Murano's sheen

Some Italians have perfected a special glass-making art form whose process is tough and result is super-delicate

Glass artefacts in Murano. Photo by author

There is something about glass that’s alluring. The many shapes that it can be moulded into, that it can be coloured, that you can see through some, the fact that they are so hard to touch, yet so delicate, or the astounding reality that it’s just sand melted at high temperatures. I don’t know what it is, but glass does have a charm that no other material has. My love for glass just shot up a notch (maybe a couple of notches) when I visited the Venetian Island of Murano.

Murano is a series of islands in the Venetian lagoon in northern Italy that measures hardly 1.5 km across. It is believed that glassmaking in Murano originated in 8th-century Rome, with significant Asian and Muslim influences, as Venice was a major trading port. Blending Roman experience with skills learned from the Byzantine Empire and trade with the Orient, Venice emerged as a prominent glass-manufacturing centre.

Archaeologists unearthed in 1960 one of the earliest furnaces for glass on a Venetian island, dating from the 8th century. By the 15th and 16th centuries, Venetian glass was most popular and most valued because of their expertise in producing clear glass known as cristallo or the white glass mimicking porcelain called lattimo. The practice of enamelling glass, which had originally spread from the Middle East, and Venetian mirrors were popular.

The magnificent appearance and colouring of Murano glass are achieved by adding gold or silver leaf to the glass mixture. The various colours are achieved by adding minerals such as zinc for white, cobalt for blue, manganese for violet, and so on.

Getting there

After a 10-minute boat taxi ride from Venice, I reached the island of Murano. The island opened up to a number of stores that sold glass moulded in forms that you cannot even fathom. There were glass ornaments, chandeliers, animal families, wine stoppers, beads, watches, candy, bowls — all made in glass in colours that were simply breathtaking.

The stores were lit up with bright yellow lights and there were glass objects displayed everywhere, all glistening in the light, alluring the visitor to get their hands on them.

I stepped into a store, and as I stared in awe at the wonderful pieces of glass artefacts displayed in brightly lit cabinets inside the cosy little store, my eyes caught sight of a bright multi-coloured glass clock, which I thought would accentuate the charm of my living room. As I turned the piece over to check the price, the shopkeeper came by and said, “Madame, you’ll know why it’s expensive when you see how it’s made. Each piece displayed here is a work of art.”

He ushered me into the furnace room whose temperature was at least 5-10 degrees higher than outside with two fired- up glass-melting furnaces. They queued up the spectators in two rows and made us stand at least 15 feet away from the glass blowers. A young man stood by the side to explain what went on in the furnace room. He explained that would take 10-15 years to perfect the technique of glassmaking. He said, “You either learn it and perfect it or you stop making glass artefacts if you’re not good enough.” Clearly, it is a make-or- break situation when it comes to making glass artefacts, I thought.

Glass blower Allesandro Massimo was waiting for the glass to melt to a temperature that would let him mould it into the shape he had in mind. Our guide joked: “Don’t try and melt glass at home in a microwave and expect the same results. Our furnace is 1000-1500 degrees hot.”

Massimo put on his safety glove and took a blob of melted silica that was bright orange like the sun at the end of an iron rod and started working on it. He held the iron rod with his left hand and used a pincher and pinched it at various places with his right hand. The melted glass needed to be worked on fast, or the malleability would be lost and he would have to melt it again, start from scratch. With just a few swift yet confident pinches here and there by the master, voila! He blew our mind by creating a glass horse! It was like watching a magic show, only there were no tricks or shortcuts here. Within seconds, the blob of melted glass had been turned into a horse! Amused and awestruck, the spectators clapped for him.

He placed the horse on a table near us and warned us not to touch it yet. As, if we did, we would remember Murano for the rest of our lives. He explained that there was an oven to cool it down slowly as a quick change in temperature would crack the glass. The cooling furnace is called a ‘tempera’, and the object is cooled by a process called annealing, which ensures that the glass doesn’t break due to internal tensions or due to extreme variation in temperature.

Delicate number

Millefiori, also known as Murrine, is one of the best-known and sought-after techniques of Murano glassmaking. It stands for ‘a thousand flowers’ in Italian. The flower patterns are made by arranging and fusing a number of colourful cylindrical glass rods that make them look like little flowers. This painstaking and intricate technique results in a multitude of colourful flowers, which are fused again to make jewellery, cufflinks, vases, lamps, bowls etc. When I look at the things that have been made from millefiori, it’ s hard to imagine that Venetian glass masters have invented a technique to make something so beautiful from glass.

Being on the island where glass is revered and celebrated each day was exactly like seeing ‘life through rose-coloured glasses’, only clearly. There were a lot more colours to look through. I greedily hurried back into the store to take home a piece of Murano that could stay with me forever, or at least until I managed to be careful with it. After all, nothing lasts forever, and you cannot put a price on this art.

 

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