You may have seen it in the form of the mushroom shaped white and pink lamps that have become popular as of late. Or, you may have just heard the phrase but have no idea what it refers to. We’re going to explain exactly what Murano glass is, it’s interesting history, and why it is so unique!
The origins of glassmaking in Venice go back to the times of the Roman Empire when molded glass was used for illumination in bathhouses. Blending Roman experience with the skills learned from the Byzantine Empire and trade with the Orient, Venice emerged as a prominent glass-manufacturing center as early as the 8th century. One of the earliest furnaces for glass on a Venetian island, dating from the 8th century, was discovered by archaeologists in 1960.
Venetian glassmaking originated some 1,500 years ago, when glassmakers from Aquileia, Italy, made the voyage to the Venetian lagoon to escape attacks by barbarians during the Roman Empire. Glassmakers who relocated from Byzantium and the Middle East further enriched the talent pool in the city. The early economic activities of Murano were centered around fishing and trade in salt. During the early years of the Republic of Venice, the territory called “Murano” encompassed the Islands of Sant’Erasmo, Vignole and San Michele. Glass work is the most ancient and important art practiced in the lagoon, and was for hundreds of years one of the most important commercial industries of the Venetian Republic. The first recorded mention of a Glass Master in Venice, bottle-maker Dominicus Phiolarius, dates from the year 982. There, molded glass was affixed to the ceiling of lavishly decorated public bathhouses, providing illumination and delight. Additional uses for glass would soon emerge in the form of beads, mosaics, jewelry, mirrors and windows. While these products were widely exported, they were available only to the wealthy, as glass was then considered an extremely extravagant and valuable commodity.
By the eighth century, Venice was a leading location for glass manufacturing, and by the late 1200s, glassmaking was Venice’s primary industry. To outline regulations for the industry, a Glassmakers Guild was established. However, the Guild’s motives were questionable, as it also called for a law to be passed that would mandate all glassmakers to move from Venice to the island of Murano. Because glass factories frequently caught fire and the buildings in overpopulated Venice were mostly wooden, there was fear that glassmakers’ furnaces would ignite the city.
That’s how it came to be that in 1291, all glassmakers who lived in Venice were ordered to move to Murano, a cluster of seven tiny nearby islands connected by bridges. By cloistering the artisans away on Murano, their skills and trade secrets proliferated for centuries, so that it became the glassmakers’ wonderland that it remains today. Not only were the artisans banished to Murano, but another law passed in 1295 that further forbade the glassmakers from even leaving the island. In spite of this, they were treated as the island’s most prominent citizens and enjoyed a heightened social status and lifestyle. Allowed to wear swords, they were protected from prosecution by the Venetian state, did not work during summers, and their daughters were married into Venice’s most affluent families. The government of the Republic recognized the potential importance of the burgeoning glass industry and acted to protect and develop it. Between the 11th and 12th centuries, the expanding Republic negotiated free trade agreements and established protected trading colonies throughout the Mediterranean, the Holy Land and the Orient. Trade in glass products was brisk. In the year 1271, the Counsel acted to protect the glass industry domestically by both prohibiting the importation of foreign glass into Venice and prohibiting foreign glassworkers from working within the city.
With the isolation and trade developments the craft evolved, with many innovations and techniques originating in Murano. In the fifteenth century, Murano was known for cristallo—a fine, almost transparent glass—and lattimo, a porcelain-like milk glass. Then, for a time, the island was best known for its mirrors, then its chandeliers, also for its glass beads, and gemstones made of glass and many other varieties of glass. In 1450, a technological revolution marked the end of the middle ages and beginning of a renaissance, punctuated by glass artist Angelo Barovier’s discovery of how to remove impurities from soda ash to create clear glass. The secrets that spun out of the work of families like the Barovier family were regarded much the same as treasure. Fathers in glassmaking families even passed down to their sons zealously guarded glass-making recipe books. Other types of glassmaking techniques became popular such as enamelling and gilding glass, which originated in the Middle East, filigrana glass which is made using glass rods with inner threads of white, golden or colored glass that are twisted or intersecting, and ice glass which appears finely crackled. Variety of shapes and colors increased, and glassware became more sophisticated though the beauty was still viewed as the simplicity of shapes and ornaments.
17Th Century: Decline of Venetian Glass
Starting from the 17th century, Murano glass entered the period of gradual decline. As Venetian power grip on trade routes and its importance as a major center of commerce began to vanish, so did its monopoly power in glassmaking.
In 1797, the Republic of St. Mark fell and a long series of political upheavals began with repercussions on the crisis which had hit the Venetian glass industry, causing unemployment. There was also a decline in artistic glass at the turn of the century. Nearly half of all factories on Murano closed during the 20 years of Habsburg rule and those that remained operational were engaged in purely commercial production of items such as trade beads and glass bottles. These productions, particularly as the age of Discovery was drawing to a close and there were by that time many other centers of commercial glass production in Europe, were certainly not enough to sustain Murano nor to satisfy the creativity of the Glass Masters in the long term.
