You’ll be amazed by Italy’s Island of Glass

After hundreds of years, the Italian masters remain unrivaled in their art

 Murano, Italy is a centuries-old mecca for art glass lovers.
Murano, Italy is a centuries-old mecca for art glass lovers.

 This exceptional vase and bowl show the brilliance of colour that Murano glassmakers bring out. 
This exceptional vase and bowl show the brilliance of colour that Murano glassmakers bring out. 

Just 1.5 kilometers from Venice, the island of Murano’s architecture and atmosphere are much the same as they are in Italy’s famous city by the sea. Behind the cafés and shops that line the island’s streets, however, are thousands of artists labouring in a unique tradition.

To watch Murano glassmakers at work is to see art come to life. Even the most elaborate and colorful sculpture begins as a glob of molten sand on the end of a blowpipe. With the precision of a surgical team, the craftsmen twirl, guide, smooth, and blow the formless mass, feverishly inserting and removing it from the fire as it takes structure. 

Chunks of coloured glass are rolled into the flaming red ball and melt into it, but the intricate patterns and brilliant colours seen in the final product are hidden by the heat at this point. The colours emerge when the temperature cools. The liquid hardens into a vase, bowl, or sculpture, in one hour or less. But don’t let that fool you — decades of apprenticeship and single-minded artistic endeavour lie behind every piece.

An artistic heritage hundreds of years in the making

There are about 1,000 glass artists working in Murano today. Given that the island is only about 5.5 square kilometers with a total population of 5,000, it’s easy to understand why glassmaking dominates every aspect of the culture. 

Only 15 years ago, there were closer to 6,000 working artisans on the island. But with the encroachment of replicas from Eastern Europe and Asia, the classic ways have lost some of their market. Nonetheless, the traditions are alive and well in studios such as Lino Tagliapietra’s, Gianluca Vidal’s, Pino Signoretto’s, and many others who learned from older masters who learned from even older masters, tracing lineages back 500 years or more.

In medieval times, glass was a luxurious status symbol, delicate and difficult to make. The Italians advanced the processes for melting sand, combining it with different materials like lime and lead to create incredibly clear glass and revolutionizing the techniques for blowing glass shapes by using long pipes. By the 1200s, Venice had made a name for itself. In 1291, the Venetian government moved all glassmaking to the island of Murano. The Italian Renaissance of the 15th century thrust Europe into an age of revering beauty and the glass industry boomed. Even the young people here carry a respect for the past not found in many places of the world. 

Buyer’s guide

John Gosek, owner of Vancouver’s Pacific Wave Glass Art and the exclusive Canadian dealer for a number of Murano artists, believes that a trip to Murano is a must for anyone who aspires to a full appreciation of glassmaking inventiveness.

You cannot find a fraction of the quality and diversity of art glass anywhere else on earth. Spending a day in such an immersive environment brings out your own tastes, allowing you to discover and appreciate different styles and forms. 

It’s easy to fall in love, but don’t feel pressure to buy. After you arrive back home, an expert like Gosek can help ensure that you get an authentic piece you love and that it will journey from Murano to your display case in tact. 

Glass masters like Gianluca Vidal use heat and metal tools to mold the glass to their will, coaxing intricate designs from the red-hot material.

Visitor’s guide

Murano is best as a day trip during a longer stay in Venice. Take a boat over in the morning, stay through lunch, take your time watching glassmaking demonstrations, and browse through shops before heading back to Venice for dinner. 

There are a few hotels on the island of Murano, but the luxurious Hotel Danieli in Venice has our vote. Arriving by boat at its faded pastel entrance, you walk inside to an expanse of old-world marble and hard-wood luxury that makes you feel like royalty. 

Venice and Murano are only accessible by boat, so don’t worry about transportation. Just fly into Venice airport and it will be easy to find your way to your hotel. Make your Murano trip one of the first days of your visit, and don’t let the hotel or anyone else organize it for you. Just take a taxi yourself to avoid pushy salespeople. 

Photo by ©Anthony duhamel/ Joseph Wright/ Flavia Barbini (Consorzio Promovetro Murano)/ © Silvano Rebai.