NEW YORK — Murano glass, crafted with Old World traditions by generations of artisans in Murano, Italy, is highly coveted among art glass collectors. While commonly thought of as one island, Murano is actually a grouping of seven small islands connected to Venice by bridges. Glassmakers here pioneered and perfecting such techniques as enameling glass, multicolored glass (millefiore), aventurine (glass embedded with threads of gold), milk glass (lattimo), bubbly glass (bollicine) and much more.
Venice was a center for glassmaking as early as the eighth century but due to the growing risk of fire (glassblowing requires a temperature of about 2,000 degrees), lawmakers forced glassmakers to move the city’s furnaces to the Murano islands around 1291, and Murano soon became famous for glass beads and mirrors. Art glass and decorative pieces followed, including chandeliers, sculptural vases, bowls and more.
Asked to identify some of the leading Murano glassmakers, Richard Wright, president of Wright in Chicago, said, “Venini is the top glass producer with the longest history of excellence and collectability. The designer Carlo Scarpa is definitely one of the market leaders. Ercole Barovier, Fulvio Bianconi, Thomas Stearns, Dino Martens, Napoleone Martinuzzi are all names to know.”
Paolo Venini co-founded the Cappellin Venini & C. with Giacomo Cappellin in 1921. Although the company divided into two entities within a few years, resulting in the founding of the Vetri Soffiati Muranesi Venini & C., guided by Napoleone Martinuzzi as artistic director, Venini’s influence and vision would dominate this industry for years.
Venini attracted such leading artists as Carlo Scarpa and Gio Ponti to come work with him and in 1940, Scarpa and Paolo debuted new techniques, including Battuti (glass that had the appearance of being coated in fish scales), Tessuti (after the traditional “filigrana” technique with very thin rods joined one to the other) and Murrine. Murrine glass is an Italian term for colored designs or images embedded into a glass cane (long rods of glass).
Scarpa was the focus of a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2013. “Between 1926 and 1932, he worked at M.V.M. Cappellin glassworks, which shut down due to bankruptcy. It was Scarpa’s next post at Venini Glassworks between 1932 and 1947, however, that radically redefined the possibilities and parameters of glassblowing. On the Venetian island of Murano, where the glass-blowing tradition reaches back hundreds of years, the Venini factory became a center of innovation, with Scarpa leading the way. His experimentation ventured into surface texture, and he explored a range of vivid hues and colors ranging from intense reds and blacks to subtle earth tones,” according to the museum.
Born in Milan, Ponti was a renowned architect best known for his furniture, such as his famous “Superleggera” chair (so light it could be lifted with one finger), but from 1946-49, he worked alongside Paolo Venini to create a series of blown glass bottles and a multicolored glass chandelier.
Archimede Seguso and his family have been part of the Murano glass trade for over 650 years. According to GlassofVenice.com: “Seguso started conquering the world with his highly demanded glass chandeliers. He decorated cinemas, churches and theaters with beautiful exquisite Murano glass. He also experimented with a new technique called ‘Sommerso,’ which means ‘submerged,’ and with this he created the most extravagant pieces mixing colors in different orders and arranging them one on top of the other. Then came his vases full of little ‘merletti,’ or rather small floating color threads which defied traditional designs by being set inside the glass rather than on top, thus creating a web-like design similar to filigree. Archimede’s vases were also famous for their geometric Losanghe designs.”
The Barovier family is one of the world’s oldest family businesses. One of the most renowned family members was Ercole Barovier, who began work here at the age of 30 in 1920. In 1936, the Barovier family joined with the Toso family’s Fratelli Toso Glassworks, to launch Barovier & Toso, which focused on crystalline glass, mother-of-pearl glass and gold-free cornelian red glass.
Alfredo Barbini, born on Murano in 1912, became one of the region’s leading glass artists, not a surprising accomplishment as his parents were members of prominent glass families themselves. He began working at age 13 in the S.A.I.A.R. Ferro Toso factory and became a master glassblower for several companies over the years, including Seguso’s and Venini’s firms before forming his own company, Vetreria Alfredo Barbini, which showed at the Venice Biennales from 1950 to 1961. Among the techniques he is best known for are “vetro fumato” or smoky glassmaking, the Massello technique, where hot glass was stretched and molded (instead of blown) into a shape and the sommerso (submerged) technique, in which he stacked thick colored layers of glass on top of one another, fusing them so expertly that the separations were seamless. A favorite technique was “Corrosione,” where pieces were covered in a gold or metallic powder and heated, giving them a corroded appearance.
As varied as Murano glass forms — and finishes — are, so too are the tastes of art glass collectors. Asked about desirable forms, Wright, said, “The market is driven by rarities. Iconic pieces that were produced in greater quantity often sell for under $10,000. Glass is interesting because you can choose your own criteria and collect at many different levels.”
The glassmaking traditions continue on Murano to this day. The island has over 250 glass companies plying this centuries-old trade, and tourists routinely visit Murano and its glass factories.
With innovative or sensuous surface textures and vivid colors from the deepest reds to subtle pastels, Murano glass is a feast for the senses.