The island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon is most famous for the art of glassblowing which has been practiced there for centuries without any major interruptions and has survived the many and varied vicissitudes of Venice’s long history.
Glass manufacture in the Venetian lagoon has its roots in the remote past: the first document in which a dominicus fiolarius, or glassmaker, appears dates from 982 (the term fiola denotes a globular glass bottle with a long neck). By 1224 a flourishing industry must have existed, since in that year the Venetian glassblowers formed a gild, or arte. In 1271 its statutes, the Capitulare de Fiorlariis, also known as matricula, or mariegola, set standards and regulations for production. A new version in Italian was produced in 1441, followed by others, the last dating from 1776.
In 1291, by decree of the Maggior Consiglio, all the furnaces still in existence in the city of Venice itself were destroyed. We can suppose that by this stage glass production was concentrated on the island of Murano. What little evidence of have of medieval glass reveals an industry geared to the production of everyday items such as bottles, glasses and bowls, which were already being exported to German-speaking countries as well as England and France.
The art of glassblowing reached new levels of artistic expressiveness in the refined products of the Renaissance, thanks largely to the technical innovations of Angelo Barovier, the most famous glassblower of the 15th century. Through a series of complicated operations he succeeded in obtaining a particularly pure glass which, on account of this quality, became known as crystal. Between the end of 15th century and the beginning of the 16th, the most refined Murano glass, whether coloured or not, after having been shaped, was entrusted to painters who specialised in the art of decoration with polychrome fusible enamels and gold leaf. Two other varieties of glass date from the second half of the 15th century: chalcedony, which imitated striped agate, and white opaque milk glass, which was decorated with fusible enamels and imitated the Chinese porcelain that had first arrived in Venice in the mid-1450s.
The art of glassblowing continued smoothly into the 16th century, with many major technical and decorative innovations. In formal terms, there was a clear preference for simplicity. Colourless glass assumed a crucial role and there was a move away from painted decoration and forms copied from ceramics or metallurgy. The most significant expression of the elegance characteristic of Murano glass of that time was the crystal chalice or goblet, with its pure lines in which measured harmony regulates the relationship between the various parts, the base, the stem blown in the form of a small balustrade and the bowl.
The complex technique of filigree, still in use today, dates from 1527 and is linked to the name of the Serena glassblowers who obtained a ten-year franchise for producing glass a facete con retortoli a fil: crystal decorated in parallel bands with threads of milk glass or coloured glass twisted to form spiral patterns. The generic term filigree covers the different types of glass decoration that incorporate glass threads. From the 16th century onward, one of the most famous and successful versions was vetro a reticello in which slender canes of opaque white glass were laid in a crisscross pattern to form a fine netting, with a bubble of air in each lozenge.
Another type of glass typical of the 16th century was known as ice glass, from its rough translucent – but not transparent – surface. In the field of decoration, Vincenzo di Angelo del Gallo, toward the middle of the century, introduced the technique of diamond-point engraving, which enabled delicate and elegant patterns to be incised on the surface of the glass.
The technical innovations that Murano glassblowers developed spread rapidly and the fame of their products increased, especially after the frequent departures of master craftsmen whose skills were in great demand throughout Europe. Attracted by the possibility of higher earnings, these craftsmen developed, beyond the confines of the Republic, a type of product based on the art of Murano which became known as glass à la façon de Venice (in the style of Venice). This exodus of craftsmen placed the Venetian trade in great danger since Murano had had a near monopoly on the art of blown glass and its trade brought not only great wealth but also prestige to the city. The rigid regulations and harsh penalties enacted by Venice in order to punish those who transgressed the laws forbidding them to leave the island did not hamper the emergence of numerous glass furnaces in France, Austria and the Netherlands, where Murano glassblowers passed on their skills to local craftsmen, adapting the resulting products to local style.
