Anybody who’s ever heard of Venice has heard of Murano Glass. The beauty and refined craftsmanship of its art glass is renowned across the globe: collectors are willing to part with hefty amounts of money to be able to display vases, chandeliers and sculptures by extraordinary Maestri from Murano on their shelves, and travelers like to go home with the biggest Murano Glass souvenir they can fit in their suitcase (and out of their pockets) to remind them of a most unforgettable experience.
But in all of this, a smaller craft — though no less elaborate nor rich in history — is sometimes overlooked: glass beadmaking. A form of art among the oldest known to mankind, it is dated back to at least Roman times, though it was most likely already present in Egypt and Mesopotamia, with evidence of their trade reaching as far as Denmark.
Glass beadmaking in Venice: from the imitation of precious stones to Murrine and lampworked beads
In Venice the production of glass beads is documented with certainty from the 14th century, and for hundreds of years they constituted a valuable traded and exported commodity to Africa, the Americas and India.
During Murano's crisis in the beginning of the 19th century — after the fall of La Serenissima Republic of Venice — when the request for the typical Murano Glass artworks reduced drastically, bead production was the only one to still thrive and expand, effectively saving Venice's glass industry with its demand of raw material from Murano's furnaces. When, during the second half of the century, Murano's glass production experienced a renaissance, beadmaking developed further, keeping up trading activities until the early 1900s.
Despite all of this, Venetian glass beads' history is often neglected when talking about Murano Glass, or, in many other cases, relegated to a footnote. The reason for this is, first and foremost, the fact that glass beads are by their very nature not well documented: they were for the most part created by many unknown artisans — not by Maestri who belonged to well-known families in the world of glassmaking — and they were generally considered of little value, compared to the sculptures and vases from Murano's furnaces. The men and women who created these beads did not perceive their contribution to the world's trades and explorations, nor their effect on the customs of many people, and as such the small businesses — let alone those working from their homes — did not keep accurate records of their production and sales, and even when they did, they were often eventually discarded.
Veriselli and Paternostri: the first Murano Glass beads
The first accounts regarding Murano Glass beads in Venice date back to the very end of the 13th century, and refer to a kind of beads called veriselli, namely glass imitations of precious stones. It's said that Marco Polo, coming back from his travels in Asia, recounted of the local people's love for gemstones, and the artisans of Venice saw a chance for creating glass replicas for them, thus beginning a long tradition of trading in beads.
In many instances, the same artisans that made these beads also created the so called paternostri — that is Rosary beads — purchased in great number by the Christian pilgrims who stopped in Venice on their way to Gerusalemme. The oldest document that refers to these paternostri de vitro is from 1338, and, funnily enough, belongs to the trial of a failed attempt of export taxes evasion.
Margarite: a revolution in glass beadmaking
A smaller kind of glass bead was later introduced, that made use of thin holed glass rods, and was called margarita. These rods were cut into small pieces that were then coated in a mixture of lime and coal dust (to avoid obstructing their holes), heated over low fire and shuffled in large metal pans, called ferrasse, to smooth out the beads. Compared to paternostri, which were made one by one a speo — that is over metallic sticks, margarite allowed for a much quicker mass production, at lower costs.
The Margarite were what we now call Conterie
Since the 19th century margarite are mostly called conterie, a term still used to this day, though it once referred to any kind of bead. The origin of this name is still uncertain: some claim it comes from contigia, which means ornament, because of their intended use; others trace it back to contare, meaning to count, since they were often used as trading currency, or perhaps because, in the beginning, when these beads were still rather big, they were sold by counting them, and not by weighting them.
The Impiraresse: a feminine heritage
The conterie were threaded into bundles by the so-called impiraresse — from the venetian verb impirar, which means to spear — so that the quality of the beads and the perfection of their holes were guaranteed to the final buyer. They would pour the beads, divided by color, into a wooden tray with a curved bottom — the séssola, and they held between 40 to 80 very thin needles in their hands, in a fan-like shape, with which they would string the conterie into long cotton or linen threads.
