Murano Glass: Ten Centuries of Art

Known for its unique glass artwork as far back as the 10th century the island of Murano, off the coast of Italy, is the home of some of the most beautiful glassworks ever created. Murano artisans craft everything from figurines to art glass, wine stoppers and jewelry. The glassworks produced by Murano artists became so well known that nearly half of the island’s population was involved in glassmaking.

History of Murano Glass Making

In the late 13th century the people of Venice feared that their city would be destroyed by fire from the glass maker’s furnaces they forced the glassmakers to move to the island of Murano. By the 14th century the glassmakers had become the most prominent citizens of Murano. They were treated as royalty, immune to prosecution, allowed to carry swords and they found their daughters married to the most important families of the time.

How Murano Glass is Made

Traditional Murano glass manufacturing is an art handed down over the centuries and was once such a closely guarded secret that in the 1600’s glass artisans were forbidden from leaving the Venetian Republic. With glass blowing being a family tradition passed down through the family, many of the techniques have remained basically unchanged more than 500 years.

Starting with pure silica the glassmaker heats the silica until it achieves a liquid state. As it cools the glass enters a malleable state where the glass is firm where it can be worked, shaped and colored. The artist shapes, reheats, shapes again, reheats again, add color and substances such as sodium, nitrate or arsenic to achieve the desired final product.

Styles of Murano Glass

As with most styles of art, glass making contains many different and specific styles. Some of the most popular include:

Murrine: Murrine glass consists of layers of glass stretched over canes (long rods). When the glass cools it is then sliced revealing a pattern in the cross section. By using this technique the artist can create pictures and patterns in raw glass before melting it all together in to a single piece.

Filigrana: Also known as reticello or retortoli glass, filigrana glass created when color or white threads of glass are encased in clear glass rods. When the glass threads are woven to create a grid it is referred to as reticello and when the glass threads are twisted in to a spiral they are called retortoli. As one of the oldest glass techniques it is probably the style most identified as Murano glass.

Lattimo: Often used for thicker glass and sculptures, Lattimo glass is identifiable by its opaque white color. This white glass often serves as a canvas for colored enamels to be applied to create whatever pattern or picture the artist desires. Made without blowing, Lattimo glass achieves its opaque white color from the sodium that is added to the silica as the glass is made.

Sommerso: Superimposed, or layered, glass, Sommerso glass is created by submerging the object multiple times in various colors while it is being created. Each submersion lays a new layer of glass and color over the top of the preceding layer. This style of glass is actually quite new, having come in to production in the late thirties and gaining widespread popularity in the fifties.

Glass Jewelry

Glass has been used as jewelry since the earliest days of glass making. The first glass jewelry techniques date back to as far as 2300 BC and involved a process called core-forming. Using a copper rod a string of molten glass would be wrapped around the rod until a bead of glass was created. Color was added either through impurities in the source material or intentionally by adding pigments as the glass making process was improved and clearer forms of glass were created.

As technology progressed the process of lamp working or, more recently, torch working where a single direct flame or torch is used to heat the glass. By using a single flame the glass artist can control both the temperature at which they work and the layering process much more closely than could be done using a furnace and molten glass.

Modern Glass Jewelry Fashion

Glass jewelry has never really fallen out of style in more than 2,000 years. But recently it has seen a resurgence as bead jewelry has become wildly popular again. Dozens of manufacturers have started making Murano glass beads as a part of their jewelry lines. This has re-opened the old argument of whether glass beads made outside of Murano can be legitimately called Murano glass beads.

We see mass production, all by hand, in factories around the world now. Many are based in lower labor cost areas such as Thailand and India and even the Philippines. Much like Swarovski Crystal, there are a lot of crystal manufacturers in the world. But only one can call itself Swarovski. The difference being that Swarovski is a family/company while Murano is a region. I can’t tell the difference between Murano Glass beads made on the Island of Murano and anywhere else in the world, but I am sure that purists would prefer to have beads and glass made from there.

What I do know is that I like it.