In contrast to the formal rigor of the 16th century, 17th century glass reflects the influence of the Baroque. Purity of line, typical of the Renaissance, was abandoned in favour of free creativity, especially in search of illusionistic effects. The colourless glass was replaced by glass decorated with coloured threads in yellow and red while from the formal point of view fantasy and superabundance led to a product that was less and less functional – one created with purely ornamental aims. Once again, it was the chalice or goblet that exemplified the stylistic changes. In contrast to the preceding century, alette (little winglike forms) were now applied to the stem, while the sometimes asymmetrical bowl was frequently decorated with fine chains.
Despite the uninterrupted activity of the furnaces, the 17th century was a difficult period for Murano. In addition to natural disasters such as famine and plague, and the consequent economic crises, there were also major problems following a fall in demand for Murano glass. Two new types of glass had appeared and were competing directly with that of the Venetians. Bohemian and English crystal, with their deep cuts and brilliance, were rapidly taking over the market. On the whole, the 17th century revealed, despite the now consolidated skills of the glass masters, the first symptoms of a major crisis that would become fully apparent during the following century.
18th century glass is characterised by a wide variety of forms, techniques and materials. In addition to the traditional vitreous materials, which were reworked with great ingenuity, the prevailing fashion for colour expressed itself in the use of vitreous pastes such as aventurine, which was often, like hard stone, cut to form boxes, snuffboxes and buttons, and chalcedony and other mixtures tinged with various colours.
The production of milk glass was also widespread. It employed 16th century decorative techniques with polychrome fusible materials and aimed at imitating porcelain, especially Chinese porcelain, extremely fashionable at the time in Venice. The Miotti family, famous for this type of glass, were the first on Murano to mark their products, which had until then remained anonymous, with a symbol that allows us to recognise their work even today.
Murano glassblowers concentrated their efforts on imitating Bohemian crystal, competition from which was strong, even within the Republic itself. One of the most successful was Giuseppe Briati, responsible for several original creations for which Murano became famous. The most celebrated of these was the Venetian candelabrum with several branches known as ciocche, to which was applied a wealth of decorative detail, usually floral, in coloured glass.
Giuseppe Briati is also credited with transforming the Venetian mirror into a refined element of interior decoration. He placed the old lacquered or gilded wooden frame with one composed of elements of carved, engraved or enamelled glass, which was then fixed to a wooden backing.
Contemporary sources also indicate that Briati was the inventor of the great table centrepieces known as deseri (from the French for dessert), made up of many elements which formed complex compositions and decorated the doge’s banqueting table on important occasions. Despite this intense activity, however, problems remained unsolved, even after a radical revision of the gild’s statutes. The fall of the Republic in 1797, the dissolution of the various gilds and the series of foreign governments dealt a fatal blow to the art of glassblowing.
The first signs of a rebirth appeared during the 1840s, thanks largely to two glassblowers, Domenico Bussolin and Pietro Bigaglia, who began to produce filigree glass. The various interlacing patterns of these filigree differed from the traditional 16th century ones in the chromatic vivacity of their fabric, highlighted by the formal simplicity of the object itself, with a slight hint of Biedermeier influence.
The rebirth of Murano is marked by various important events. The furnaces began to reopening. Among the first to do so was that of the Fratelli Toso (Toso Brothers). In 1861 an archive was begun in which documents relating to the history of the island were preserved. Examples of glassware were also included. This formed the beginning of the museum which during these early years also functioned as a guide to the recovery of the styles, techniques and skills of the great masters of the past. Two exhibitions were mounted, in 1864 and 1869, both of which stimulated further efforts on the part of the new generation of glassblowers.
In 1866, the year in which the Veneto region became part of a united Italy, Antonio Salviati opened a furnace on Murano. He was keenly aware of the popularity of the island’s products abroad, especially in Britain, and a few months later formed a company with a group of Britons, Salviati & Co., which in 1872 became the Venice and Murano Glass and Mosaic Company Ltd.
A search for technical and formal perfection characterises the late 19th century. Small cups, large chalices, opalescent vases and bottles all tended to be modelled on the past but strove for greater constructional precision, reviving a tradition that only a few years earlier had seemed doomed. Another problem that occupied this new generation of glassblowers was reproducing ancient glass, from pre-Roman glass with a friable core, the so-called Phoenician glass, to Roman pieces, known in general as murrini, and on Murano itself as glass-mosaic.
