Welcome to another Italian Adventure – today we’re traveling via ferry (Vaporetto) to the island of Murano near Venice.
This charming island in the Venice Lagoon is one of the most important historical spots in Venice because it is where the art of Venetian glassmaking has been practiced for over 1000 years.
The island of Murano is just north of Venice and spans 1,134 acres. It was originally founded in the 5th-7th-centuries as people fleeing The Barbarian invasions after The Fall of the Western Roman Empire sought refuge here.
Venice, which was once one (if not the) most important trading center in Europe became known for it’s amazing glasswork. Even to this day the craftsmanship of hand made Venetian glass is unrivaled.
Glass was important in the heart of Venetian life, especially in the creation of mosaics (St. Mark’s Cathedral) and home goods like glasses, as well as jewelry and other accessories.
Venice was heavily influenced by The Byzantine Empire, which at the time was the master and center of glass making and Byzantine art that so influenced The Middle Ages.
In the Middle Ages, tempera paints were popular for religious icons of The Virgin Mary and the saints, but when decorating churches and creating more permanent art glass mosaic was essential.
Not only does the time and care that goes into creating mosaics (like the ones in St. Mark’s Basilica) show a heavenly artistry and detail, it is also practical in a city like Venice.
Tempera can last forever if propered fixated (fixative applied), but with the humid watery lagoon of Venice, it made more sense to create glass artwork for churches and other buildings because glass does not fade. Sure it needs care, but the art and effort were also practical in creating elaborate mosaics.
Many of the glassmakers from Venice originally came from Constantinople and other areas of Byzantium. Given Venice’s unique location on The Adriatic and the fact that The Byzantine Empire briefly had a capital in nearby Ravenna it makes sense that Venice, of all the Italian jewels would reign supreme in glass and the art of mosaics.
In 1291, it was decided to industrialize the Venice glass making industry and move most of the glass furnaces to the Island of Murano. This was in part due to the risk of fire from glass-blowing as the furnace reach over 1000 degrees Farenheit. Venice’s Island of Murano became the central spot of glass-making in all of Europe and the glass was sold throughout the world.
- Fun fact, when we toured Grand Portage in Minnesota, we learned that the Native Ojibwa loved to trade furs for Venetian glass to decorate their outfits and create important jewelry and ceremonial items. Their furs were then sent back to Europe. It shows the impact of trade from Venice to Minnesota in the 1600s!
Murano was at the height of it’s trade power in the 16th-century when it had over 30,000 inhabitants. The current population is 5,000.
I enjoyed a tour of a glass factory while in Venice with a demonstration. While I recommend the day trip to Murano if you are limited on time there are several OFFICIAL MURANO glass-blowing demonstration areas and shops in Venice.
A good place to start when you are in Murano is The Glass Museum – it is the best place in Venice to learn about the history of glassmaking
Unfortunately most of the Venetian glass that is sold in touristy shops is now made in China. To get the real thing look for the seal and recognize you pay for what you get. This is an investment that can be passed down to the next generation and enjoyed for a lifetime. I know my grandmother treasured her red Venetian glass goblets from a trip she took in the 1980s.
For more about buying authentic Italian goods I recommend checking out this site, or consider purchasing Art Historian Laura Morelli’s Made in Italy Book. She does a great job giving you the inside scoop on getting authentic goods for a good price in Italy.
How Glass is Made:
While glass is made all over the world, the artistry, care and craftsmanship of true Murano glass is unlike any other. For instance, look at the delicate and yet ornate chandelier in my hotel room at the Hotel Giorgione in Venice.
Glass is something we use daily, but how is it made? Murano glass is made from mineral sands that are melted together in a high-temperature furnace at soaring temperatures of 1200-1400 degrees Farenheit (and sometimes even hotter!) With these sizzling temperatures, the sands fuse into liquid glass.
The furnace is then lowered ot stir the glass and obtain the intentional color to fuse. this will be reworked and tested before it is gathered on the end of the blowpipe.
The glassmaster then blows the glass and shapes it by pulling, crimping, lengthening and cutting the glass where required.
The glassmaster during the demonstration I attended was AMAZING. He fused the glass so quickly and methodically as if it were second nature to him. Looking at his work you’d think it was easy – but no! It is artistry to be able to rapidly blow and mold the glass while also be mindful not to rush and make and error.
He created a unicorn for us, which is popular with tourists and Venetians alike.
After the glass is blown it does take a few days to cool down. As tempting as it’d be to pick up the new unicorn creation – our hands would have been scalded, which also shows why you need a glass master with years of training to create Murano glass.
Unfortunately the industry is losing glassmakers as many of the young generation are leaving the business. But Murano lives on and I am confident Venetian glass is here to stay.
There are several ways to get to and Murano…
The easiest way is to take a vaporetto (ferry) to the island and go it on your own. It is highly walkable and you can take time to enjoy the glassmaking and other amazing sites.
If you want an easy and informative day tour…renowned Travel guru, Rick Steves recommends in his guidebook to take the Speedboat tour which will give you a tour of Murano, Burano and Torcello for a fee and you’ll get to see glass blowing and lace-making.
You can also look into personalized tours on a travel site like Viator, who I’ve used several times for tours in various cities (including Florence, Italy).
Outside of glassmaking there are lots of fun sites to see in Murano on this beautiful island…
- Santa Maria e San Donato Church is breathtaking and a treasure to explore. It has fine Byzantine Romanesque exterior. It was started around the same time as St. Marks in the 12th-century
- Church of San Pietro Martire is another gorgeous place of worship that features art by one of my favorite Venetian masters, Giovanni Bellini (Virgin Entrhoned with Mark and a Kneeling Doge)
- You’ll notice in Venetian art that doges always kneel before St. Mark and other Saints because they were servants of the Republic and God and needed to be humble in depiction.
Enjoy art history – check out my Art Expeditions blog and art history classes here.
Murano has lots of great food including gelato, which is perfect on a hot Murano day.
We’ll be touring neighborhing island Burano (Lace Capital) before continuing onto Tuscany
Until next time arrivederci.