New centers of the craft emerged in Bohemia, England, and France. Yet 17th century still saw innovation in Murano glass as new techniques continued to emerge driven by strong baroque trends that spread through European architecture, painting, interior decoration, and other art and craft forms. Brightly colored, intricate glass decorations with floral and animal motives became popular. New glass techniques included avventurina (metal flecks embedded in glass for a sparkly look) and calcedonio (illusion of semiprecious stones), raised decorations on glass, and millefiori beads. These new techniques were so successful that even royal courts ordered glassware from Murano artisans. One example is King Frederick IV of Denmark who in early 17th century purchased a glass collection that is currently on display at the Rosenborg Palace in Copenhagen.
The Revival of Murano Glass
During the second half of the century, the art of glassmaking was gradually revived. After the war in 1866, the political and economic situation favoured the revival of the Murano glass industry. Towards the end of the 1890s, this period of revival came to an end in Europe and gave way to new trends which shifted away from ancient models. Ironically, it was the luxury production of Murano Glass that was to be revived, survive and thrive while the commercial production all but vanished completely between the mid-1800’s and the mid-1900’s. In the 1850’s two new firms, Fratteli Toso and Salviatti, were each ostensibly opened to engage in commercial glass production. But, within a decade each had switched to reviving luxury Murano glass working techniques instead. They found commercial success abroad within Europe and more new furnaces were opened including Fratelli Barovier.
The culminating event in reviving Murano glassblowing was the exhibition set up by the Archive in 1864 to display all the recent glass works and reignite competitive spirit among the craftsmen. On the heels of that exhibition were other international shows, such as the highly successful Universal Exposition in Paris in 1867 where Salviati exhibited over 500 works made by his firm and received international acclaim and multiple medals. This success and publicity led to complete revival of Murano, which once again became a booming economic center, employing 3,500 people by 1869, and a famous destination.
Venetian Glass-Making Technique
Murano glass is made with soda lime glass — usually 65 to 70 per cent silica, 10 to 20 per cent soda and 10 per cent lime as a stabilizing agent. The mixture goes through two furnace processes — first to be mixed, then to be melted, often with additional ingredients to give the glass colour and texture. Venetian glassmakers are renowned for engraving, gilding, enamel work and other glass-forming techniques.
The mixing and melting of the batch of ingredients was a two-stage process. First, nearly equal amounts of silica and flux were continuously stirred in a special furnace. The furnace was called a calchera furnace, and the mix was called fritta. In the second stage, the fritta was mixed with selected recycled waste glass (cullet) and melted in another furnace. Depending on the type and color of glass, other additives were used. Lead and tin were added for white opaque glass (latimo). Cobalt was used for blue glass. Copper and iron were used for green and for various shades of green, blue, and yellow. Manganese was used to remove colors. Although natural gas is the furnace fuel of choice for glassmaking today, the fuel mandated in Murano during the 13th century was alder and willowwood. During this second stage, the surface of the molten glass was skimmed to remove undesirable chemicals that affected the appearance of the glass. Additional techniques were used as glassmaking evolved. To improve clarity, molten glass was put in water and then re-melted. Another technique was to purify the flux by boiling and filtering.
This is technique in which metal flakes are embedded in glass, when it is in a molten state. When the glass is slowly cooled, it gives out an exquisite sheen. Thereafter it is blown into the required shapes. The shimmer resulting from the metal particles implanted in the glass gives the articles a special look. Since the design cannot be effectively controlled, the artisans named the technique ‘aventurina’ meaning ‘chance’. Here are just a few of the main Murano Glass making techniques.
This is a glass coloring technique used by the traditional murano artisans. The magnificent appearance and coloring of Murano glass is achieved by adding gold or silver leaf to the glass mixture and/or adding minerals such as zinc for white, cobalt for blue, manganese for violet, and so on. Once the object is finished, it is placed in a cooling furnace, called “tempera”, to cool down slowly. This process is called annealing, or ensuring that glass doesn’t break due internal tensions or because of extreme variations in temperature. The specialty of this is that the design is beyond the control of even the artists. As a result, no two calcedonia article can look identical in striations. The technique was lost and rediscovered at least three times in the history of glass blowing.
Murrine is one of the most complicated and time-consuming murano techniques. First the artist rolls a central rod in many differently colored glass liquids. When this rod is cut transversely into thin pieces, they display multicolored cross sections. These cross sections are arranged on a surface and the blown and shaped objects are rolled over these, while hot. The multicolored pieces stick to the surface of the object to give it an extremely picturesque look. The murrine glass is admired and valued greatly all over the world. It is also known as ‘millefiori’. Other than the mushroom lamp, this may be the type of Murano glass you’re most familiar with. It is an extremely unique way of making glass, and results in that tell tale colourful pattern of stamps all over the piece.Ercole Barovier, a descendant of Murano’s greatest glassmaker Angelo Barovier, won numerous awards during the 1940s and 1950s for his innovations using the murrine technique.
