A Fragile Legacy
Words by Francesca Simpson
Images from Ashley Hicks and Cabana
Francesca Simpson explores the intriguing millennia-long history and enduring appeal of Murano glassware - an exquisite old-world craft now facing a challenging, uncertain future.
Glassware may well be ephemeral; its innate fragility means that relatively little has survived from its origins many thousands of years ago in Egypt and Eastern Mesopotamia. But in a sense it is exactly this quality that lends it such an enduring appeal, and nowhere better encapsulates this history and legacy than the island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon. Through a millennia of craftsmanship (beginning as early as the 8th century), enduring tradition, constant innovation, and brilliant artistry, Murano's workshops have become uniquely synonymous with the making of exquisitely fine objects, be they utilitarian or whimsically creative.
It was not ever thus, however. Originally, these skilled glassware artisans inhabited Venice, but they were effectively exiled to the island of Murano, one of more than 100 islands scattered throughout the Venetian lagoon at the end of the 13th century. Fear of fire in a predominantly wooden city lent pariah status to the glassmasters and their roaring furnaces, although historians now believe that the enforced exile was likely more a means of isolating and controlling what was fast becoming an extremely lucrative trade. Further measures prohibited members of the guild actually leaving the islands, which effectively became a gilded cage for the families of the artisans who, though socially privileged, remained captive to their craft.
Centuries of refinement and innovation followed. Still today, glassmasters work with an assistant (“sirvente” or “garzonetto”) shaping the liquid glass using a blowpipe, pulling, stretching even cutting it while adding color, gold leaf and silver to give each piece its unique coloration and design. Naturally, no two pieces are ever the same, and the process is exhaustive: liquid glass is reheated, reworked, shaped with soaked wood blocks while still molten and left to cool before the final piece is perfected through a process of “moleria”.
Murano, ideally placed at the confluence of East and West, blossomed in the 15th and 16th centuries; its artisans invented processes like “cristallo” (clear glass), which allowed for the production of mirrors, and “lattimo” (milk glass) that mimicked the properties of coveted Chinese porcelain. Borrowing others' techniques, developing their own and jealously guarding their secrets allowed for a centuries-long flowering of creativity and talent in Murano, but by the 17th century an inevitable decline set in: the esoteric trade secrets purloined by newly arrivistes centres of production in Bohemia, England and France.
While innovation continued, the decline of Venice itself as a commercial center, changing trade routes, the hammer blow of Napoleon’s 1797 invasion, the abolition of the guild system and the subsequent assumption of Habsburg rule, brought about in the early 1800s what is now recognised as the nadir for the glassblowers of Murano. While undoubtedly daunted by the combined threat of foreign regulation, competition and the city state’s decline, the flame continued to burn and by the late 1800s Murano began its slow but spectacular rebirth. Arising, phoenix-like, from newly fired furnaces, the island once more attained its rightful status as a master glass producer, reviving ancient techniques and traditions like murrino (mosaic).
Recognising that to be creatively static is essentially to atrophy, Murano embraced innovation, embarking, stylistically, on a creative journey that continues today. Art Nouveau and the Avant-Garde formed the backbone of a renaissance in the fortunes of the colony. Nimble and creative, the glassmasters moved on again, adopting cleaner, more functional silhouettes while retaining the same quality of technique - necessary to achieve their visually unsurpassed creations. Seamlessly blending centuries of craftsmanship with an open-minded creativity, the artisans of Murano - although now facing significant challenges with Europe in the grips of an energy crisis - continue, artistically, at the very apogee of their metier.
The pandemic, the floods, and now the equally unprecedented gas crisis, have all led, somewhat inevitably, to the closures of furnaces. Equally, a younger generation of islanders are not immune to environmental soul searching, given Murano's glassware industry depends upon an emission-heavy process. However, be they the slightly quirky glass animals of the 1930s or magnificent traditional chandeliers, each piece of Murano-produced glassware is imbued with the island's inimitable DNA and it is this resilience, and history, in the face of an ever-changing world that allows one to hope that Murano's guildsmen and women will survive this setback. It is, after all, just the latest in a centuries-long line of existential threats to their way of life.