This was an exclusively feminine job, that women would carry out from their own households: on one hand, this ensured their essential presence in the domestic environment; on the other, it also exposed them to a grueling workload. Their labour was, in fact, piece-work paid, and they relied on mistre, female intermediaries who had direct relationships with Murano's glassworks and brought their conterie to the impiraresse, handling their payment and, on occasion, also providing them with services such as small loans.
This craft also had important social implications. It was a fundamental part of the material culture that was handed down from generation to generation along the female line, as it was taught to girls from a young age by their own mothers.
It also played a central role in building and strengthening neighbourhood relationships, as it was usually carried out in warm weather, in the calli (streets) and campielli (small squares) of Venice, particularly in the Sestieri of Castello and Cannaregio, but also on the Isola della Giudecca. The women all sat with their tools, chatting together, exchanging confidences and, in many cases, also manifesting their dissatisfaction with their pay and workload, which eventually developed in outcry at the end of the 19th century, when they took part in strikes.
In any case, it remained a widespread profession well into the 20th century, and an important source of income for many venetian families. Their craft was also divided into categories: the impiraresse da fin were specialized in threading the smallest conterie; the impiraresse da fiori created wonderful leaves and petals by stringing the beads on iron wires, which they twisted and bended expertly; lastly, many of them produced the fringes that were quite popular in the 1920s, and that were used to decorate drapes, lamps and flapper dresses.
Nowadays this is sadly an art that is being lost, and only few impiraresse remain.
Does beadmaking take place in Venice or Murano?
It's worth mentioning that in 1291 a decree of La Serenissima Republic of Venice ordered glassmakers to move their glassworks to the island of Murano because of the high risk of fire: the island would have enabled the citizens to limit possible accidents. Thus, Murano's fame was definitively set forth as the island of glassmaking.
Some crafts such as beadmaking, however, could still be carried out in Venice, because they required much smaller kilns: that was the case for the production of veriselli and paternostri.
Nonetheless, as it's usually the case with history, inconsistencies and exceptions are abundant, and it's impossible to draw a clear line between what was created in Venice and what was Murano's prerogative, even when documents are available. What we can note is that in 1469 the ban on exporting outside Venice the knowledge and materials necessary to work with glass (implemented around 1285-1295) was restricted to the Island of Murano, and was only lifted around 1493.
During this time, however, exemptions were made, most notably the one in 1487, in favor of Marietta Barovier.
The Rosetta, the best known glass bead in the world, was made by a woman: Marietta Barovier
Maria Barovier, often known as Marietta, was the daughter of Angelo Barovier — the most notable artistic and technical innovator of glassmaking in the 15th century — and was his worthy continuator in the composition of vitreous paste.
A mandate from 1487 authorized Marietta to continue her work on "opera sua pulchra inconsueta et non sufflata, in quadam sua fornace parvula ad hoc studiose confecta", that is, on her beautiful, unusual and not blown artwork (as in blown-glass), in a small furnace specifically built for this purpose.
Luigi Zecchin, in an article published in the Journal of Glass Studies in 1968, identifies this artwork as the Rosetta, also known as chevron bead, that is obtained from a holed rod composed of 6 layers of glass (white, blue, white, red, white and then blue), shaped in order to create sectional 12-pointed stars. The rod is then cut into pieces and bevelled.
These glass beads could ultimately be produced with a fairly easy play of colors, and required modest equipment. The technical difficulty can be attributed mostly to the need for the different kinds of glass to have similar coefficients of expansion, which would not have been a problem for Marietta, who could rely on the recipes inherited from her father.
The Rosetta soon became one of the most traded glass beads from Venice; it was considered of high prestige in various African regions, and was often attributed magical powers: in Ghana, for example, women, after childbirth, drank water from a tumbler where a Rosetta had been placed, as it was thought to help them regain their strength.
Murrine and Millefiori: a rediscovered art
It wasn't until the 1830s, however, that the seed planted by Marietta Barovier with her Rosetta actually developed and became what is now widely recognized as one of the symbols of Murano Glass: the Murrina.
Its origins can, in truth, be traced back as far as the year 1000 B.C., in the north-west of Iran, and in Roman times artists produced beautiful vases in mosaic glass by arranging different cross-sections of glass rods to create specific patterns.
