The other day my friend Venice-Addicted Stephen Killick (see his post on his love for Venice), seeing my exploit at trying to make a Venetian Glass bead in Murano with Alessia Fuga, admitted he had never visited Murano, being put off by the hustlers in San Marco, who try to get you on one of their boats to then dash you off into a glass working furnace, kind of forcing you to acquire some very expensive glass work, so they can get a very hefty commission.
This made me wonder how many other people feel that way?
So here is my suggestion on how to spend a Perfect day in Murano, discovering all about Venetian glass and the lovely island, but without the pressure of having to buy some expensive art object, unless you really want to!
Read on if you want to learn about the history of Glass in Murano, which places are worth visiting, how to experience first hand a Venetian Glass Bead lesson and where to eat!
Grab yourself a coffee and biscuit and dip in!
The history of Murano Glass
The island of Murano is world famous for its millennial glass making industry: a magnificent art, truly wonderful to see and own at home.
The origins of Murano glass seem to be very ancient: some archaeological excavations date the first findings to the seventh century BC.
However, the true art of glassmaking, as we know it now, developed much later.
The first written document, which mentions a donation of glass artefacts, dates back to 982. The official start of the history of this particular economic activity, very important for the development of Venice, starts with this document.
And in Murano, in fact, we have the furnaces which developed, slowly, from around the 12th century, conforming to a real manufacturing activity.
Venice was always a crossroads of culture and trades, between the West and the East; among the trading goods that came from the East, glass was particularly valuable.
It is believed that its production was inherited from that of the Roman centres of the Upper Adriatic, concentrating in the lagoon, trying to find shelter from the invasions of the barbarian populations.
The activity of the kilns was concentrated in Murano towards the end of the 13th century, when the Serenissima decided that they had to abandon the soil of Venice, not only to limit the danger of fires – the buildings were mainly made of wood – but also to better control a basic business in the area’s economy and to prevent producers from spreading their secrets abroad: the Murano glassmakers were forbidden to leave the Republic, but they enjoyed privileges such as immunity from legal proceedings or the possibility of marrying their daughters to the offspring of wealthy families.
At the beginning the glass furnaces were all concentrated along the Rio dei Vetrai, where even today you can visit some of the oldest glass workshops.
The processing techniques, many of which are still used today, developed in the second half of the 13th century.
Venice was privileged, compared to other European locations that dedicated themselves to this form of craftsmanship, as it boasted close commercial relations with the Near East and so the Venetians had the opportunity to learn the ancient techniques combining them later with their own knowledge.
In the following two centuries the techniques underwent a rapid evolution, obtaining a particular blown glass of incredible purity.
The Murano glass masters developed an exceptional use of colours with glass, making it unique for centuries.
In the middle Ages and the Renaissance, the highest social classes in Europe wanted glass.
Of particular importance was the invention of transparent glass: it was discovered that using special substances such as arsenic, it was possible to obtain a product with unusual characteristics, immediately sought by the nobility of all Europe.
The glass objects began to be created also as works of art for their own sake, devoid of any particular utility, and over time a number of different processes were perfected, from the “aventurine”, which incorporates golden specks, to the “lattimo”, opaque and white as milk, which perfectly matched the Venetian eighteenth century furniture, even in the decadent era of the Republic of Venice.
After the end of the Republic of San Marco in 1797 the rebirth of glass craftsmanship took place in the second half of the nineteenth century and the glassworks that were born came from techniques still in use today and that gave rise to contemporary glassware and design.
Currently, the Murano glass blowing processing techniques have been perfected to the point of having to recognize Murano glassmakers the title of true contemporary artists, precisely because they have dedicated themselves to following the most important currents of contemporary art with their own craftsmanship, without neglecting, in their artefacts, to use the millenary tradition of glassmaking, which still today makes Murano glass a unique and inimitable material, but above all a very valuable one.
Arriving in Murano
My suggestion is to start your visit to the island early, let’s say around 9.00am. This gives you time to get to the island, have a cup of coffee and a nice pastry in one of the bars of Murano and then start your day leasurely!
How to get to Murano by public transport?
From Ferrovia or Piazzale Roma:
Vaporetto/ Water bus Line 4.2, every 20 minutes. Reaches Murano in 35 min. All Murano stops.
Vaporetto/ Water bus Line 3, every 30 minutes. Reaches Murano in 25 minutes. All Murano stops (but Serenella).
From San Marco: at the San Marco Monumento pier.
Vaporetto/ Water bus Line 4.1 every 20 minutes.
Vaporetto/ Water bus Line 7, Jolanda landing stage, from 10.11 to 17.31, every 20 minutes. They reach Murano in 25 min.
From Fondamenta Nove:
Vaporetto/ Water bus lines 4.1 and 4.2 alternate every 10 minutes. They arrive in Murano in 8 min.
In alternative you can take a private water taxi. I would avoid taking a organised boat tour, because most of these packages are intended to take you to one or two glass making furnaces and for you to purchase some expensive object or another. If this is your intention, then please feel free to join one.
Your first stop should be The Murano Glass Museum, which opens at 10.30.
