Besides the Venice Carnival, renowned in part for the superb masks, there are many other specialties representing art in Italy, such as Murano glass. Murano Glass, materialized by the cups, vases, mirrors, crockery of which all European nobles were fond, were used in the transactions of countries at the time of the Serenissima. Traditional glassblowing began in Venice as early as the 13th century and became an important industry, which survives today thanks to the transmission of its techniques from father to son.
The story of the Master Glassmakers of Murano
The Egyptians introduced sodium carbonate, which mixed with sand and after fusion, gives a kind of glass paste, transported to the Mediterranean, then to Rome, Venice and Murano. The small island of Murano, about one square kilometer, located northeast of Venice, remains famous for its fine glass factories.
From the 8th century, there were glassmakers on this island. For the most part they were installed in Venice, but faced with the many fires which led to catastrophes because the ovens were constantly lit and the houses were made of wood, the city authorities decided in 1201 to move the glassmakers to the island of Murano. The workshops installed on the small island, each master glassmaker jealously guarding the manufacturing secret and only passing it on to his son, the inhabitants become politically independent, a Grand Council is created, a mayor is appointed, the right to create a currency is assigned to them. Independent therefore, the master glassmakers also hold a title of nobility and benefit from the privileges attached to it, being able to claim the highest offices of the Republic.
Venice and its senate, not content with moving the workshops, establishes strict regulations: obtaining a license for master glassmakers, a defined number of workers to be employed by category, strict timetable for the operation of the furnaces, compulsory annual leave of five months between August and January!
The productions of Murano were very appreciated in Europe, so much so that the sovereigns made a detour to visit, admire and order their dishes. Of course, the European countries wanting to seize the know-how and manufacturing processes, the Republic of Venice then decreed in 1275 the cessation of exports of raw glass and its materials.
The greatest glass creators were the “Ballarin”. The first, the ancestor was Giorgio di Pietro, called Zorzi the Spalatino born in 1440. In 1456 he entered the service of Domenico Caner, a glassmaker of Dalmatian origin, living in Murano and doing wonders. The story goes that a worker one day dropped a blowtorch on his foot, his gait becoming slightly lame, and he was given the nickname "il ballarino" (the dancer). From 1479, all official documents mention a new family, the “Ballarin de Murano”. In 1492 he produced transparent ruby colored glass and became one of the richest producers on the island. He succeeded in buying properties, palaces, had a chapel built and died in 1506. Having become famous, in the midst of the Italian renaissance, he will remain in the memory of Murano… ..
Other glassmakers like Francesco Ballarin (1480-1555), Domenico Ballarin (1490-1570), Pietro Ballarin (1532-1599), are now considered to be true artists. Their notoriety spread beyond the Republic of Venice, in Italian courts, beyond the Alps where their crystal cups adorned the tables of Francis I and that of Henry II. The Sultan of Constantinople was not to be outdone, he also commissioned a considerable number of sumptuous pieces of glass. These vases, cups, stained-glass windows were found in the Imperial Court of Austria, in the Italian Duchies, in the palaces of Venice; glass beads were also used for transactions in the city of the doges.
The heyday of Murano glass
Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, artists succeeded in coloring crystals, the production and fame of Murano glasses were then at their peak, becoming a refined art that offered, in addition to the objects mentioned above, dishes, goblets, glasses, girandoles, mirrors, chandeliers and jewelry…. Everything went for the best until the Sun King, artist at heart, loving beauties of all kinds, wanted to bring glassmakers to France, Colbert had the techniques spied on to bring them back to his Manufacture Royale des mirrors de Saint-Gobain, and… the Republic of Venice ends up killing the deserting glassmakers who refused to return home!
But as the activity of Murano glasses diminished, it was not until the 19th century that the attraction returned and after World War II, Murano's creations "woke up".
Yet of the three hundred factories at the start, there are unfortunately only fifteen left; from thirty-five thousand inhabitants in the 15th century, they have grown to five thousand today. From three hundred different colors in the good weather of Murano glass, only about sixty are used today. All these colors, all these objects, the evolution of techniques and styles can be appreciated and discovered at the Glass Museum of Palazzo Giustiniani which exhibits a rare collection of four thousand pieces created since the beginning of the history of glassmakers.
Today, fortunately these glassmakers are still present, but with the evolving market, objects are created in greater quantities, admittedly of high quality but with a more contemporary style. The other side of the coin, as tourists become more numerous and spend less, producers are making “cheap”….
A popular island
The island of Murano is not only famous for its glassware, but also for its gardens. As we saw above, foreign princes came to admire the production. They could also walk in the gardens and found themselves among artists, poets like Pierre l'Aretin and painters, who took advantage of the various perfumes and scents like jasmine and orange tree, as well as the sweetness of life in these places of pleasure.
There were many palaces there until the 18th century, the small pleasure houses "the casinos" were transformed into places of games of chance, hence the term "casino". Casanova was recognized there ... unfortunately these splendid residences were destroyed during the Italian campaign by Napoleon Bonaparte!
In Murano you can visit the Vetrario Museum (a glassware museum), the Palazzo Giustiniani (with a fine collection of historic glassware) and the Church of Santa Maria e Donata (founded in the 7th century and with remarkable Byzantine mosaics).
- Glass Museum in Murano
- Murano Glass: From the Renaissance to the 21st century. Gallimard, 2013.
- "The art of Murano glass" - Attilia Dorigato 2003.