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Murano glassmaking: behind the scenes


Murano’s glassmakers have a well-deserved reputation for innovation and excellence, acquired over many centuries, as Fiona McKenzie Johnston explains

Fiona McKenzie Johnston ,

A short vaporetto ride from the main island of Venice lies Murano, also known as ‘the glass island’ after the product for which it has been famous since the 10th century. ‘Venice would hardly be the same without the diaphanous chandeliers that reflect the light like old-cut precious jewels twinkling by candlelight,’ remarks editor, stylist, artist and designer Marko Matysik. ‘The exquisite hand-made quality gives each piece a uniqueness that I always marvel at.’

Glass works
Exceptional examples of Murano glass are scattered the world over, for not only has it been widely exported, but there are also passionate collectors, along with a host of artists who have applied techniques they learnt on Murano to their own work: think of Dale Chihuly – who received a Fulbright Fellowship to study at the Venini factory – and his remarkable chandelier in the atrium of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

History lesson
‘The Venetians have been regarded as virtuoso glassmakers since Renaissance times,’ explains Audrey Whitty, curator of European glass at the Corning Museum of Glass. ‘They developed superior techniques and glass formulas. Their objects were highly sought after, and often copied. Today, many of the techniques and formulas developed on the island of Murano inform the creations of modern artists who work in glass.’

Liquid gold
Glass is made from silica, which becomes liquid at high temperatures. As it cools again, there is a stage when it becomes malleable, a stage that Murano’s glassmakers exploit with impressive skill and imagination. Among the centuries-old techniques still in use today are glass with gold flecks (avventurina), rods cut into multi-coloured slices (millefiori) and opaque milk glass (lattimo) – as well as others which have been developed more recently, such as the layering of contrasting colours (sommerso).

As most of the best factories don’t allow one to go and look around – they are, after all, in the business of making glass rather than entertaining visitors – the best way of learning more about all these techniques is at Murano’s Museo del Vetro (glass museum), which houses displays on the history of glassmaking, as well as samples ranging from Egyptian times through to the present.

Artisanal craft
Of course, it’s not all chandeliers. An enormous variety of other pieces are made in factories or in one of the many individual artists’ studios on Murano: elegant tableware, extraordinary statuary, paperweights, candlesticks, jewellery, stemware and any number of trinkets. One of the best-known names is Antica Vetreria Fratelli Toso, which has been run by the Toso family since 1854. Today, it’s mostly involved in promoting the Fratelli Toso collection, and has strong relationships with a number of private collectors, auction houses and museums worldwide. Pauly opened in 1866, and has a wide range of lighting and of coloured and decorative glasses, decanters and jugs.

Artistic license
For something more contemporary or unusual in feel, Berengo Studio was established in 1989 with the intention of combining Murano glass-making traditions with contemporary art. Another famous name that has made a point of working with famous artists and designers is Venini, previously mentioned as where Chilhuly trained. Over the years, it has collaborated with several important figures, including Giò Ponti and Carlo Scarpa, with new partnerships always being developed. Venini also offers a bespoke service, should you wish for something unique for your home, or even your yacht.

A cut above
The list doesn’t stop there. Another company that offers an interiors service as well as take-away decorative items is Salviati, which also works with a number of designers; Barovier & Toso specialises in lighting, be it chandeliers, wall sconces or floor lamps; Ferro Murano makes everything from bowls to glass balustrades; and Seguso offer lighting, glasses, vases and even furniture (tables with glass legs). Formia International is the place for the fashion conscious, as it designs the Murano glass ranges for both Roberto Cavalli and Armani Casa; then there is Simone Cenedese, Alessandro Mandruzzato, Gabbiani … The best way to check that you are buying glass from a reputable source is to visit the official Murano Glass website, which has details of the trademark, and a full list of factories and stockists.

What is certain is that there is something for everyone, and whatever you buy you’ll be taking home a piece of Venetian history. ‘The impulse to buy fragile champagne flutes is always too great to resist,’ says Matysik. Why not just give in to temptation?

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