On the Venetian island of Murano, a maestro vetraio (master glass-blower) is at work performing a Venetian art that goes back a 1,000 years. Another wave of tourists have just walked over from the conveniently close alighting point of the ferry from Venice proper to join the spectators watching the show as the maestro withdraws a portion of molten glass from the orange-hot oven with his blow-pipe. He calmly sits down, picks up a pair of tongs, his deft fingers pull, twist and shape the glowing gob into a graceful deer in minutes, he delicately puts it aside and repeats the procedure with the same accuracy, with the same handsome result over and over. Cameras click, camcorders roll, there is some applause, a few whispers of "wow!" echo, much palpable admiration fills the workshop.
Along Murano's, Rio dei Vetrai (the glass-blowers' canal), are lined many of the island's 100 or so workshops where teams orchestrated by maestros produce a bewildering variety of artwork glassware and glass-jewelry which are then displayed in numerous outlets in Murano and Venice to the joy of visitors, Venetian glass is considered a high profile gift. According to Venice's chamber of commerce, the industry in 2008 generated 200 million [euro] ($280 million) worth of business from exports alone.
How does one become a maestro vetraio? I put the question to master glass-blower, Fabio Fornasier. Forty-something Fornasier virtually grew up in the midst of glass, "I began working in my father's furnace at the age of 16," he says, "although Murano has an academy of glassmaking, I still think the best way to learn the job is by apprenticeship, by closely observing, imitating a maestro who is invariably a person of immense experience, his expert instruction is unbeatable."
From Fornasier I learn that in a typical Murano set up the maestro is aided by a servente, or assistant, aged around 30 who roughly executes the shaping of the object in question, the maestro does the designing and final detailing and oversees the entire process. A serventino, the assistant of the assistant, aged 20-30, simply scoops the molten glass and transports it to the servente. At the bottom of the hierarchy is a teenager called, garzone, who keeps the furnace in order, prepares the raw materials and carries the finished glasswork back to the oven for re-heating and finally cooling. Fornasier became a maestro in 1990, aged only 27. His team specializes in elaborate, curvilinear chandeliers, when he isn't blowing-glass he teaches glassmaking at Murano as well as lecturing in specialized centers around Europe, including Royal College of Art in London, and Pilchuck Glass School, Stanwood, USA.
Glass Reaches and Enriches Venice
Although broken pieces of 7th century AD, blown, colored glass have been discovered on the Venetian island of Torcello, the first written record of glassmaking in Venice bears the date 982 AD. It is more than plausible that glassware from the famed Roman glassmaking center of Aquilea, 150 km up the coast of Venice, found its way to Venice easily. Romans made large use of glass for practical domestic use, as unguent or perfume holders in public baths, and to embellish their homes, temples and palaces. The Roman empire ceased to be around mid-5th century AD and scholars wonder why it took glass 200 years to get to Venice and 300 more years to specifically mention a vetraio in a manuscript. These small, uncertain beginnings gave way to a thriving glass-art-industry by the 13th century.
Venetians, and Romans before them, were not the first to make and use glass. Roman scholar Pliny the Elder writing in the 1st century AD states that around 5000 BC Phoenician sailors, short of stones on which to place their pots to cook a meal, employed blocks of natron (containing soda, then used to embalm the dead) they were transporting. Fire, sand and soda combination accidentally produced glass. This is considered a fairy tale but National Geographic, December 1993, reported the following in support of Pliny, "Dr. L David Pye, director of Center for Glass Research at Alfred University, Alfred, New York ... turned to the formula of natron and sand, from the sailors' tale. When that cooking was done, there was glass on the beach!"
More concrete evidence from artefacts like beads and imitation gems found in Iraq and Syria (Mesopotamia of the ancient world) places the earliest reliable date for the discovery and/or use of glass around 2,500 BC. Glass-blowing as a technique was first practiced by Syrian artisans between 250--100 BC. Syrians and Egyptians of Alexandria were master glass-blowers whose skills Romans were quick to import to Rome and other provinces of the empire. Aquilea became a well-known center during 1st and 2nd centuries AD from where the art of glassmaking, probably, moved to Venice.
Venetian author, Rosa Barovier Mentasti, in her book on Venetian glass argues that the art of glass-blowing and decorating came to Venice from the Byzantine empire with its capital in Constantinople (Istanbul). "The oldest Venetian glassware known to us shares many characteristics with the 11th-13th century Oriental glass works," she writes, "we know for certain that Constantinople had a glassmaking center, and Pace, a vetraio from Murano, worked there in 1386."
