Venice’s Island of Glassmakers: Murano
Murano – Island of Glass
By Donnie Sexton
My favorite European city, without a doubt is Venice, steeped in a mystical and mysterious aura and overflowing with an abundance of beauty and charm intertwined between all its canals.
To soak up the heart of this city, you need to wander and get lost, take a gondola ride and sample plenty of gelato. As for shopping, you’ll quickly discover there is an abundance of stores featuring Murano glass – everything from tiny figurines to lacy chandeliers to huge abstract sculptures.
It’s not enough to ogle at the glass art. You must make time to explore Murano, itself, whose heart and soul is steeped in glass.
From Venice to Murano
History will say that Venice had no shortage of artists back in the 12th-13th centuries, among them cartographers, painters, poets, and glassmakers. There was a pervading fear that the intensity of the heat from the glass furnaces posed a threat of burning the city down with all its wooden buildings.
For this reason, the glass artisans were forced to move their operation to the nearby island of Murano back in 1291.
These craftsmen were an esteemed group, right up there with nobility and treated as such. They could marry nobles and were given many privileges not afforded common folk, such as not being required to pay taxes.
But they were not allowed to leave the island and take the secrets of their trade elsewhere; it was punishable by death. By the 16th century, three thousand of the Murano’s residents were involved in the glass trade.
When plans came together for my second visit to this city, I knew I wanted to take a deeper dive into the glass scene of Murano. I’m drawn to all forms of fine art, so I was hoping I could spend some time with the artisans watching them at work, or even try my hand at glassblowing.
I struck gold when finding a local company, Italian Days, that in addition to food and wine tours, can arrange not only glass factory tours but classes in glass beadwork on the island.
Through a series of emails, I came to know Lorenzo, a local tour guide and the sales manager for Italian Days. To find a guide that is less about getting paid and more about sharing the love of a place is truly a gift.
This was Lorenzo. Together, we mapped out my Murano visit, which included a two-hour lampwork class with Alessia Fuga, followed by a factory tour to NasonMoretti, one of the famed glass factories on the island. Others of note include Venini and Barovier&Toso.
Creating Glass Beads
It was a seven-minute ride via the public water bus from Venice to Murano. A short walk brought us to Alessia’s small studio, located inside her family’s operation of building steel supports for glass chandeliers.
I was immediately captivated by her beautiful and intricate beadwork on display and stoked to think I would be creating something similar.
I’ve seen glassblowing in the states, but lampwork (also known as flamework) was something completely new to me. Alessia thoroughly explained the process as she demonstrated, whereby the artist works with a single flame (or small torch), often held stationery in a vise.
With a glass rod in her right hand and a steel mandrel in her left, she held the rod over the flame until it turned molten and began to drip. At that point, she skillfully rolled the drip onto the mandrel constantly turning it so the liquid glass swirled into the shape of a bead.
It looked easy enough as I moved into position to make my first bead, but I would soon realize that it takes perfect coordination of both hands to master lampwork.
Alessia gently and patiently guided my hands as needed to help me succeed in making beads. By the time the two-hour class was over, I had created five beads and a glass candy. I stood up from the workbench happy with my simple creations that in no way resembled the exquisite beads that Alessia creates.
My appreciation for her talents had grown immensely. She has a degree in economics, but it only took one lampwork class to get her hooked and refocus her journey as a glass artist for the past six years. She sees glass as a magical material and is keen on sharing her knowledge and talents through teaching to keep the craft alive and robust. “About six to seven years ago, there were 500 glass companies on Murano, but today there are only about 100” she quips.
Glass Art for the Table
Next it was a tour of the NasonMoretti glass factory, whose claim to fame is tableware – flutes, chalices, wine and water glasses, bowls, etc. We started in their beautiful showroom, where owner Marco Nason gave a thorough rundown of the company, then moved into the heart of the operation where a half dozen glass artisans were hard at work.
Over the intense heat from the kilns, two men were engaged in creating a wine goblet with a gold leaf stem that would eventually sell for around $70. This high-end glassware, sold in sets of 12, would likely end up on the shelves of Tiffany or Neiman Marcus. Another man, sweat pouring from his brow, was working with a blazing hot blob of molten glass attached to a long mandrel.
Standing on a series of steps, he swung the glass in pendulum style as it slowly stretched out into what would become a large vase, at one point swinging the mandrel full circle. Few words were spoken among the artists over the roar of the furnaces; skill and passion for the craft was evident everywhere in this environment.
We moved through the factory where the pieces were cut, sanded, etched, and finally boxed for shipment. I don’t live in a world where I can afford a $70 and upwards wine or water glass, but I came to understand and appreciate why the cost would be this high.
Sadly, Marco also talked about how the influx of imitation glass from other parts of Europe and Asia at cheaper prices had reduced the demand for Murano glass, and thus the number of artisans was declining.
The Nitty Gritty Details of Visiting Murano
There are three ways to explore Murano. First, strike out on your own. Catch the Vaporetto from Venice – its anywhere from 7 minutes to 20 minutes, depending on which water bus you take, then simply wander the streets and soak up the amazing displays of glass art.
Step inside any store that catches your eye and ask to see if you can watch the glassblowers at work; many of the businesses will accommodate.
There is also the Museum of Glass worth a visit. The second option is to use the services of my friend Lorenzo to set up a glass bead workshop ($80 for two hours up to two people) and a factory tour (different factories have different pricing for the tours) – including a private tour of NasonMoretti.
Thirdly, you will find many advertisements around Venice, especially in the hotels, for a free water taxi ride to Murano to tour a glass factory. The taxi pickup is generally at or close to your hotel and the ride is indeed free. You’re guaranteed to see the artisans at work, but it is the hard sell pitch afterward to buy something in the adjoining showroom that can sour your visit if you choose this option.
No matter the choice, spending time on Murano is a welcome break from the crowds of Venice, and as I experienced, very educational.
The island is very laid back and the window shopping of Murano creations is mind boggling, with everything from flowery delicate chandeliers, miniature glass butterflies, and bugs, figurines, lamps, bowls, tableware to life-sized glass sculptures.
If there ever was a keepsake to bring home from Venice, it would be an original piece of Murano glass. Mine happens to be five cobalt blue beads and a delicate glass candy!
Donnie Sexton has moved on from a very long stint as staff photographer and media relations manager for the Montana Office of Tourism. Her path is now focused on feeding her addiction to travel and sharing her journeys in both words and photography. www.donniesexton.com