Murano: a centuries-old technical tradition
What defines Murano glass is, above all, the centuries-old technical tradition, used to this day in the local processing of beads, glass statuettes, chandeliers and in contemporary art.
Unlike other countries - in which glassworks were constructed close to the raw material's production sites and where fuel was easy to come by - Venice and Murano have always imported all materials such as silica and soda, including wood fuel: what has always defined venetian quality, instead, is human experience, which, over time, made it possible to improve styles, quality and the artisans' ability to shape red-hot molten glass.
The decree of 1291
The island of Murano's fame was definitively set forth by the decree of the Republic of Venice of 1291, which 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. Here glassblowing reached its peak, and the ability of Murano's artists grew to the point of earning them the title of Masters. In Murano was also set up a School of Glass, to encourage young people to learn the craft.
Lampworking: a venetian prerogative
Lampworking, on the other hand - requiring the use of a small burner, instead of big furnaces like the ones used for glassblowing - could be carried on in small rooms without particular risk, therefore it remained in Venice, primarily in Sestiere of Cannaregio, where it was still common practice for centuries, reaching its maximal development in the 19th century. Using torches powered by animal fat, with the help of a bellows to add oxygen to the flame, it was possible to reach the necessary temperature to melt the glass and process it to obtain beads: the word "a Lume" comes from this archaic solution. This became a typical feminine job, and women who worked in this sector were called "Perlere". Nowadays we use a specific torch which burns gas and oxygen and can reach up to 900°-1200° C (1652-2192 F) temperature.
Glass processing has a history dating back to more than four thousand years ago
The first production centers of the ancient world must have been in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Syria.
4th-1st century B.C.
In Hellenistic times glass had by now spread throughout the Mediterranean, but it was during Roman times that it was given new impetus and it further expanded.
1st century B.C.
The glassblowing technique was invented in Palestine, and replaced pouring hot glass in a mold.
The most ancient Murano's artifacts ever found date back to the Middle Ages. Venetians began to practice glass art from their connections with the Middle East, Syria in particular, from which they draw inspiration and inherited the use of sodium glass. This composition best suits hot work, and venetian aesthetic was based on the possibility of shaping the glass while it's still incandescent, as opposed to the tradition of the Nordic countries, for example, which enhanced the items by cutting the glass.
In northern Europe there was a shift in productive technique, and soda was replaced by potash, easier to obtain from wood ash. From this moment on nordic glass substantially differ from that originating in Mediterranean countries, where the use of soda was maintained.
A decree of the Serenissima Republic of Venice ordered to move glassworks to the island of Murano, because of the high risk of fire, contributing to the rising fame of Murano as an important center for glass manufacturing.
The origin of beads
The first beads produced in Venice date back to this century, and for hundres of years beads constituted traded and exported commodity to Africa, the Americas and India. The conterie (tiny glass beads) are documented in Murano starting from this period: monochrome, very small, they are manufactured from thin pierced glass sticks, and they are suitable for embroidery and a variety of compositions.
The rise of Venice
Venice takes an undisputed leading role in glass art, aided by the decline of Islamic production.
The invention of crystal glass by Murano born Angelo Barovier (1405-1460) contributed to venetian supremacy: thanks to the same silicon base, but a higher percentage of lead oxide, glass became for the first time transparent, similar to crystal, and the products created were so refined as to meet the demands of extremely wealthy clients.
end of the 15th century
At the end of the century a woman, Maria Barovier (daughter of Angelo), created what has become the symbol of trade beads, as well as the most known and imitated in the world: the Rosetta, otherwise known as Chevreon bead. These beads come from pierced glass stick made up, like murrine, of several polychrome layers - seven in this case - the overlapping of which results in a star-shaped bead, which is then cut in pieces and bevelled. Maria Barovier gives rise to a sort of revolution in the way glass beads are manufactured; since then, glass beadmaking in Venice became a female craft, combining working spaces with those of domestic life, given that, in most cases, beads were produced in women's homes.
Lampwork beads date back to this century: they were processed by the flame of a lamp powered by animal fat, and a bellows allowed to add oxygen to the flame to reach the temperatures necessary to melt the glass. An unpierced glass stick was poured over a metallic wire constantly rotated, allowing infinite variations in additions, decorations and colors. These venetian beads, too, were used as "trade beads". The provision that forbid glassworks in Venice was never imposed on beadmakers, because the amount of fire required did not constitute a risk for the fragile city, thus for centuries lampworkers were located in Venice.
During Murano's crisis in the 19th century, bead production was the only one to still thrive and expand, keeping up trading activities until the early 1900s. Lampworking reached its technical and aesthetic pinnacle during this period, and bead manufacturing absorbed most of this activity's workforce.
After the Great War
At the end of the First World War, trade beads, replaced by money, lost its original function and became more and more sophisticated with the use of gold and silver leaves. Fiorato, Sommerso, Mosaico are a few of the names of these small glass masterpieces, in fashion since the beginning of the 20th century, and known all over the world.