As early as 1291 glassmakers were confined to the island of Murano to prevent fires from the furnaces and to 'hide' the secrets of local glassmaking. The maestros were forbidden by law to emigrate and those who did were given a prison sentence and a heavy fine on their return. Between the 14th and 18th centuries glass artworks from Venice dominated the European markets. The discovery of crystal by the Venetian maestro Angelo Barovier in 1450 added a new dimension to the industry. Crystal was not only attractively clear and luminescent it was also easier to blow, mold, enamel and paint. Venice began exporting custom made glassware to fit the needs and tastes of their customers. Tankards of thick crystal glasses went to England, conical, flute chalices traveled to Holland and lamps were delivered to the Ottomans to illuminate their mosques. Venetian glass industry flourished. Early glass-makers in other parts of Europe imitated classy Venetian crystals and clearly called them made 'a la facon de Venise' (in the Venetian manner).
The Fall and Re-Rise of Murano
The glass-blowers guild of Murano forbade the furnaces to function during autumn forcing the maestri and their employees to look for alternative work. Some, despite threats of punishment and fines, emigrated elsewhere in Europe sometimes permanently taking their skills with them. Development of glass-making in other countries is largely due to Venetians. In 1612 something fundamental took place. Antonio Neri, a maestro vetraio, published, L'Arte Vetraria, outlining techniques, materials and recipes employed in Murano. The book was a bestseller and was soon translated into major European languages. It stimulated research and paved the way for new glass-making concerns in other parts of the Continent.
By early 1700s, Manufacture Royale des Glaces de France, was established in Paris, George Ravenscroft founded a glass-making center in London and Bohemia (Western Czech Republic) began producing quality glassware which was soon to match and eclipse their counterparts in Venice. Virginia Company of London at Jamestown, America, attempted as early as 1620s to start a glassmaking industry in the New World. The names of three 'Itallyans,' Vincentio, Bernardo and Symon, most probably of Murano origin, get mentioned by author, A. Polak, in, "Glass, Its Makers and Its Public." Alas, we learn, "... disease, attacks by the Indians, technical problems, and probably, the difficult characters of the Italians, prevent the project going further!"
Starting 18th century Bohemian crystals made from a new recipe containing potash rather than soda became the vogue all over Europe, even the Venetian notables favored them. Just as serious competition came from England where Ravenscroft 'invented' yet another type of high-refraction, hard crystal with a high lead content that offered a brilliant sparkle. Bohemian and English crystals were more suitable for engraving in the cold state whereas Murano was and would always excel at working and modelling glass while it's still incandescent and soft.
In 1797 Napoleon conquered northern Italy and ended 1,376-year-old, independent, Republic of Venice. In 1806 the glass-blowers guild was abolished, by the middle of the century the number of glass factories functioning in Murano dwindled to twelve. John Ruskin, the 19th century English author and art critic, visiting the area wrote in his book "Stones of Venice:" "The only sign of life is the thick smoke rising above the furnaces, but all the glass cut is barbarous."
Proud Venetians had had enough. Abbot Vincenzo Zanetti started collecting Murano masterpieces and opened the still handsomely functioning museum of Venetian glass in 1861 in Murano. A new generation of master vetrai scrutinized the past glories of Murano glassware and began reproducing them. Over the next 140 or so years, Murano glass factories reached the 100 functioning today. An academy named after the abbot is now training new generations of glass artists in Murano where Fornasier also teaches. Family run concerns like Fornasier's work along the same canal with giants still carrying the original family names such as Barovier & Toso, and Venini, producing art glassware industrially. "There is no conflict with the artisans and industrial producers," says, Fornasier, "we produce different types of glass for different markets. We have a harder life at times due to dispersion of creative human resources in bureaucracy, marketing etc."
Who buys what, and for how much? I wonder. Entering a shop in Venice I quiz the 30-something shop assistant, "The older customers prefer the more classic wares like wine glasses with ornamental stems and/or elaborate decorations. Asians like intricate, heavy ornamentations with gold reminiscent of Renaissance. The younger generations go for jewelry, or many types of lamps, trays, picture frames bearing modern, abstract designs. I notice prices go from 5 [euro] ($7.50) for a frame to 30 [euro] ($45) for a Murrina necklace and earrings to 100 [euro]($150) for a simple lamp to 1,500 [euro] ($2,250) for a couple of multi-colored bird sculptures barely 25 cm (10 inches) tall. Elaborate chandeliers can fetch thousands of euros. I'm warned, there is a lot of imitation glassware imported from places like China displayed in Venice shops and stalls, for the authentic Made in Murano glass artworks a certificate should identify each item as authentic Venetian.