This technique was then lost during Medieval times, and the Rosetta, with its use of glass rods made of layers of different colors, clearly reminds us of it, and is a definite precursor to the creations that evolved in the 19th century, at the hands of artists such as Domenico Bussolin, Giovanni Battista and Giacomo Franchini, and later Vincenzo Moretti and Giuseppe Barovier, who created tiny portraits of exquisite craftsmanship.
The crafting of Murano Glass Murrine today
The Murrine as we know them today are created by picking up a mass of molten glass with a metal rod, and then layering other colors over it, making sure that they don't intermix. Inserting the mass of glass into grooved moulds at different stages of this process will create concentric patterns, for instance resembling flowers, stars or hearts.
Next, the resulting glass chunk is rolled over a metal table, until it approximates a cylinder, and then attached by its other end to another metal rod, so that two artisans — called tiracanna — are able to pull away from each other, stretching and therefore thinning the cylinder until it reaches the required diameter, while still preserving the pattern.
The glass rod thus obtained will then be cut in short sections, that will all display the desired decor, called Murrine. These slices can be juxtaposed and fused together to create more complex handiworks, such as vases, bowls and pendants, that are often called Millefiori.
A new way to make Murano Glass beads: lampworking
If we take a step back, sometime between the 16th and the 17th century, another approach to the manufacturing of glass beads was developed.
It can be traced back to the production of the paternostri, which were supposedly made with a technique called a speo, that consisted in either gathering molten glass over a metallic stick from a crucible, or pouring it over the stick directly, which, in both cases, required a small furnace to melt the glass.
When the holed glass rods were invented, the paternostreri — the artisans who made these kind of beads — began to use them by inserting the stick in sections of the rods, which were then softened and smoothed by fire. This technique was simpler, but also created less refined glass beads.
The introduction of oil-powered lamps
Subsequently, however, some artisans started to use oil-powered lamps to melt the glass, which could then be poured over the stick in a similar fashion as before. The earliest records of this technique are from 1629, when it was imposed to the suppialume to join the Scuola dei paternostreri, since they, as well, used glass rods for their production. They were instead, at least in the beginning, clearly separated from the margariteri, who used holed, and not solid, glass rods. Finally, they became part of the Arte de perleri.
The name suppialume is owed to the fact that they not only produced beads, but also hand-blown objects — thus suppia, blown — and to their use of lamps — thus a lume, by light.
These lamps were in most cases powered by animal fat, and a bellow was used to add oxygen to the flame, thus reaching the necessary temperatures to melt the glass. The simplicity of the equipment necessary for this kind of process meant that it could easily be carried out in small workshops, and the perlera eventually became a largely feminine job, alongside that of the impiraressa.
The gas-powered torch: a not so welcome innovation
During the first half of the 19th century gas-powered torches started to become available, but at first they were not appreciated by the artisans, most likely because the difference in the flame forced them to change their techniques. However, when in 1849 Venice was under siege by Austrians, the lack of cattle from which to obtain the animal fat to power their torches compelled the perleri to adopt this new technology, which still remains in use today.
Glass lampworking: a technique that survived almost unaltered
To this day the lampworking technique has survived almost unaltered since the introduction of gas-powered torches, and many artisans can still be found crafting their beads in tiny workshops around Venice and Murano's calli, unlike the substantial furnaces that have remained a prerogative of the Island of Murano since the Decree of 1291.
The modern torch
Today's equipment is comprised of a large metallic burner, connected to methane or propane cylinders, with a compressor adding air to be able to reach about 800°C (~1470 F) temperature. Often lampworkers also use a slightly smaller burner, which is powered by pure oxygen supplied by another machine, the concentrator. This torch can reach 1100-1200°C (~2010-2190 F), making it easier to melt the glass and also emitting less heat, which facilitates the artisan's work.
The workstation of a lampworker
Every artist outfits their worktable to best fit their needs and their type of work: some only produce beads for example, and usually operate while sitting, whereas others create sculptures — sometimes of considerable dimensions — and they need to move around, so their torch is often mobile, and they may work while standing.