Murano Glass Museum
A magical place, where you can let yourself be carried away by beauty and go back in time.
In the heart of Murano, the historic Palazzo Giustinian, with its elegant bulk overlooking the water, houses the Glass Museum, established in 1861 and subsequently extended to be acquired in 1923 by the Municipality of Venice, recently renovated and improved thanks to the contributions of the European regional funds.
In the beautiful halls of the Palace it is possible to follow a chronological itinerary of glass blowing starting from the finds of the Roman period, dating back to the I-IV century AD, up to the present day, admiring unique Murano glass pieces and priceless masterpieces. Temporary exhibitions are also regularly held, dedicated to contemporary artists often linked to the world of design.
Open every day 10.30am – 6pm
After that you can visit one of the historic Glass Making Furnaces and shops like: Seguso, Barovier & Toso, Ercole Moretti – make sure to enquiry directly with them about booking a visit – do not just turn up, you might be turned away!
By now it will be time to go and have lunch!
Eating in Murano
I particularly like to stop at Osteria Al Duomo for lunch. It is one of the restaurant where also local Murano people go to: they offer a wide varieties of pizzas (also with black cuttlefish ink in the dough) as well as salads and typical Venetian dishes.
Priced quite reasonably, it is run by local Murano people! They are located at the bottom of the bridge, right opposite the big Basilica of Murano, so after lunch you can go and visit the church!
Basilica of Saints Maria and Donato in Murano
In the splendid Basilica of Saints Maria and Donato, behind the high altar, are hung the ribs and the enormous tooth of a dragon (it is actually three vertebrae and a stretch of whale spinal column), killed by San Donato di Evorea, protector of Murano.
News of the church of S. Maria have been known since the tenth century. The church underwent considerable and numerous transformations over the centuries. At the beginning it was only a modest chapel dedicated to the cult of the Madonna, and later (1125) also to S. Donato, after the doge Domenico Michiel gave the church the body of the Saint. The body of San Donato is found today, in a marble sarcophagus, placed on the High Altar, and is considered the patron saint of the island.
The patron saint of glassmakers is actually Saint Nicholas (yes, the same figure to which the image of Santa Claus is connected) because, according to tradition, the Saint saved three boys from an oven fire: he is celebrated by giving small gifts to children on December 6th.
After the Basilica, I strongly recommend you to try an amazing experience in Murano: get your hand dirty, as they say, give it a go and try making a Venetian Glass Bead with a real Perlera!
Le Perlere in Murano
Who are the Perlere and what do they do?
Famous throughout the island territory we find the lamp work beads, loved for their beauty and variety and produced by the Perlere.
Venetian Glass beads have always been produced both in the historic centre and in the islands, and not only in Murano, since the flame used was not as dangerous as that of a furnace.
The lamp work technique has been applied in Venice since the Renaissance and was later developed in the 18th century.
It consists in shaping semi-finished products like glass tubes and rods, with different diameters and thicknesses into beads or other objects.
The first stage is to soften a piece of glass (taken for a tube or a rod) with the heat of a horizontal flame, fuelled by methane gas and oxygen (or air). Then you have to model it with small tools, trying to shaping it into a bead, a human or an animal figure.
The beads are obtained by winding the melted glass around a copper or iron wire coated with a refractory material. The beads, once created, needs a period of gradual cooling (annealing) with special machinery powered by electricity, otherwise they risk exploding.
Through glass blowpipe modelling, you can create sculptures, figures or jewellery, pendants, rings or necklaces.
On account of the lower temperature, the mixture of gas and air allows for more delicate decorations, typical of the Venetian beads.
The experience in the atelier/workshop of Alessia Fuga will allow you to learn about the history of Murano Lamp Work glass beads and the steps necessary for the creation and production of the same.
You will be able to use the tools to create your own bead, while Alessia will also tell you the beads history and the glass processing techniques. The experience is also suitable for children over the age of 10.
I had the great opportunity to have a quick lesson with Alessia a few days ago. It was so much fun and I learnt so much. Intriguing and so educating.
It makes you really understand the skills required and why a Venetian glass bead cannot be cheap! It is hard work, believe me!
Alessia is a great artist but also a very patient and good teacher – trust me…I am a bit manually challenged and she never lost her patience with me….or at least, she was pretty good at hiding it!
Have a quick look at the videos below to get a taste of the experience!
You can book your Venetian Glass Beads lesson with Alessia – click here for a link to her website..
Venetian Glass Beads
The first real glass beads produced in Venice were rosary beads, imitating rock crystals that were used for prayer crowns.
History and legend merge in attributing to Maria Barovier, daughter of the well-known glassmaker Angelo, the creation of the first Rosetta (The Chevron), the bead made up of a multi-layered, pierced and perforated glass rod, forerunner of the beads that were used by Venetians, Germans, French and Dutch for trade throughout the world and the first Murrina rod built in the Lagoon.
From that moment, given the success of the invention, impressive quantities of beads were produced in Venice, travelling across oceans and continents, used instead of money, to buy high-value materials such as gold, ivory, furs and palm oil.
Legend says that New Amsterdam (New York) was bought with a bunch of Venetian Beads.