Methods, Styles, and Masterpieces
Glass-blowing as an art in Venice, as elsewhere, owes its existence to the adaptability of glass. The threesome, sand (silica), soda (sodium hydroxide) and lime (calcium oxide), was first softened in a furnace brought to about 700[degrees]C (1200[degrees]F) which produced a paste after 5-6 hours. The paste was then placed in another furnace and heated to 1250[degrees]C (2250[degrees]F) for up to a week. Till 1950 the Venetian furnaces used wood and/or coal and couldn't produce more than 1250[degrees]C, today natural gas furnaces supply over 1500[degrees]C (2700[degrees]F) of heat. The paste fuses into the raw material we call, glass, which is more a very viscous liquid than a solid. When hot, its molecules loosen to form virtually any shape guided by the glass-blower. As the molten mass cools, the molecules freeze in their tracts and presto a glass object is created. In no time what starts as a mixture of white powder and perhaps a dye turns into an artwork.
The earliest Venetian glassworks were opaque, just like those in Roman times. Colored glass was made by adding substances like manganese to obtain violet, copper gave green, gold produced ruby, iron oxide (rust) added a yellow tinge, and cobalt was/is responsible for a range of blue hues. Since the beginning moulds have also been used to model particularly demanding designs or to accelerate the production. Sometimes opacity was intentionally introduced by adding antimony, arsenic or tin. Till around 1450 Murano glass masters made beads, useful wares, and much sought-after mirrors as well as copies of silverware bearing a mosaic of gem-like glass stones, a coat of arms or perhaps a procession as decoration.
Then came Angelo Barovier who carefully selected, sifted and purified sand containing quartz from the northern Italian rivers of Adige and Ticino, added soda imported from Syria, Spain, or Alexandria, Egypt, obtained from seaweed ashes which also contained the stabilizer, lime. He added manganese dioxide to bleach out any impurities and thus was born cristallo, much more versatile, clear glass. As the 16th century got under way the cristallo was being blown into countless, elegant forms but, as they had thin walls, these wares could only be decorated by enamelling, gilding and diamond-point engraving. For the next 200 years Murano produced its finest pieces: heavy set chalices, goblets with elaborate, flowery or convoluted stems, wine glasses, decanters, dishes with milky intricate filigree designs imitating lacework which were to become collectors' items. King Frederick of Denmark, sojourning in Venice in 1709, acquired a huge collection. The 600 pieces are still on display in the Rosenberg castle in Copenhagen, as testimony to the best of Venice.
When Venice returned to the past in 1860s to found a future, they also helped perpetuate decoration techniques invented in Roman times such as fusing together of ribbons of glass of differing color to produce striped wares, or embedding gem-like glass stones in the walls of vases, bowls etc, and perhaps the most successful of all, the mosaic-like decorations called millefiori (thousand flowers), whereby cross-sections of bunches of glass tubes of varying color are fused into the glass wall. Today this technique is also known as Murrina and Venetians are now applying it in myriad ways including making jewelry.
Not Just a Pretty Face
Incredibly, until 1900 glass was only used in making everyday wares to store food, perfume, unguents etc, and as ornamental objects, mirror-making and optics. Pliny informs us that by the first century AD glass, as a drinking vessel, had replaced its gold and silver counterparts. Romans timidly introduced it to architecture when they utilized translucent glass panes in windows that let in light and provided protection from the elements at the same time.
Today glass is put to use in ways and fields Romans could not have even imagined. More than 50,000 different glass products are made available to us and to make this possible some 100 million metric tons of glass is produced worldwide. The basic sand-soda-lime formula has grown to over 100,000 recipes.
In Venice the 100 glass factories and workshops are flanked by a high-tech research establishment looking into ways to improve the quality of glass e.g. detecting and eliminating tiny air bubbles and other impurities as well as searching for new applications for glass. Crystal pure, coated glass fibers are being experimented to transmit electricity as a much more efficient vehicle than copper wires. This technology is already applied and phone signals between Europe and USA travel not only via satellites but along optic cables employing this type of fibers. Venetian scientists are experimenting with glass panes that can turn frosty at the touch of a switch to act as curtains. They are mixing glass and asbestos to produce more efficient insulating materials or researching ways to make better shatterproof glass.
But Venice will probably continue enjoying its fame as a place that produces glass artworks for all pockets. On my return to his workshop, the maestro vetraio is still busy at his scanno (glass-blower's solemn chair). He has moved on from making delicate deer to vases. He rolls the glowing, blown orange mass along a bed of colored glass stones, they fuse into the soft glass like gems, minutes later they freeze in their new position, and a new artwork is born. His garzone is placing a tray of vases and ornate wine glasses into the furnace for ricottura (re-cooking) to release any stress formed during blowing and shaping. He will one day sit at the scanno to continue perpetuating the art of Venetian glass-making for perhaps another 1,000 years.
Martin Gani, a British freelance writer of Turkish Cypriot origin who is based in Italy, writes on culture, travel, and the arts.…