Venice Design Week Chapter 2: A Tale of a Thousand Year Old Secret Technique

Venice Design Week Chapter 2: A Tale of a Thousand Year Old Secret Technique

Venice Design Week Chapter 2

A Tale of a Thousand Year Old Secret Technique

New York Style Guide is writing a series of articles dedicated to Venice Design Week (VDW), one of the most interactive festivals in Italy. If you missed our first chapter where the festival is introduced, you can find it here: New York Style Guide meets Venice Design Week: Chapter 1

One of Italy’s sparkliest creative hubs, Venice is a symbol of the made in Italy in many senses. Today we will look past the city, at the islands, and specifically at one of the most known: the island of Murano. Well, picky picky: Murano is a series of islands connected with bridges, but let’s not split hairs, shall we?

Italian design hardly needs a presentation, and possibly Murano glass represents one of the most authoritative leaders of Italian craftsmanship in the world. This will be our topic for this chapter.

Following loosely the steps of the festival, with the ambition to give you the same sense of living the experience and living the content per theme, since an important part of this Design Week is the access to labs and workshops, we work to give you an opportunity to get the whole picture in this case of the Murano experience.

So grab your favorite drink, relax, and enjoy our journey to discover a fascinating art that is probably just as old as time.

Chapter two of Venice Design Week, then, will be all about the art of Murano glass: how much do you know about it?

Those allowed to take part to the local activities, limits due to Covid19 restrictions, had the opportunity to visit the beautiful island of Murano, the glass workshops, and be guided through the discovery of this Venetian excellence. 

We from New York Style Guide would like to open Murano’s doors to you and give you at least some of the knowledge and fulfilling that visitors were given, until you can have your own opportunity to tour the workshops and the island, possibly for next Venice Design Week, in fall 2021.

In case you are not familiar with this ancient art, and the history of Murano, this is your chance to enjoy your journey through one of the most celebrated Venetian arts. So with no further ado, let’s jump into history and learn how legends are born.

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The charming island of Murano, seen from the Cannaregio district in Venice, surrounded by the typical Venetian mist. Picture by Flora MC

How Murano became Murano.

Indeed, the art of glassblowing was originally an asset of the city of Venice, and it was not exactly born in Murano. When way back in time it was decided to moved it to Murano, the Venetian glass practice was already settled in the city since a long while. And to be completely honest, the simple glassblowing technique, was learnt from the Middle East, and countries like Syria that excelled in the art. But later on, eventually, Murano glass blowers developed their own secrets and their own expertise: typical case of student that surpasses the teacher. Anyhow, glassblowing: learnt from the Middle East, developed in Venice and moved to Murano.

At least until the 10th century, the island of Murano was known for being an important commercial center and a rich harbour, living on salt pans, water mills and fishing, not glassblowing.

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Glassblowing is a technique: molten glass is inflated into a bubble using a blow pipe. Often requiring team work, here are glassblowers showing to the visitors at VDW how glass is blown and cut, in the workshop of Master Designer Davide Fuin. Picture by Alice Men

So glassblowing was not exactly born in Murano, rather settled there when reaching its first peak. Fact is, glass workshops moved to the little island of Murano year 1291 (!). Can you just guess since how long this mastership exists in the Venetian area? Well, if you cannot, here’s a hint: the first known written documents mentioning a Venetian master artisan are dated 982 a.D.

But why did the production move to the island of Murano? Well, it seems that the ovens used to melt and mold glass were the cause of numerous fires in the city that were increasingly dangerous for the very narrow calli (calle is the name of a street in Venice), and it became necessary to move all workshops in a safer location, the island being considered the most optimal destination.

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This is how the ovens look like today, and what visitors could see once again in the workshop of Master Designer Davide Fuin that they were welcome to explore during Venice Design Week. Photo: Alice Men

Venice back then was known for being jealous of its excellence, and one of the reasons why they moved their workshop there, on a little island, was to have a good control of their own production. So much, that it was forbidden to all master artisans to abandon the island. 

It might sound like imprisoning them, but the fact is that Venice has always been a very dynamic harbour, with commerce and people moving and coming from different lands, and this decision to keep the glassblowers within the island, had to do with the will to protect a skill and keep it Venetian. They did not want any of it to be stolen or sold. Some master artisans, though, managed to run away, although, this did not damage the fame of Murano.