The murrine canes encased in a glassy core or simply fused together give life to an equally famous bead: the Millefiori.
The golden period for the production of beads destined for exchange goes from the mid-19th century to around 1920. During this period of time, from the skill of Venetian artisans, glass beads of great beauty were born, becoming very famous in the world of collecting and antiques with names such as French Ambassador, King Bead, Cornalina d’Aleppo, French Cross, Medecine Man, Lewis & Clark, Feather, Eye Bead.
At the end of the First World War, exchange beads, replaced by money, lost their original function. The glass bead became more and more an ornament, an art object, a jewel. The production techniques became more refined with the use of gold and silver leaf. Fiorato (flowered), Sommerso (submerged), and Soffiato (blown) were the names of the small glass masterpieces, in vogue since the beginning of the 1900s, and known throughout the world.
Exchange beads were rediscovered by American hippies, during their travels in Africa and were called Love Beads. The renewed interest in ancient Venetian beads gave rise to a phenomenon of global proportions; glass beads began to cross the continents again to be offered at international auctions.
But then, as with any “object of desire”, even glass beads began to be imitated and, on the market, countless counterfeits of mostly Eastern origin appeared.
Conterie in Murano
The Conterie are the smallest among the Venetian glass beads, produced starting from a blown and drawn glass bolus to obtain a thin perforated cane, then cut into small pieces and, after many stages of processing, rounded and polished.
The etymology of the term “conteria” almost certainly derives from the ancient “contigia” which means ornament; much more suggestive, although less probable, is the version given in the mid-1800s, when it was stated that it derived from counting / cash, or from the function of exchange currency that beads had assumed among various populations.
Originally, the term conteria meant any type of glass bead; it is from the beginning of the 1900s that this word is used to indicate the glass beads that are obtained exclusively from the cut of a perforated cane.
On Murano there were many factories that manufactured the beads up until the end of the 1800s, but being the manufacturing process very complex and requiring very large spaces, several of these companies decided to come together to create, in 1898, a single large industry. It was called “Società Veneziana Conterie”, a company that unfortunately closed in 1986.
The processing phases:
The glass mass, prepared in the ovens, was extracted, still hot and glowing, with an iron rod. After giving it a shape that looked like a full glass, it was pierced and attached to another iron rod. It was then pulled by two workers (the tiracanna) who run on opposite sides for 60/100 meters until it became a very thin cane – note that the hole initially made was thinned together with the glass and remained along the entire length of the barrel.
The consaurer was the one who, in the phase of the drafting of the cane, through an oscillatory movement, gave it the thickness and made it as homogeneous as possible in the whole length.
The cernidori, or rather the cernitrici (sorters), since it was a job done mostly by women, divided the glass canes, generally cut into 1 meter rods, through a skilful passage of these between the fingers, so as to be able to evaluate their thickness.
The tajadori were the people who cut the canes to turn them into tiny pieces – it was a job that was done by hand until the mid-1800s, then special machines were introduced; the glass segments were then plugged by the fregadori with a mixture of lime and charcoal so that in the following cooking, to round them, the hole was not closed.
The tubanti put the pieces of glass plugged into cylinders containing sea sand, to prevent the beads from sticking together during the heating phase, and then turned them inside the ovens until the beads were rounded.
The beads, thus rounded, were put inside the sacks, which were vigorously shaken by the cavaroba, so that the beads were freed of the siribitti or of the mixture previously inserted in the holes.
The governadori were the workers employed both to divide the beads by size through the system of sieving with the tamisi, and to select those that had not rounded off by sliding them on a well-polished wooden board.
Finally, the beads passed to the lustradors to be cleaned and polished by rubbing them inside the bran. The beads were ready to be threaded by the impiraresse.
Please follow and support the Project in support of the Candidacy of Venetian Beads to Unesco for Intangible Cultural Heritage, promoted by the Committee for the Historical and Cultural Protection of Venetian Glass Beads.
After your experience with Alessia, make sure to head to Punta Conterie, a cultural hub, redeveloping a piece of Murano, the original location of the “Società Veneziana Conterie”, which closed in 1986 and where Conterie were produced.
Punta Conterie is a new concept for an historic space dedicated to international creativity and contemporary food and wine: InGalleria, dedicated to temporary exhibition projects, Vetri Ristorante where to experiment a new culinary proposal, an amazing roof top location, with a stunning view of the island, Vetri Bistrot a cocktail bar where to taste some great wine and aperitif, InGalleria Shop where you will find a large selection of Venice themed books, magazines and small design objects by local Venetian and Veneto artisans (Alessia’ s beads are on display!). Last but not least the scents and colours of the Fiorario green shop.
The first exhibition, in the new space of Punta Conterie, is opening from 7th September 2019. In the name of the creations of Lino Tagliapietra, a name of excellence in the art of glassmaking, which was born in Murano in 1934 and since then has devoted its whole life to perfecting imaginative blown shapes of a thousand colours. Glasswork (until 31/12/2019) will be only the first of numerous cultural events, performances and exhibitions that will take place in the exhibition spaces built on two floors.
Ok…I hope this will convince Stephen to finally head over to Murano and spend a great day there!
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