We mainly manufacture beads, so our workstation is a small table on the side of our shop, visible from the window and from the inside, where the two kind of burners are secured.
Elena Miani, Murano Glass beads lampworker, in our shop in Venice.
Over the larger one is placed the bronzìn, a tiny metal slab that is used to smooth or flatten the molten glass over it while working.
Another very important element is the glass panel placed between the burner and the artisan, that shields them both from unexpected shards — that could be caused by a sudden fracture in the glass object they're working on — and from the heat of the torch. In front of the table in our shop we also have another windowpane, to protect eventual observers standing inside, as well.
At some distance from the burner, on the other side, is also placed some kind of tiny furnace, made of a refractory material molded into a miniature cove. This creates a hot spot which aids glass melting, since the temperature reached by the torch is at the edge of its melting point.
Finally, an exhaust fan ensures a working environment devoid of fumes, while keeping the air circulation controlled, since strong draughts could cause quick changes in temperature, damaging the beads.
The raw material: glass canne
To make their beads with the lampworking technique, artists use special glass rods, called canne in Italian, which come in many colors, about one meter (~3 feet) in length, and often in different diameters. These canne are made by expert artisans in furnaces located in the Island of Murano, with a process that will sound familiar from our description of Murrine.
The glass is prepared in a special crucible, and the artisans pick up the molten mass — called bolo — by making it adhere to a metal rod.
They shape it by rolling it over a metal table, until it resembles a cylinder; a second artisan will then attach another rod to the other end of the molten glass, and they'll start to pull away from each other, stretching the glass and lowering the thinning glass rod to the ground. In the end, the glass canne will be between 50 to 70 meters (~165-230 feet) long, but will be cut in shorter sections, about one meter (~3 feet) in length each.
The canne thus created will be purchased by lampworkers, who will melt them again to create their artworks.
Shaping the glass beads
The first step to create a lampwork bead is to melt the tip of the canna in front of the burner's flame, while continuously spinning it to make sure it doesn't start dripping.
With the other hand the artisan takes a copper stick — which will ensure the presence of a hole in the bead — and starts pouring the glass over it, rotating the stick to create an even, rounded shape, of the desired dimensions.
This is the set up for any kind of bead, whatever its size and shape: lampworkers will then make use of a host of different instruments to achieve the required result.
The initial phases of the creation of a Murano Glass bead: the glass rod is melted over a copper stick.
An essential tool to any artisan is the borsella, a metal pliers (the part that comes in contact with the glass is usually brass, while the handle is generally iron) that can be found in different shapes and dimensions.
For example, a flat pliers can be useful to completely flatten a bead, or to twist it into a spiral, while a pointed one can be used to pinch it into creative shapes. Another useful instrument is a sort of scissors, or tagianti, that allows the artisan to create small cuts into the glass, while it's still incandescent. The stampìn, a sort of mold in different sizes, can instead be used to shape beads into a more precise spheric shape. Finally, many different pliers exists to achieve specific shapes, like spheres, squares and hearts of different sizes.
Different phases of the creation of a Murano Glass bead using the lampworking technique.
Murano Glass beads' decoration techniques
Besides its final shape, the type and color of glass and any additional materials that are used will determine the beauty of the bead that the artisan creates.
Every step is crucial, from the choice of the canna to the way the glass is molded around the copper stick, and the decorations are made, in many cases, before the bead is fully shaped.
What follow is by no means a thorough list of lampwork decorations, as all artists have their own distinctive and preferred techniques, as well as their own variations to them. Still, we want to outline the most used and widespread techniques, that you will surely encounter at some point in your exploration of Murano Glass beads, as well as our favorites.
Pastel glass beads
Pastel glass beads are the simplest kind you will encounter: made from opaque glass rods — that obviously exists in a multitude of colors — can be divided into two main categories. The lampwork beads that only make use of pastel glass are called schiette, while the ones that also covered by a layer of transparent glass are often referred to as incamiciate, or anima ricoperta.
Some pastel canne, because of the nature of their color, create streaks over the surface of the bead, that can give the illusion of a semi-precious stone in schiette beads. On the other hand, the choice of color of both the pastel and the transparent glass in incamiciate beads, can produce unexpected color blends: personally, we're fond of creating a white pastel core and covering it with a layer of colored transparent glass — it gives them a modern look, while retaining the color vibrancy typical of Murano glass.
