongly advise you to do this at her small workshop.
During the workshop and the visits to the glassmasters, I was accompanied the whole time by Romena. She told me a lot about Murano but also answered all my questions about the glassmasters, the glass and Venice in general. As a result, here are my takeaways on artisanal glassmaking from my day in Murano.
- The first step is the preparation of glass. Sand, soda and other components are put in a melting pot to melt them all together. The fused mass should then stay at 1500°C for a whole night to ensure that all the dust particles or bubbles get off the melted glass. Lampworkers buy glass rods so they can skip this step.
- It’s really much more difficult than you think. You need a lot of practice to control the liquid glass and to succeed. I didn’t even manage to create a simple round candy. It looks more like one which I found at the bottom of my handbag.
- Depending on its color and transparency, glass reacts different to heat. The temperature therefore varies between 800°C and 1100°C. Beginners are recommended to start with transparent glass. It takes longer to melt but also to solidify. This implies that you have more time to work on it.
- Big temperature shocks need to be avoided or the glass can burst in pieces at once. Lampworkers will therefore first slowly heat the glass rod in a special device before putting it in the flame. When an object is finished, it is cooled down slowly in a special annealing oven. It might take up to 14 hours to bring it to room temperature. Even when glass has a certain age, it can still crack on its own from this internal tension.
- You have to make a single piece at once. You cannot alter it at a later stage. You can also not lose time or put it aside, not even for a few seconds. When you wait too long, the glass will no longer be at the right temperature to shape it. As large ornaments can take days to create, you can melt several parts to each other. In that case, you don’t melt the whole piece, but only the side which has to be attached.
- It’s hard work. You need to constantly keep the glass in movement and at the right temperature. Handling a small candy is relatively easy, but doing this with large amounts of glass becomes very heavy. On top of that, you have to cope with the heat of the flame or furnace. It is not only physically but also mentally hard. You have to concentrate the whole time so you don’t mess up or don’t hurt yourself on the fire.
- Complex pieces are usually made by a team, not by one person. I watched the creation of a golden leaf for a chandelier and even though this leaf wasn’t big, it was made by 3 people. The most surprising thing was that they didn’t talk to each other. Everyone knew what to do and when it had to be done. The glassmaster put the glass in the fire, shaped it and colored it. The other men added smaller parts of glass to his ornament from which he would then continue. It was almost like a ballet.
- You only need a few rather basic tools besides a furnace or torch and an annealer. Tweezers, holding fingers and shears are enough to make your own glass creation.
INSIDER TIP: If you want to see the workshop of the chandelier, you can visit La Fucina del Vetro. Another option is to go to the ex Chiesa di Santa Chiara where demonstrations are given in the large showroom.
Once you tried to make a small glasswork yourself, you will never look at a glass object in the same way. You will appreciate the effort that went into it much more.
The artisanal creation of art
The link between artisanal products and art is very tight. Originally, the glass objects were everyday products such as cups or vases. However, a lot of glasswork is exhibited at people’s homes as decoration and becomes as such a work of art. This was already the case when Murano glass was used to impress the guests at European palaces and noble families, and is still the case now. Murano glass isn’t cheap due to all the manual work that goes into it, but it is now affordable for a larger audience.
The tie with art became even stronger in the 20th century thanks to Venini. This was and still is one of the famous glassmaking companies in Murano. They were the first to hire top-notch artists such as Vittorio Zecchin, Napoleone Martinuzzi and Carlo Scarpa (see ‘Explore Venice in the steps of Carlo Scarpa’ and ‘Carlo Scarpa’s dual passion for art and architecture’) to design products. Since then, this practice has been followed by many other glass companies. These are still artisanal products, but with a clear goal to be admired as a contemporary piece of design.
One step further is the creation of works of art in glass by artists from all over the world. These artists (usually) don’t make the glass themselves but design the object in close cooperation with a glassmaster. One example is Jan Fabre, who is working together with the same glassmaster in Murano since many years. You can admire his latest exhibition ‘Glass and Bone Sculptures 1977-2017’ at the Abbazia di San Gregorio (Dorsoduro) until the end of November. It is one of my 8 must-see pavilions of this year’s Art Biennale.
I visited the shop and workplace of Panizzi to see how the Murano artisans work according to a design of an artist. These two brothers don’t make the glass itself but do the engraving. I watched the carving of a round plate with many parallel lines. I was really surprised to see how they create these curving lines with a free hand by turning the plate, while the machine is carving. It was fascinating. This piece will be an ‘eye’ of a sculpture which will be shown at the Venice Glass Week. It was so beautiful that it could as well have been a standalone object.
If you are interested in beautiful glass objects, I can strongly suggest to visit the glass art exhibitions at the Museo del Vetro in Murano and Le Stanze del Vetro on San Giorgio Maggiore (more info in ‘Why San Giorgio Maggiore is worth your visit’). You find also plenty of pictures in the book ‘Murano: Island of Glass’ of Attilia Dorigato.
The Venice Glass Week
The ‘Venice Glass Week’ is an annual event which was launched in 2017 to revitalise and sustain the art of glass, one of the city’s most important artistic and creative activities. At more than 100 locations spread all over Venice and Murano, you can admire glass art from Venetian and international artists. More than 140 events take place at this first edition, which runs from September 10 until 17. UPDATE: If you want to know more about the 2018 edition of The Venice Glass Week, you can find plenty of information in my post ‘The Venice Glass Week triggers many exciting glass events‘.
The 2017 events include exhibitions, conferences, screenings, educational activities, themed evenings and open furnaces. It’s a unique opportunity to meet Venetian glass artisans, such as Vittorio Costantini. You can choose to join a special tour, such as at Ca’Foscari or the Fondazione Querini Stampalia. Or you can visit an installation at Teatro La Fenice or one or more exhibitions. There are plenty of interesting events, so make sure to check the detailed agenda on the website of the Venice Glass Week.
Contrary to what you might expect from its name, there are also events which last up to several months. One of these larger exhibitions is Glasstress which runs for the fifth time during the whole period of the Art Biennale. It brings together famous artists such as Ai Weiwei, Jake & Dinos Chapman and Koen Vanmechelen at Palazzo Franchetti. At Murano, the French artist Loris Gréaud revamped an abandoned furnace for ‘The Unplayed Notes Factory’. You can visit it until the end of November and watch a glassmaster at work. The special exhibitions at Le Stanze del Vetro (Vittorio Zecchin: Transparent Glass for Cappellin and Venini) and at Museo del Vetro (Dino Martens, Gaetano Pesce, followed by Garden Fracture / Mirror in Vapour) run respectively until January 7, 2018 and December 17. In the garden of Palazzo Zenobio, you can visit 50 works of the ‘Kosmos’ exhibition of Lorenzo Passi until the end of September. You can see some pictures and find out more about Lorenzo Passi in this post on my Facebook page.
What do you think? Are the glassmasters artisans or artists?
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