Murano: The Venetian Glass Island

Visiting the Venetian Lagoons is “dreams come true” for most people out there. This was no less in my case. Though Venice is most loved place for the romantic vibe it sends out, I wished to visit the place for completely different reason. Venetian glass works are one of the most talked about traditional artworks in the world, my affinity towards glass sculptures and artefacts led me to the Venetian Island of Glass- Murano, as part of my Honeymoon in 2014 which funnily contradicted my statement of reason of visit. Whatsoever this visit took my love for glass sculptures to the next level.

Murano Island- Picture Courtesy: Urmila Santosh (author) Murano Islands-Picture Courtsey: Prejith Narayan
Murano Island- Picture Courtesy: Urmila Santosh (author) Murano Islands-Picture Courtsey: Prejith Narayan

Venice, the capital of northern Italy’s Veneto region, is built on more than 100 small islands in a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea. It has no roads, just canals – including the Grand Canal thoroughfare – lined with Renaissance and Gothic palace. Among these 100 small islands lies the island of Murano where the traditional glass blowing craft flourished.

We had an amazing opportunity to visit some of the major islands of Venetian Lagoons like the Murano and Burano islands. Interestingly both these islands are famous for their traditional crafts. Murano, popular for its glass making craft and Burano for its art of finest lace making.  It was Murano that caught my eyes because its sheer use of beautiful colours in its glass works. The island transports you to the golden period of renaissance and as an archaeologist I was in awe of all the works displayed on the beautifully lit glass shelves. We visited one of the glass blowing demonstration workshops; there are a few in the Island at present which are centuries old, handed down from generations to generations. The glass blowing process was translated to us by our guide in English; he introduced us to the history and origin of the technique, its effects on the society and the present situation.

As the story goes, it was in Venice that the glass blowing technique was practiced first since the 8th century. By the year 1291, the government of Venice had banned glass furnaces from the Central Islands of Venice, moving them completely to Murano. Most historians have assumed that the order resulted from a fear that the fires of the glass furnaces might create a tragic conflagration among the largely wooden structures of crowded Venice. However, the common belief among the people of Venice is that it was to not share the valuable knowledge of this technique among the foreigners who visited Venice as part of the trade activities connected with the other parts of the world. Also an interesting aspect of this was that, the craft masters and the workers were practically jailed in the island to prevent any form of contact. It was said that there were legal laws regarding this and the status of these maters rose among the celebrated dignitaries of Venice. The daughters of these masters became eligible maidens for marriage with the aristocrats of Venice.

Soon after he had taken us into this whirlwind story, the process of glass blowing technique started. The master craftsman started his show with a dramatic entrance and magical juggling while creating exquisite glass horses in front of our naked eyes. The creation of an Object /Artefact begins when the glass blower reaches inside the furnace and into the crucible that is filled with clear, melted glass and “gathers” a layer of molten glass on the end of a steel blow pipe. The artist then rolls the molten glass on a steel table called a marver to give it a cylindrical shape. The glass is then heated in the glory hole – all the while the artist is turning the blow pipe and keeping it in constant motion. The master craftsman has to constantly keep taking the molten glass back to the Glory Hole because the glass needs to be kept above 1000⁰ F. 

A Furnace in Murano- Picture Courtesy: Urmila Santosh
A Furnace in Murano- Picture Courtesy: Urmila Santosh
Glass Manufacturing in Progress- Picture Courtesy: Urmila Santosh
Glass Manufacturing in Progress- Picture Courtesy: Urmila Santosh
Shaping of Glass- Picture Courtesy: Urmila Santosh
Shaping of Glass- Picture Courtesy: Urmila Santosh

The next step in the process was the most exciting part for me, the part where they add colour to the glass, thus bringing out everlasting beauty to the object. This step is followed with the most significant part of the process –Defining the Shape. At this juncture the craftsman sits and rests the pipe on the steel “arms” of the bench and turns it with one hand. With the other hand the artistes the tools. This process requires perfect coordination between right and left hands. The artist may be shaping a round piece, an oval, or intend to make a wide open plate or bowl. Sitting at the bench is where he/she determines the shape. Then the actual blowing begins. It starts with a puff on the end of the blow pipe to create a bubble. Then it’s back to the Glory Hole for more heating and turning. And back to the bench for more shaping. This cycle gets repeated many times, depending on the size and shape desired by the artist. Once the shape is satisfactory, the piece has to be transferred to a “Punty” – another steel pipe that’s been heating over flames. At last and the final stage is where the artist picks up the scorching-hot piece and quickly transfers it to a cooling oven. Our guide also mentioned to us that apparently in each show the final product created is different from the last one hence it is surprise each time even for repeated viewers. 

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After the demonstration, we were taken on a tour of the exclusive shop (located in the front part of the workshop) that was pretty much like a museum for glass objects. These objects vary from bowls, chandeliers, fancy decorative items, jewellery and many more. I picked up a beautiful blue coloured glass horse, and the packing was very much up to the mark. We can let in our concerns and suggestions regarding the packing of the items and it very well taken into consideration. The objects are priced from Euro 10 and we can find satisfying items based on our budget.

The whole tour was an eye opener, regarding this traditional craft that has been on these soils for many centuries. Today this craft is slowly declining (the number of furnaces in Murano till the 20th century was around 10,000 compared to the present which consists of less than 1000) due to the change in people’s taste in design and style and incompetency of the master craftsmen’s to provide these latest demands, also the widespread imitation of this craft also have led to a sharp decline in its purchase.  Overall, the craft is showing seeds of decline, but there are still groups that support this art form which acts as saving grace for this beautiful craft form.

Murano Islands-Picture Courtsey: Prejith Narayan
Murano Islands-Picture Courtsey: Prejith Narayan

Reference:

Pamphlets received during our trip to Venice (2014)

The Rise of Venetian Glass Making www.cmog.org

A History of Venetian Glass Making: http://www.boglewood.com/murano/history.html

Museo Del Vetro http://museovetro.visitmuve.it/en/home/

Murano Glass Trademark & Info http://www.muranoglass.com/en/

Photo Courtesy:

Urmila Santosh

Prejith Narayan

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