Map of Murano and Venice


Italian glass making center

Brief History of Murano Glass

The cluster of Islands neighboring Venice that make up Murano has been an important glassmaking hub for more than seven centuries. Throughout this long trajectory, as one would expect, the artistry, production, and promotion of glass made in Murano have been impacted by the history and prominence of Venice, the changes in taste, and, to some extent, the competition of other glassmaking industries in Europe. But, without a doubt, one of the most important and buoyant phases of this long tradition was the influence of modernist movements during the first half of the 20th century.

One cannot fully understand modern and contemporary glassmaking in Murano without getting a glimpse of how these skills and crafts were developed there over time. The beginning of Murano as a glassmaking center was an act of convenience, or rather a safety concern, for Venice. In 1291, Venetian glassmakers, who first came onto the scene in Venice at the end of the 7th century, were forced to move their high-temperature glass-firing ovens away from Venice’s palaces and center of power.

It is important to note that, in spite of being ordered to relocated to Murano, the glass-making artisans and their industry were highly regarded in Venice at the time of their relocation. So high was the esteem for the industry and it economic contribution, that, in order to keep them in Murano, the Venetian Senate allowed the glassmakers’ daughters to marry nobility and for the master craftsmen to carry swords.

Pulled close together in this small cluster of Islands, the glassmakers of Murano rapidly developed new glass styles, crafts, and techniques, creating glass works that were in high demand throughout the Venetian Republic. But these skills and styles were further developed when, in 1453, an influx of glassworkers arrived from Constantinople when it was captured by the Ottomans.

Influence from the East and the Creation of New Glass-Making Techniques

From the 15th to the 17th century, the Murano glassmakers created and perfected the techniques that are still widely used today. Techniques such as cristallo, or clear glass, which is achieved by mixing glass with manganese and allowed for greater malleability; gilding; millefiori and murrine, originally invented by the Phoenicians–which utilizes canes of colored glass in the shape of flowers or patterns, respectively;  calcedonio, which simulates marble; latticinio, which incorporates opaque glass into transparent glass; retortoli and reticello filigree; lattimo or opalino, with a blue-pink iridescence that results in a milky, semi-opaque glass; and many others, were all developed during this time period. These new techniques and the characteristic style of Murano glass, known as l’arte vetraria, or “glass art,” fully developed around the 17th century and, by that point, rivaled all the other master glass workshops across Europe.
The Doge of Venice visiting glass factories in Murano. Creative Commons

From the late 17th century until the mid 1850s, a period of relative stagnation in the inventiveness of styles and techniques permeated the glass artisans of Murano. This was, in great part, due to the decline of political and economic power of the Venetian Republic and to the emergence of local glassmaking skills in France, Germany, Netherlands, and England. To make matters worse, with the transfer of Murano to Hapsburg control in the 1810s, many of Murano’s ovens were shut down and the fate of the island’s glass tradition seemed to be nearing an end.

Modernism Influences Murano Glass-Making Traditions

In the mid-1850s, however, the entrepreneurial Toso brothers revived classical glassmaking techniques and infused new enthusiasm to the ailing island. And, by the early 20th century, a new style and overall sense of modernity and dynamism settled on the Island replacing the highly traditional glassmaking styles for which Murano glass was known. This new style and attitude, known as Art Nouveau, were first introduced by Vittorio Toso Borella, whose glass designs fully embraced the new Art Nouveau language. Vittorio Toso Borella’s glass pieces were exhibited at both the 1895 Venice Biennale and the 1900 Paris Exposition (Exposition Universelle). They captivated the audiences and revolutionized the characteristic style of Murano glass by embracing the audacity of Art Nouveau with the deep artistry and tradition of the Murano glass craftsmanship.

View of the city of Murano where Murano glass or Venetian glass is made
Murano, Italy. Photo: creative commons

Modern Murano Glass

By the 1920s, the organic opulence of Art Nouveau Murano glass works had given way to the streamlined cut of Art Deco modernist glass. It was during this era that famed artist Vittorio Zecchin collaborated with Vetri Soffiati Muranesi Cappellin Venini in creating the first truly modern glass works and started a new era in glass artistry expression. Another glass artist from this first modernist era was Umberto Bellotto, who was an active glass artist until 1925.

Three amethyst color Murano vases designed by Vittorio Zecchin and made by V.S.M. Cappellin Venini & C
Three amethyst color Murano vases designed by Vittorio Zecchin 1920s Photo: Casati Gallery

From the 1930s until the 1950s, Murano consolidated a healthy number of talented glass artists conjuring modernist glass works while still using the techniques that had been instilled on the islands generations prior. A prime example was their development of vetro sommerso, layered glassware that allows for a different color to appear on the interior and the exterior of the vessel. Some of the prominent glass artists from this period that propelled Murano’s reputations to even higher prominence are Ercole Barovier, Arhimide Seguso, Carlo Scarpa, Fratelli Toso, and Paolo Venini.

Erecole Barovier green, yellow and orange fused glass tesserae with controlled air bubbles vase
Fused glass tesserae with controlled air bubbles vase by Ercole Barovier Photo: Wright Auctions (1961-63)

Since the 1950s, and thanks to this enduring spirit of the craftsmen and glass artists in Murano, glassmaking has continued to develop while also embracing not only the ever-changing trends in styles but also a fair number of non-Italian designers. Among the prominent Italian Murano glass artists are Davide Salvadore, Massimo Micheluzzi, Laura de Santillana, and Simone Cenedese; and there is an ever growing number of international designers that are working with the craftsmen and glass workshops of Milano.

For more information on Murano, please visit the following:

History of Murano Glass.” Glass of Venice.

Venice Glass Museum. Museo del Vetro.

“Mid-15th to Mid-19th Century: Venice and façon de Venise” Encyclopaedia Britannica

Last updated: May 5, 2020

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