Another option is to use different colors to draw intricate designs over the beads surfaces — both precise decorations or fortuitous strokes — and perhaps to combine this with other techniques, such as sommerso or Avventurina.
Our most striking examples of incamiciate pastel beads is our Collections Bòvolo, though they can also be found, mixed with other kinds, in the Schisse, Rèfolo and Làgreme Collections, the latter also showcasing an example of schiette beads in red.
Gold or Silver Sommerso beads
One of the most precious lampworking techniques is sommerso, which uses thin foils of gold & silver to enrich the beads and make them shine.
The foils — which are often called fogie, meaning leaves — are very thin and fragile, usually found as squares of about 8 cm (3.15 inches) wide, separated by paper tissues and collected into tiny booklets.
To create sommerse beads an initial glass core is made around the copper stick, then the leaf is placed over it — usually by rolling the bead on a foil cut out and spread on the work table, but well away from the flame — and, once it has adhered properly, another layer of glass can be poured over to cover it.
The name sommerso derives from the fact that the fogie are literally submerged by the glass, though to create some unique decorations it could be partially left uncovered: this is mainly done with gold leaf, as silver tends to oxidize.
As is always the case, the choice of color — and whether it's transparent or opaque — of the glass constituting both the core and the outer layer of the bead will change the result drastically: for example, the leaves can be placed as to let the core through, thus showing its hue, or two different colors of transparent glass could be used to cover the leaf, creating enchanting effects. How much the leaves are made to crack will also greatly affect the final bead.
In our Medàgie Collection the gold leaf is the undisputed protagonist, and it's a classic example of a lampwork sommerso bead, where the transparent glass determines its color. Similarly, the Cantóni Collection in gold is made entirely of squared sommerso beads, while in the Maravégia Collection in black you can see the drastically different effect a black opaque core will give to a bead. Lastly, gold and silver leaves can be found in most of our other Collections.
Avventurina is a fine and peculiar kind of glass, which was discovered in Murano at the beginning of the 1600s, and for centuries it remained a prerogative of few skilled artisans. It owes its name to the difficulty of its creation: ventura means chance, and the esteemed Murano glassmaker Giovanni Darduin described it by saying "la si dimanda Venturina, et con ragione, perché sortisse più per ventura che per scientia" — it's called Venturina, and with good reason, as it's created more by chance than by science. To him is also owed the first written recipe of this kind of glass (1644).
It's said that it was discovered during a failed glassmaking process, which had been interrupted: at the bottom of the crucible was left this peculiar vitreous mass, which, once it was broken to clean the vessel, created resplendent glass shards.
Avventurina is made of small copper crystals incorporated into the glass, which, during cooling, precipitate and scatter homogeneously, giving it a metallic luster. The procedure to obtain Avventurina is very slow and tricky, as the raw materials (such as iron filings, silicon metal and charcoal) need to be added at various times, closely following the melting process.
While cooling, the copper crystals completely separate from the glass, and its quality depends on their dimension and how homogeneous they are in the glass. The Avventurina is then extracted from the furnace when fully solid, and cut as hard stone.
It's also important to note that it takes some precaution to remelt it, as it may alter, which is why we have to wait until the 19th century to see it turned into canne and used in blown-glass.
It’s basic color is brownish-red, but more precious variants can be verdigris or blue.
Avventurina is generally used in lampworking by dipping the bead in it while it’s still incandescent, and then melting it under the flame, and eventually covering it with another layer of glass and giving it shape.
The result captures the fluidity of the molten glass as if it was suspended in time, and the Avventurina crystals were still floating slowly in the beads. Adding different colors, or gold or silver leaves — like in the Baète Collection — helps in creating truly unique and sparkling beads: our favorites are the ones featured in the Schèi and Giosse Collections, created by Elena Miani.
This particular lampworking technique makes use of glass scraps that would otherwise be wasted to create colorful spots - Màcie in Venetian - on the bead’s surface.