The intense activity that characterised Murano during the later 19th century, concentrating as it did principally on the recovery and study of the past, isolated the island from the cultural climate of the rest of Europe and North America, where Art Nouveau was dominant. A certain amount of innovation, with quotations from Art Nouveau, can be seen in a group of extremely delicate goblets in the form of flowers produced during the early years of the 20th century by Fratelli Toso, in the decorations on very fine glass by Francesco Toso Borella, and, especially, in the glass-mosaic creations by another artist, Vittorio Zecchin.
In the years immediately following WWI, the furnaces stepped up production. From a stylistic point of view, they followed the rationalistic trend with its principles of simplicity and functionalism. At the same time new companies were opening up on the island and an increasing number of designers were working there. In the years between the two World Wars, artists such as Vittorio Zecchin, the sculptor Napoleone Martinuzzi, the painter Guido Cadorin, the architect Carlo Scarpa, and the etcher Guido Balsamo Stella, were collaborating with Murano glass manufacturers, contributing to stylistic and formal innovations and creating new vitreous materials and mixtures.
After the enforced lull during WWII, the furnaces reopened with renewed vigour, concentrating mainly on the study of the chromatic effects of glass and on emphasising its sculptural qualities. These new refined colours and their crucial role in the composition of original and often sophisticated vitreous materials, constitute the distinctive element of the many new companies which sprung up in the 1940s and the 1950s. During this period, a reinterpretation of the traditional Murano techniques was combined with a strong predilection for simple forms, in harmony with the criteria of functionalism.
Today, the Murano glassblowing industry is facing another crisis. The current slump, glass impresario Adriano Berengo suggests, has not simply been occasioned by the influx of Chinese copies in recent decades; it is also due to the fact that many of the surviving glass factories have pandered to the demand of tourists for objects that represent a historical idea of Murano. Where the forms of the past galvanised the 19th century glass revival, in other words, now they might be said to hold back contemporary work by clinging to an opportune market for pastiche.
Berengo has looked to counter this by introducing international artists to the properties and practicalities of glass, pushing them to experiment with this uniquely ductile, transparent material. The extraordinary Murano marionettes that feature in the final film of Wael Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades trilogy were developed at the Berengo Studio; artists taking part in the 2017 Glasstress exhibition, which Berengo has mounted at Palazzo Franchetti every two years since 2009, included Ai Weiwei, Thomas Schütte and Laure Prouvost.
It is heartening to see contemporary artists exploring a traditional material that requires so much patience and care, and for which chance as much as conceptual precision plays such a role. Something comparable – and equally welcome – is perhaps happening in the growing prominence of contemporary ceramic art at leading international museums and galleries. Also to be praised are those dealers, such as Adrian Sassoon, who have worked so hard to promote the place of historical materials in the production of contemporary pieces.
The future of Murano also requires sustained attention to its past. That means well-curated museum displays and exhibitions to illuminate the skill of historical glassmakers and the variety of their working methods, as well as the originality of 20th century designers. It requires the clean presentation of individual objects (or groups of objects), ensuring that they are no more relegated to crowded cabinets with poor lighting (although there is of course value in looking at glass in the context of other types of object).
In Venice, thankfully, the Stanze del Vetro on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore has now been creating this kind of exhibition for several years. Since its inauguration in 2012, the gallery’s displays of modern and contemporary glass have offered a lucid reminder of the recent strength of glassmaking in Venice – and as such, as a rejoinder to those who would give up on Murano altogether.
And then there is the Museo del Vetro in Palazzo Giustinian on Murano, which reopened in 2015 with refurbished and expanded exhibition spaces that feature a chronological display focusing on the island’s production. Though the museum has been in its current location since 1861, it now has a greater responsibility than ever: inspiring visitors to Venice to value Murano glass correctly, while encouraging the maestri to innovate afresh.
We brought home Murano glass… in the form of cherries, what else?!? Miss Honey shows off the cherry necklace we got from Pauly & Co. in Piazza San Marco. One of the many stores that stock authentic Murano glass pieces, not the cheap Chinese copies.