My friend and long time supporter Darlene Wade mentioned Venetian glass this morning. It reminded me of the long history of glass-making on the island of Murano – just a stone’s throw from Venice.
GLASS – Glass-making is a fascinating process. Glass is made by super-heating sand, soda ash and limestone to create a molten, viscous liquid, a bit like volcanic lava in texture. This viscous, boiling hot liquid can be shaped and moulded into a variety of shapes. In Venice the technique of glass-blowing was perfected, probably during Roman times. Glass beads and tiny glass fragments have been found in excavations around the town of Aquileia, on the shores of the Venetian Lagoon. Two thousand years later and the art of glass-making is still going strong.
In recent years decorative glass art has been brought into the 21st century with the production of exceptional glass art sculptures by innovators like US artist Dale Chihuly. When I was in Amsterdam Airport returning to the UK last November I came across a superb Dale Chihuly installation at Schiphol Airport. I was very impressed. In fact the contrast between Dale Chihuly’s giant, colourful Murano glass, super-modern stones and the deserted airport, emptied by the impact of the corona virus pandemic created a stark contrast in mood and human endeavour.
MURANO – Glass makers have lived and worked on Murano, an island just to the east of Venice, since the 13th century. Before that they worked in Venice itself but were ordered to move, by government decree, because of the fire risk. The glass makers of Venice started making glass beads and mirrors, soon they were making vases, dishes and all types of glass ornaments. They also have a long history of making elaborate chandeliers. Most palaces and hotels in Venice own at least one Murano glass chandelier. Elton John is the proud owner of a Venetian glass chandelier. To this day Murano is probably the number one producer in the world of top quality, artistic glassware. Many visitors to Venice hop on a boat and take the short journey over to Murano to visit the glass factories and the numerous souvenir shops.
In The 1980s Dale Chihuly, America’s famous glass artist travelled to Murano to study with the master glass workers. He fused modern sculptural techniques with traditional practises. He has since worked extensively all over the US and further afield, creating vast, contemporary glass sculptures. He’s probably most famous for his glass ceiling at The Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas.
INNOVATION – Innovation and re-invention of the glass-making heritage in Italy is happening today in Murano, with the work of people like Adriano Berengo. Mr Berengo opened the glass workshop ‘Glassstress’ in 2014, and his mission is to inspire and create exceptional glass pieces in a modern and contemporary context. In his words,
”Glasstress is my tribute and thank you to the island of Murano and to the city of Venice. Glasstress is the movement that wants to write new chapters in the histories of both glass and art.”
Berengo has encouraged numerous contemporary artists to work with him on original and ground-breaking glass artistry projects. A year or so ago he collaborated with Ai Weiwei to create a limited edition range of glass hands. Ai Weiwei also created an incredible sparkling white contemporary chandelier. You can discover more about the Berengo philosophy at www.berengo.com
VENETIAN GLASS – Venetian glass design and style became more ornate and detailed over the centuries. Venetian glass was exported all over Europe. Later it was shipped to the United States and to every continent. The unique, highly decorated chandeliers of the Murano workshops are to be found in almost every palace, luxury hotel and public building in Italy. Here are just a few examples of the ornate glassware that decorates the ballrooms and salons of so many historic palazzos.
VENICE – A CITY OF TRADE – Venice was an independent, maritime republic for one thousand years. The city was the major trading centre and port for ships travelling from east to west. Spices, silks, gold and precious stones flooded into the city. Luxury goods, fine fabrics and exotic animals arrived in Venice. In the 16th century Shakespeare was writing about Venice. The Courts of Paris, London, Vienna and Madrid were talking about Venice. By the 1550s there were more than 200 printing presses in Venice, producing books, pamphlets and maps. The printed word brought knowledge and information. This unique city marooned between land and sea created a trading and artistic legacy that lives on to this day. Murano glass is part of this exceptional city’s heritage. Venice is an inspiration to artists and artisans and will continue to be, both now and in the future.
UPDATE – in late 2022 a new exhibition by Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei focuses on the reality of life in our surveillance society. Wei Wei has created a vast, dark, black chandelier out of Murano glass. The work is called the Commedia Umana and is on display at San Giorgio Maggiore. It is a strange and disturbing mixture of human bones, skulls, body parts, rib cages, hearts and even cameras. Each piece made of the darkest black Murano glass. All pieced together in a disturbing dystopian drama of anxiety and confusion. Just like the ‘Last Judgement’ paintings so popular in medieval Italy, Ai Weiwei uses these bizarre dismembered parts as a means of confusing and unsettling the viewer. It’s a way of exercising artistic control that subjugates the ordinary person – a person like me. I’m left feeling detached and slightly ill at ease.
- Glass makers have worked on the island of Murance since the 1290s.
- The glass makers of Murano are skilled the world over.
- Murano glass chandeliers are a feature of most luxury hotels in Italy – even today.
- Alessia Fuga is a young Venetian woman making glass jewellery. She has a studio on Murano, speaks excellent English and offers glass-making sessions. www.alessiafuga.com
- You can visit the Berengo workshop and studio: www.berengo.com
- In the USA – Dale Chihuly has popularised ‘art sculpture’ and exhibited all over the globe. www.chihuly.com
POSTSCRIPT – 2021 – Venice is celebrating her 1600th birthday this year. Whilst the somewhat arbitrary date of her birth is open to debate, it’s a good way to promote the city and remind ourselves of Venice’s unique contribution to art, history and architecture. Plan a visit – you will be impressed, the reality far exceeds any imagined version of this sublime city. Check out the web page: https://1600.venezia.it/
For more on Venice – articles written by www.educated-traveller.com over the last five years……
- 05-05-2021 – written
- 07-07-2021 – updated
- 27-10-2022 – updated