Murano: A quieter center for masterful Italian glass

Murano: A quieter center for masterful Italian glass

Atlanta Journal Constitution 9/16/04

Murano, Italy — Indoors, the master glassmakers practice their art before ovens heated to 1,000 degrees Celsius — 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit — deftly turning globs of molten glass into everything from small ornamental birds to museum-quality works of art. Outside, shops line the quiet canals that Murano uses for roadways. Boats bob beside the piers, water buses nose into docks to pick up passengers amid a sense of serenity and tradition. Many travelers are familiar with the charms of Venice, where buildings of spectacular and historic architecture rise out of the water to form one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But fewer know the allure of Murano, a peaceful, canal-laced city where the glassmakers’ art has flourished for centuries.

Murano lies just 40 minutes from central Venice by water bus — half that by water taxi. If it is less spectacular than Venice, it feels somehow more genuine. People actually live here. And it is free of the multinational gaggles of tourists bristling with cameras and clustering around tour guides that clog the walkways of its more famous neighbor. Tourists do not stumble on Murano by accident. But it is well worth taking the boat ride with the wind in your face and Venice at your back. Murano glass is justly famous.

The showrooms are stunning, stocked with glass peacocks, vases artfully swirled with color, faces, sculptures and even crystal chandeliers adorned with glass leaves and flowers that cost $50,000 or more. “That’s the Rolls-Royce or Ferrari of chandeliers,” Rossi said proudly. The comparison is apt. The key ingredient of Murano glass is not the silica sand, the soda ash or the red lead that are melted together to make it. Nor is the secret of its quality in the process, in which the materials are heated to 1,400 degrees Celsius (2,552 Fahrenheit) before being cooled to the 1,000 degrees that makes the molten glass pasty enough to be gathered in red-hot blobs on the glassmakers’ tools. It is in what happens next, in the artistry, the craftsmanship and the tradition. Most of the masters come from families of masters that stretch back five or six generations.

Most began at an early age and have committed themselves to the work all their lives. Some, like Guilano Tosi, have their creations on display in places like the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y. “The real Murano glass is very high quality,” said Maurizio Toso, Tosi’s cousin, who works with him on the island. The quality of the glass, he said, reflects “the quality of the makers.” A good quality of life is evident here, too. The pace is slow. People pass the time in cafes and sandwich nooks. The stores and showrooms are pressure free — not, Rossi noted, like shoe stores, where salesmen swarm over customers offering “help.”

Much of the business is done these days by mail or over the Internet anyway, but the beauty of Murano is not to be missed. Like Venice, which lies about a mile away across the water, Murano is composed of a cluster of small islands. About 7,000 people live here. It became the center of the glassmaking industry in 1291, supplanting Venice itself. Many of Venice’s buildings at that time were made of wood, and the risk of fire from the glassmakers’ ovens was deemed too great. Murano glass has been famous around the world since the 14th century. The masters became known for their bead-making skills and for the glass used in mirrors. The Murano Glass Museum offers a pleasant and informative way to while away an afternoon. Glass pieces in the museum, which was founded in 1861, date from as long ago as the first century A.D. On display are vases from the 15th century — some enameled, some with embedded designs — that are works of art. It is that tradition that today’s glassmakers sweating in front of their ovens strive to maintain.