A Visit to the Glass Island
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN ITALY
A MASTER craftsman inserts his blowpipe into the glory hole, a small opening in the side of a roaring furnace. The sphere of molten glass he extracts glows like the setting sun. A gossamer thread flashes orange between furnace and rod and is gone. The master craftsman rolls this molten glass, called a gather, on a metal table, and the sphere becomes a cylinder. With one short breath into the hollow rod, he makes the gob swell, then rolls it again, raises it, examines it, and thrusts it back into the fire.
We are on Murano, a small island in the Lagoon of Venice, Italy. The island is famous for its glassware. In fact, glass has been blown in this region for well over 1,000 years. The remains of a glass factory on Torcello, a neighboring lagoon island, date to the seventh century C.E. Yet, the first evidence from Venice proper is offered by a deed dated 982 C.E., for which one “Domenic the glassmaker” acted as a witness.
By 1224, Venetian glassmakers had a craft guild. In 1291 the Great Council of Venice ordered the removal of glass furnaces from the city, perhaps for reasons of safety. Many were moved here, less than a mile over the lagoon, to Murano, where they have remained.
Since glass has been made from antiquity in many parts of the world, what makes Murano glass, or Venetian glass, so special? It is thought that local craftsmen succeeded in refining their art to a high degree because of Venice’s frequent contact with other regions that had long-standing glassblowing traditions, such as Egypt, Phoenicia, Syria, and Byzantine Corinth. Indeed, methods and products of the oldest-known Venetian factories seem to owe much to their Oriental counterparts. Techniques used in Murano elevated the expertise of the island to a level perhaps never reached by other European centers.
In Europe of the 13th and 14th centuries, Venice was “the only glassmaking centre capable of providing ‘works of art’ in blown glass,” says the book Glass in Murano. Venetian products were exported far and wide—to the eastern Mediterranean and to Northern Europe. In 1399, King Richard II of England allowed two Venetian galleys moored in the port of London to sell glassware. In the same period, Venetian glass figured among the possessions of French nobles. In time, Murano became renowned for, among other things, mirrors, chandeliers, colored wares, gold and enamel decorations, crystal, imitation gemstones, elaborately stemmed chalices, and objects with fine patterns.
Venice, jealous of her trade secrets, strove to prevent the rise of quality competition. As early as the 13th century, glassworkers were forbidden to move away. Protective measures increased in severity, and only full citizens were permitted to work as glassmakers or apprentices. At one time, glassworkers who fled the region and were caught were subject to heavy fines and five years at the oars of a galley with their feet in irons.
Even so, glassworkers emigrated illegally to locations throughout Italy and Europe and began to compete with Murano, producing the same wares and using the same methods. In many cases it is all but impossible to distinguish their products—which came to be known as à la façon de Venise, or Venetian style—from those made in Murano.
Venetian artistry reached its zenith in the 15th and 16th centuries. Murano, with the creative forms of its fine blown crystal, its painted enamels, its opaque lattimo (milk glass), and its reticello (lacework glass)—to name just some specialties—dominated the market and supplied the tables of kings.
Back then, says one glass-art historian, “the curious traveler who arrived at the lagoon during the period in which the furnaces were active would not miss visiting them.” We do not want to miss visiting them either. So this morning we are taking a vaporetto, a canal bus, from the Grand Canal to Murano. Come along with us.
Furnaces and Showrooms
As soon as we get off the vaporetto at the first stop on Murano, people direct us to the nearest glass factories, where we can see free demonstrations of the glassmakers’ art. We watch as one craftsman blows and swings a ball of molten glass into an elongated bubble at the end of his rod. Then with practiced movements of pincers and scissors, he pulls, cuts, and pinches the shapeless mass into the head, legs, and tail of a prancing stallion.
On leaving the first factory, we stroll along the quiet Rio dei vetrai, the glassmakers canal, where, as in most of Venice, the only traffic is on the sidewalks and on the water. Here we realize that Murano hosts scores of workshops and showrooms. Some display elegant, quality pieces—tea sets, lampstands, and imposing, solid sculptures—no doubt demanding considerable skill and attention to produce. Others offer more affordable wares, from beads to vases and multicolored paperweights. Many are very beautiful. All are handmade.
Observing how various pieces are produced fascinates us. Murano glass—70 percent sand and 30 percent soda ash, limestone, nitrate, and arsenic—is liquid at 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit [1,400°C] and rigid at about 900 degrees Fahrenheit [500°C]. At the right temperature between these two, the glass is soft and ductile. Hence, to blow or shape a piece requires that it be repeatedly returned to the fire to renew its flexibility. Craftsmen sit at benches between horizontal arms, on which they rest and roll their blowpipes. As they turn them with one hand, the other hand holds a tool or a water-soaked pearwood form, particularly resistant to heat, to shape the gather.
We watch as one craftsman blows a bubble into a ribbed mold, has one end of the bubble cut off by an assistant, and then twirls his blowpipe about its axis to get the bubble to open, like a flower bud opening. Further heating and shaping along with the addition of a pinched rim turn the piece into a lily-shaped lamp for a chandelier.
To add color to a clear-glass gather, the craftsman sprinkles it with fusible colored powders. Flowery effects are obtained using the murrine technique—the adding of coin-shaped slices of prepared glass canes that have colored patterns running through them. A cylindrical gather can be rolled in such a way as to cover its outer surface with glass canes or sections of canes laid parallel on a metal plate. When returned to the furnace, these applications—multicolored, lacy, or spiraled—fuse and are incorporated into the mass, which then can be blown into a vase, a lamp, or whatever other form is desired. Heavy-walled pieces with various layers of colored or clear glass are made by dipping the object into different melting pots.
Yes, every piece seems to have a story and a special technique behind it. Thanks to their centuries-old traditions, the glassmakers of Venice’s historic island can use fire to transform sand into splendid, glittering creations.
[Picture on page 16]
The Rio dei vetrai, Murano, Italy
[Picture on page 17]
The 15th-century “Barovier cup”
[Picture on page 17]
A 16th-century diamond-point engraved chalice
[Pictures on page 18]
1. The glory hole
2. A craftsman shapes a lump of glass
3. The glass is reheated to renew its flexibility
4. Using pincers and scissors, the craftsman adds feet to a prancing stallion
5. The finished piece
Photos courtesy http://philip.greenspun.com