Venetian Glass Masters

Article excerpt

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. …