Before we continue, you have to remember that Europe we are talking about, was not Europe as we know it today. Italy itself did not exist, the country as you see it under one same flag, is a relatively new thing. It was united in 1860, and at the very beginning, the capital wasn’t even Rome. 

Up to the unification of the country (under the Piemontese monarchy, in case you didn’t know), Italy was from time to time fragmented into small states, dukedoms, city-states, republics, part of different empires and so forth. Here we say, if you want to get the worst headache in your life, study our history: it will challenge you for real. That said, it is also extremely fascinating, and addictive. But Italy was not the only country that has seen borders and status changes all through the centuries, so keep on mind when you read “Europe”, all through 1000 years, it was not the same Europe you see today. Especially the part we know as Italy.

Let’s go back to how Murano became Murano, shall we?

From 1200 to 1400 the Murano glass was a most celebrated glass art in the old continent, but in the XVth century, the master artisans had to deal with a new big competitor: the Bohemian crystal artisans. 

Though, Venice won the competition by producing glass chandeliers, and expanding to home decor did not just win the competition back then. Today, Murano’s chandeliers are still among its most celebrated and appreciated pieces. If the real value of a product depends on how much buyers are willing to pay for it, I’d say that Murano chandeliers are astonishingly valuable items.

Murano chandeliers are since their beginning on top of Italian must haves among all pieces of luxury interior design worldwide, yet unbeaten for their longevity, beauty and elegance.

To simplify what’s impossible to simplify, Venice was the center and heart of a republic that lasted 1100 years and was one of the most important commercial harbors in Europe. At its highest extension, the Republic of Venice included territories all the way to Albania, Cyprus, the Peloponnesus peninsula and part of the Eastern Mediterranean area. The city of Murano has always been part of the maritime Venice, and had a certain autonomy until 1171, when it was added to the Venetian Santa Croce district. 

From 1275 it had its own governor, called Podestà; it also had the privilege of being able to write its laws, guaranteed by a Major Council formed by a fair number of Murano nobles (about 500) and presided over by the Podestà. Murano had even its own currency, the Osella.

In the 1600, the art of Murano was so unique that with a new census, it was decided to start a Golden Book for the glassblowers: the process to be registered in the Golden Book was long and could happen only through the approval of the Venetian Republic. If the glass master artisan was not approved, he (glass artisans are accidentally mostly men even today) was not allowed to work on the island, could not participate to the local Council and could not get any of the privileges granted to Murano citizens.

In case you wondered how legends are born, Murano glass art is quite a compelling representation of the iceberg example: you only see the small top of it, but the biggest part is the one that lays beneath.

From the 1600 and up to today, Murano glass artisans mix tradition with modernity and manage to stay on top of production by interpreting every trend and being timelessly elegant. What comes from the island of Murano is a compendium of tradition and contemporary styles, updated with the best use of blown techniques. If it is a Murano glass, you know it at one glance.

How do I -really- recognise a Murano glass?

Murano glasses are among the most copied made in Italy products, and a living evidence that imitations are not always the best form of flattering: most of the time, counterfeit items just disqualify the value of the real products, damaging the artists, and if this all was not bad enough, it fools you into putting money in things that are not worth the price. 

So if you want to know how to spot a real Murano glass, there are ways. Let’s make a quick list of checkpoints:

  • Murano glass has a unique transparency and brilliance. It is therefore never opaque and has absolutely no milky filaments. Items are made with a specific technique, that is the ancient Murano’s: this technique uses three elements. There’s sand. There’s sodium, used to give elasticity to the glass and make it workable, and finally there’s arsenic in doses that are not toxic, used to remove the bubbles that appear during part of the creative process. As you can understand, because of the use of arsenic, counterfeits Murano glass can potentially be dangerous too: would you drink from a glass where potentially there was an unsupervised use of arsenic?
  • Each original item is branded. If it is too small, like a ring, it has a non-generic certificate of origin, with the name and address of the workshop where it was created;
  •  There can be an anti-fraud seal: the original seal is made entirely of glass and has no metal, silver, wood or other material inserts. The classic trademark “Vetro Artistico® Murano” is affixed to the product, printed in gold leaf. The sticker is irremovable and not reusable
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Macro on a golden label certifying the origins from F&M Ballarin workshop in Murano. Private collection.
  • The manufacturer’s code is also indicated. The latter, established with law 70/94 by the Veneto Region, is an official guarantee of the originality of the object. It certifies its manufacture on the island of Murano. 
  • Also, beware the hand-painted objects. In the Murano pieces, colour is obtained  by melting coloured glass inside the piece.
  • Particularly on chandeliers, but not only, search for a label with the symbol of the “borsella”, a tool for forging glass: that can be red or blue.
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Macro on the label with the “Borsella” in red. (Private collection)
  • Glass master artisans more often than not, sign their work. 

