ITALY

Venice

Seven Centuries of Dazzling Glassmaking

Displays of 16th-century crystal stemware at the Museum of Glass on the Venetian island of Murano

On the Venetian island of Murano, this display of crystal stemware from the 16th century, at the Museum of Glass, shows some of the highly prized pieces master glassmakers created in Venice’s Golden Age.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

BACK WHEN Venice was a wealthy merchant republic, glassmaking was one of its top industries. For centuries, ships carried Venetian glass to markets far and wide, where it was prized—and well paid-for—by the rich and royal. Betray the trade’s secrets to foreigners and you could be found guilty of treason and executed. But a loyal master glassmaker rose above his lowly artisan origins: his daughters could marry Venetian noblemen.

A dazzling display of the glassmakers’ art is on view in the Museum of Glass (Museo del Vetro). Housed in a palace built for a bishop, it highlights seven centuries of Venetian glassmaking, with examples ranging from coloured beads to painstakingly engraved mirrors to massive chandeliers.

The museum is on Murano, a 10-minute ferry ride from Venice proper. The small island has been the centre of Venetian glassmaking since the end of the 13th century, when the city ordered its furnaces moved there because of the danger of fires spreading in a time when almost everything was still built of wood.

Murano was sparsely populated then, but when the popularity of Venetian glass was at its height, from the 14th to 17th centuries, some 30,000 called it home. That number has declined to 5,000 today, making it a less-crowded mini-Venice, with its own canals, palaces and wandering streets.

Inside the museum, eight rooms tell the story of glass chronologically. Room 2 covers the Golden Age and looks at how Venice took over from Islamic producers as the market leader. A decisive step, says the guidebook (available in the gift shop), “was the invention of clear glass…for the first time in history glass was transparent, completely pure and like rock crystal.”

By the 16th century, master glassmakers had become virtuosos, producing elegant works that might look like lace, ice or filigree, and abandoning pure functionality to make everything from “eccentric animal-shaped chandeliers” to “glasses in the form of a flower decorated with wings, crests, dentation, tracery and threads.”

By the 1700s, transparent glass had lost its novelty and Murano furnaces were creating items that mimicked other materials, such as polished chalcedony and Chinese porcelain. Its glassmakers were also fighting for market share with a new challenger: Bohemian glass. Rooms 3 and 4 show how Venice adapted. (In part by stealing Bohemia’s methods.)

Nothing could arrest the slide, though, and later rooms follow the decline of Venetian glass in the 19th century and its rebirth in the 20th. A room added in the museum’s 2015 makeover is kept for temporary exhibitions; the works in it aren’t necessarily from Venice.

While Venetian glassmaking lacks the eminence it once had, it still thrives on Murano. There are glassblowing studios you can visit, and shops where you can buy inexpensive “Murano glassware,” but it’ll probably be from China. Genuine items cost hundreds or thousands of euros. One place to go to see the real thing is Venini, among the biggest producing houses. Its gallery at Fondamenta Vetrai 47 has classical and modern pieces for sale.

 

ACCESS

For more information on the Museum of Glass visit its website at www.museovetro.visitmuve.it.

For information on travel in Venice visit the City of Venice Tourist and Travel Information website at www.veneziaunica.it.