We take the tips of used glass rods, that are too short to work with anymore, the beads that have shattered while cooling down too quickly, and bits and fragments that pile up on the work table, and we further crush these into smaller shards, sometimes dividing them by color or size.
To create these beads, the usual glass core is rolled into a container full of scraps, while it's still incandescent; then it's placed again over the flame, to melt the fragments and bind them with the core. Finally, the bead can be shaped with the usual techniques, to obtain the final piece.
An alternative we really like also uses talc to give the bead a matte finish, and give more contrast to the glass shards.
The final result depends a lot on the dimension of the shards, but also on how the artist pulls on them to draw streaks over the beads’ surface, or leaves them be to create colorful dots. We use these lampwork beads on many of our one-of-a-kind jewels, that you can find exclusively in our workshop in Venice!
The Millefiori beads make use of the well-known Murrine — which we already described at length — and are an emblematic Murano Glass creation.
They are created by covering the glass core with Murrine, thin sections of glass rods that present intricate designs, which are then softened over the flame to melt them together and give the bead its final shape. The choice of Murrine, of course, will determine the look of the resulting beads.
The Millefiori is an historically important lampwork creation, which had a huge success as a trading bead on the African market from the second half of the 19th century — where they were usually preferred a bit unpolished — and which later became popular also in the West (from the 1900s), where it was required for it to be perfectly polished.
The lampwork bead that, perhaps even more than the Millefiori, represents the traditional venetian bead is the Fiorata.
It requires vette, very thin glass rods that are often created by the lampworkers themselves, by heating and further stretching segments of the classic canne, until they reach even just one millimeter in diameter (3/64 inches), and sometimes they can also be flattened. Additionally, by placing together different glass rods, it's possible to obtain multicolored vette.
These vette are used almost as if they were paintbrushes, drawing dots, petals, leaves and intricate decors on the beads surface, which often present a characteristic Avventurina ring along its center, sometimes further decorated with dots and lines.
Soffiate, or blown beads
For this kind of lampwork beads the glass, instead of being poured over a copper stick, is gathered on a pierced rod, which is used to blow the glass, creating a small bubble, similarly to how bigger objects are made in Murano's furnaces.
Cooling the beads with perlite
Once the decorations are complete and the bead’s shape is finalized, it has to cool down slowly, to avoid cracks and breaking caused by thermal shock.
That’s why they’re usually put in a container full of perlite: this is an expanded material, obtained from volcanic rock subjected to high temperatures to dilate it and evaporate the water it contains. The micro-cavities that are formed make it a light and highly insulating material, which allows for a steady cooling of the beads.
Once it's done, the longer portion of the copper stick is cut to be reused, and the lampwork beads are ready for the final step.
Obtaining a hole in the beads
As we saw before, the glass is melted and shaped over a copper stick. For centuries Murano glass beads were actually made using an iron needle covered in clay, so that the glass would not stick to the needle, and it was possible to extract it: some artisans still prefer this technique, as it allows to obtain the final bead straight away.
In 1935, however, the Ercole Moretti & F.lli substituted this iron needle with the copper stick we use today, which would then be dissolved in nitric acid: this innovation soon became widespread, because it left no clay residue behind, and allowed to create much smaller holes.
This procedure is carried out by specialized companies in Murano, since it's a delicate and regulated chemical process, and the lampwork beads thus obtained will be assembled, together with conterie and other small metal components, to create the beautiful glass jewelry that Venice and Murano are known for.
- Paolo Zecchin, La nascita delle conterie veneziane. Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 47 (2005), pp. 77-92
- Luigi Zecchin, Maria Barovier e le "rosette". Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 10 (1968), pp. 105-109
- Giovanni Sarpellon, Le perle veneziane: un tesoro da scoprire. Matematica e cultura (2010)
- Vincenzo Zanetti, Piccola guida di Murano e delle sue officine, 1869
- Nadia Maria Filippini, Un filo di perle da Venezia al mondo. La Ricerca Folklorica No. 34, La vita sociale delle perle. Produzione materiale, usi simbolici e ruoli sessuali: da Murano all'Africa e al Borneo (Oct., 1996), pp. 5-10