The Amy West Studio

Murano is the place where this unique technique of glassblowing has been flourishing since more than a thousand years. What do they create? Well, together with chandeliers, glass, mirrors, flutes, bottles, vessels, and the typical art works, you can also buy jewellery made in Murano with Murano glasses.

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Picture by Alice Men
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Picture by Alice Men

VDW’s visitors had the opportunity to watch designer Amy West create in her studio/workshop. We have mentioned that historically there has been some jealousy about this ancient technique, but lately, it is not only people born in Murano that work as glassblowers and artist in the island. As a matter of fact, we have also said that there are not so many women, therefore we like highlighting the visit to Amy West’s studio.

Amy is an American designer, formerly a communication professional, who abandoned a corporate life in the US to pursue the passion for Murano’s glass work. Some of the pictures you have seen, are taken in her studio. She specialised in engraving and carving.

*(video courtesy of VDW communication, Chiara & Ceren)

I would invite you to have a tour around her very complete website at Amy West Design to see her works on jewellery, vessels and engravings.

Amy uses also a famous Murano decorative style called Murrina, murrine. Briefly, this word defines colored patterns that are created inside glass canes and that are revealed only when the cane is cut.

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Picture courtesy of VDW communication, Chiara & Ceren

They can be from very easy to very complex, the most common being flowers or stars and are normally blended into glass works in many different ways. Here below you can see some of Amy’s cut canes.

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Picture by Alice Men

They can also be displayed as sheets of patterned molten glass

Example of picking up murrine onto a blowpipe while blowing glass
Davidpatchen, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

These sheets can be rolled and then with further heating they can be blown and sealed into whichever shape the glassblower decides.

One of the most acclaimed masters of Murrina, is Italian Maestro Lino Tagliapietra. A spoiler here: we will talk about Murano glass in other chapters dedicated to Venice, and move some in some new different directions, so just remember the name of The Maestro, put a note and by all means, go exploring his unbeaten art.

One last curiosity: Venetian glass vs Northern European techniques

While not really directly competing, you’d probably know that in Europe there is another glass technique that has its followers: the Scandinavian technique. In a very over-simplified way, do you know how these techniques differ?

It is in how the aesthetic ability is defined.

For Venetians it is based on the idea that glass is an extremely malleable material and therefore suitable for being blown and formed in an incandescent state, capable of maintaining its chromatic characteristics through the creative process. It is soft, and treatable.

The Nordic tradition looks at the aesthetic ability of glass as the equivalent of a hard stone, and therefore the skill lies in enhancing the hard material through cutting.

Basically, two different visions of the beauty of glass and the beauty in the creative phase: beauty created by enhancing its soft and malleable properties for Venetians, beauty created by forging its hard and cuttable properties for Scandinavians. If it ever happened to you to hold let’s say a Swedish glass sculpture, they are very bulky and heavy, while Venetian works are lighter.

There is no better or worse in these, just different techniques, that’s why there is no real competition between the two. But if you ever wondered where the different lays, it’s in how the beauty of the material is perceived and enhanced. You can also find glassblowing in Northern Europe, and in other parts of Italy, you will find other glass techniques too.

With this little extra, the second chapter of VDW gets to its end. How much of this did you already know?

Our journey through the island of Murano and its beautiful, timeless glass art will take a break here: while being well aware we can’t do anything to completely reproduce the outstanding experience of being there, and apologising for just being intermediaries, for sure not as good experts and storytellers as the guides that Venice Design Week offers its visitors, we hope you enjoyed this second chapter in Venice, and in Murano.

Chapter three? It’s on its way, sooner than you would expect.

Hold on as we haven’t seen: circular economy, green tech, tales crossing concept stores, galleries and so much more. Are you all trying to guess what will come next? We are for sure hoping to keep on entertaining you and welcoming you to one of the most unique cities in the world and its own interactive Design Week.

(cover image courtesy of Venice Design Week Communication)

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