Glass Island – Murano

Suggested reading:

Murano Glass (2000), Gianfranco Toso

Italian Glass: Murano Milan 1930-1970 : The

Collection of the Steinberg Foundation

(1997), Helmut Ricke (Editor)

The World of Venice (1995), Jan Morris

My Venice (1998), Harold Brodkey

Multicolored Venetian Necklace

handcrafted in the centuries-old tradition of glassmaking on the island of Murano

Glass, together with gondolas and canals, is one of the beloved trademarks of Venice. In actuality, though, "Venetian" glass, ranging from kitsch to art, is made on the nearby island of Murano and has been since 1291, when the glass industry was moved out of the city because of fire danger. Murano, though as single-mindedly oriented to the tourist trade as Venice itself, has its own charms and is well worth visiting.

There are two main ways of getting to Murano: by the public water bus called the vaporetto, or by private water taxi. The taxis are paid for by Murano’s glass factories as a way of reeling tourists in to watch glass being produced, and then buy, buy, buy. You’re solicited on the street or invited by a poster in your hotel. You get to watch glass blowers and, of course, tour the show room. No cost, no obligation. However, a failure to buy will quickly turn the sales person’s amiable demeanor into a much less friendly—not to say abusive—one.

A better choice than the water taxis, I can see in retrospect (yes, we took the freebie ride and tour—more on that later) is to take the vaporetto and get out at the stop marked "Museo." (Murano is larger than you’d suppose, with its own canals and bridges and several vaporetto landings.) This will bring you within a few hundred yards of the Museo Vetrario, the glass museum. What you’ll see and learn there will help you understand what you see on the rest of your visit.

Founded in 1861 and housed in a seventeenth-century palace, the museum is one of the best lit and best displayed I’ve ever been in. Of special appeal to American tourists is the fact that most of the displays are labeled in English as well as Italian.

A large sculpture by American glass artist Dale Chihuly stands in the entrance. On the ground floor, together with the gift shop, are delicate vases and bowls from the first to third centuries AD, looking as if they’d been made yesterday. On the stairway to the second floor are reproductions of 14th-century and later illustrations of the craft of glass-making. Remember these—they’ll come to look familiar when you see the glass actually being made. Materials and tools of the glass blower’s trade are also presented.

The subsequent rooms contain examples of glass made in Murano through the centuries, including an eighteenth-century dining table-size "centerpiece" depicting a formal garden and comprised of scores, if not hundreds, of individual pieces—trees, flowers, even bridges. Louis XIV would have loved it. In the main room on the second floor, look up at the rococo ceiling painting (cherubs, bosomy maidens) and the immense chandelier—glass, of course.

Another delight of the museum is its garden, a rarity in and around Venice, with trees, grass, roses, lavender, and benches. Next door is the church of Santi Maria e Donato–another reason to start your visit to Murano at this end, as the churches close between 12 and 4, while the shops and factories stay open as long as there is a lira in sight. With an imposing apse facing the canal, the church was first built in the 9th century and often rebuilt and restored. The inside is chastely romanesque, with a ceiling of exposed beams and a lovely mosaic madonna against a field of gold. But the best part is the 12th-century floor, done in an exuberant mosaic including depictions of peacocks, griffins, eagles, and other marvels. Think of a mix of M.C. Escher, a geometry lesson, and folk art, and you’ll have an inkling of what to expect.

Well—is it okay to start shopping now?

Absolutely. Retrace your steps to the Museo vaporetto stop and keep going, unless it’s lunch time, in which case you might choose one of the canal-side restaurants, or one with a garden. Restaurant prices are lower than in Venice.

After lunch, continue along the canal, stopping at shops to get a sense of what’s out there. Generally, you won’t see the kind of work you saw in the museum. Instead, you’ll see a lot of stuff you wouldn’t be caught dead with—glass Mickey Mouses and Santas, gaudy stemware and vases, shlocky, overpriced jewelry. But keep looking; even the most unprepossessing shop may turn up something worthwhile—a colorful glass clock, a picture frame, a set of liqueur glasses. And don’t worry, the shops are set up to pack and ship your purchases securely. You might also look in on one of Berengo Fine Arts’s galleries (there are three just in Murano), where the merchandise, ranging from a set of tumblers to a glass dinosaur, is truly gallery quality, with prices to match.

Cross the large iron bridge, the Ponte Vivarini, and continue around the Fondamento dei Vetrai, where the shops and factories get hot and heavy. If it’s not closed, drop in on the church of San Pietro Martire. Another Romanesque church, this one has lovely chandeliers and a glass baptismal font. It’s even more remarkable, though, for its Bellini and Veronese paintings. But best of all is the sacristy, reached through a door in the north wall, a small room lined with near life-size wood carvings of personages such as Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Nero, and Socrates. Unfortunately, there’s no indication of who’s who; but the works themselves are remarkably detailed and lifelike.

Beyond the floating fruit and flower market—okay, it’s only one boat—is Venini, a store free of clutter and filled with mostly modern works. One line of objects was designed by fashion superstar Gianni Versace. The prices are equally elegant; one medium-size two-color vase costs in the neighborhood of $700.

Some of the smaller shops—for instance, Artigianato Originale di Murano—have artisans creating little animals and other small objects using blowtorches and instruments so fine that you’d expect to see them in a dentist’s office. You’re free to take photographs.

But back to where we began, at the glass factory. The one we went to, the one that transported us to the island, was Mazzuccato International. In their demonstration room, tourists—potential customers, that is—sat on a shallow set of bleachers while a craftsman demonstrated his skill. First, he heated a glob of glass at the end of a long rod in a 1,000� centigrade furnace. Then he rolled the heated glob on a flat surface. Alternately blowing, rolling, heating, and shaping the object with a set of iron tools, he created a long-necked vase. The amount of actual blowing was minimal, compared to the other steps. After that, the glassblower, Francesco Cedoni, a man with 40 years of experience, created a rearing horse about six inches in size. Using a few deft moves with pliers, he pulled legs, head, and tail out of his glob of soft glass. Had we started our tour of the island at the museum, all these operations would have looked familiar to us.

After the demonstration, during which photography and videography are permitted, we were ushered into the show room—or show rooms, because Mazzuccato’s display area is extensive. You can’t take pictures here. The shop’s stock is immense, ranging from tchotchkes such as incredibly complex birds on flowering branches, to huge mirrors, jewelry, chandeliers, bowls (both useful and decorative), stemware, and on and on. A traditional Venetian-style chandelier—lots of flowers in pastel shades, which I find quite lovely—will set you back $8,000. A more modern chandelier in bright primary colors, based on designs of an artist who died in 1926, goes for about $2,700. A small bowl costs $50. But you can also get a small dish for $10, or an eight-inch vase with a bright exterior and paler or white interior for about $25. Realistic-looking glass bon bons range from $1 to $5 each, depending on size.

On our way out, after the salesman had announced that he was tired of wasting time giving prices to a journalist, we peered into the real production area, where numerous furnaces arranged in a circle were going full blast—just like in the museum’s ancient pictures. We also saw bales of bubble wrap and stacks of unfolded cardboard boxes.

All right, you ask: did I come away from Murano empty-handed?

No. I bought two items, a small dish and a pendant. But they were both for presents. Really.

San Francisco ,
Renata Polt, a freelance writer and critic, is the translator and editor of A Thousand Kisses: A Grandmother's Holocaust Letters.