The bollinato glass has many layers of small and big bubbles embedded in a thick layer of glass. This is a technique in which the glass, while it is still malleable, is rolled on a metal surface with spikes on it. These spikes will make holes in the not-fully- solidified glass. Afterwards the holes are covered with layers of molten glass and the air inside the holes gets trapped in the glass.
Cameo is a complicated technique which needs a high level of expertise. Two glass layers of two different colors are combined at first. Then carving is done in such a way that a raised design is produced by the exposure of the second layer. This creates very charming designs. But it takes an expert Murano glass artisan to create very elaborate and intricate designs. These are truly stunning to see in person!
The cristallo murano glass is an extremely clear glass. This clarity is obtained by bleaching the molten glass using manganese or similar agents. This is a highly fragile thing and if any carving or etching is to be done, it should be done manually. This magnificent glass is developed in 1450 by the famous Angelo Barovier of the legendary Barovier family of glass blowers. The name arose because it looked like rock crystal or clear quartz, which had long been carved into various types of vessels and small hardstone carvings. Rock crystal was said to have magical qualities and in the Middle Ages was often used in Christian religious objects. Cristallo became very popular. This type of glass was fragile and difficult to cut, but it could be enameled and engraved.
Fenicio glass is an extremely decorative glass. The fenicio glass objects have garland like designs on them. This makes them truly spectacular. The technique involves wrapping the glass objects with multicolored glass threads and combing them into place while they are still hot with a special tool called ‘meneretta’. When cooled, they will give the glass objects a stunningly beautiful look. This is a very ancient technique. However, it came to Murano sometime in the 17th century.
This is enamel work. Special vitreous enamels with lower meting points than glass are used. These enamels are elastic to a certain extend so that they won’t break when the glass cools. These enamels are applied on glass when cold. The articles are then placed in an oven and heated up to 500 to 600 degrees. The enamel then fuses with the glass making the painting work permanent.
The Iconic Mushroom Glass Lamp
This lamp, while originating from the glass work of Murano, gained popularity in the 1970’s, and has been having a major revival in recent years. Lamps can cost up to a few thousand dollars, while if you get lucky, you may be able to find one vintage for much less. An “Artistic Glass Murano” or “Vetro Artistico Murano” trademark sticker was established in 1994 to mark authentic pieces made on the islands of Murano. Now, about 50 companies — called “concessionary” companies — use the trademark. These stickers contain anti-counterfeiting technology, plus a serial number and QR code containing the data on that particular item.
When buying vintage Murano glass, these stickers are likely not available, since they were made before the trademark was established. Look for the glassmaker’s signature, as well as deep and rich colour, complex patterns, and imperfections in shape that signify the handmade aspect of these pieces. The mouth-blown glass shade and base are all one piece. These curvy cuties come with or without stripes, in varying levels of opacity or even frosted, and are most often spotted in cotton-candy colours and neutral shades such as butterscotch or white. Some of the lamps have an open top, whereas others are rounded like a true mushroom cap. Like the mushroom, another popular style also emulates food: the Murano egg lamp. These tabletop statement pieces are exactly what they sound like: conical blown-glass resembling an egg. While these two lights are most representative of the 1970s, there are many other vintage Murano lamps out there from various eras, including delicate glass chandeliers, table lamps with bulbous, blown-glass bases, and statement floor lamps resembling floral bouquets.
Some of Venice’s historical glass factories in Murano remain well known brands today, including De Biasi, Gabbiani, Venini, Salviati, Barovier & Toso, Pauly, Berengo Studio, Seguso, Formia International, Simone Cenedese, Alessandro Mandruzzato, Vetreria Ducale, Estevan Rossetto 1950 and others. The oldest glass factory is Antica Vetreria Fratelli Toso, founded in 1854.
Overall, the industry has been shrinking as demand has waned. Imitation works (recognizable by experts but not by the typical tourist) from Asia and Eastern Europe take an estimated 40 to 45 percent of the market for Murano glass, and public tastes have changed while the designs in Murano have largely stayed the same. To fight the imitation problem, a group of companies and concerned individuals created a trademark in 1994 that certifies that the product was made on Murano. By 2012, about 50 companies were using the Artistic Glass Murano® trademark of origin. If you want to find an original, there are many curators who are trustworthy that you can find them from. On the other hand, if you want a cheaper version that still resembles the beautiful aesthetic, there are many knock offs, or just off shoots of many of the styles (particularly the mushroom lamp). While there is certainly a lot of value in the craftsmanship and history of Murano glass, it has also reached peak popularity and almost a brand status at the moment. There are also many less popularized authentic Murano glass forms that you can find, that aren’t nearly as expensive.