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Murano Glass: Venice’s Ancient Craft

“A Murano glass object […] if treated with care it can survive, blemish-free for hundreds of years whilst appearing as though it has only just come fresh from the furnace.”

In November 2021, I was back in Venice. As with many cities that I never tire of revisiting, I have my traditions: Lunch at Corte Sconta, dinner at Antiche Carampane, a spritz at Café Vergnano, a purchase of Venetian slippers from Pied-a-Terre, and a stock-up of Murano glass from one of the many specialised stores dotted around the island.

On this occasion, I bought my glassware from a shop hidden in plain sight in the Calle Gritti. From the outside, it is an unassuming little brick hut which blends in with the soft brown and grey tones of the unique Venetian cityscape. But on the inside, it is a veritable paradise of technicolour. Glass objects in all shapes and sizes are displayed in delicate splendour in each nook and cranny. From tiny, glass-shaped ants to large, bulbous glass vases there is everything from trinkets, cutlery, jewellery, cups, trays, jugs, even chandeliers. Any object that you can think of is found in its glass form nestled into these four walls. It caught me by surprise therefore, that whilst the shop owner was wrapping our precious purchases up, he explained that so many glass factories on Murano were shutting down.

The tiny island of Murano, positioned north of Venice with a population of 5000, is known predominantly and almost exclusively for its production of ornate, elegant, and distinctive glass. Just as champagne can only come from that certain region in France, Murano glass can only be created in one of the 60 or so factories on the island and has been doing so since the 13th century. Other than a few tweaks to the production process, namely the switch from wood to natural gas furnaces (this is to gain better control on temperatures and to reduce carbon emissions), the techniques of the craft have remained fairly constant over the many years. From the factories’ industrial, gritty, roaring furnaces that stay ablaze nearly all year round (shutting just once in August for maintenance), molten glass emerges which twists and bends with a life of its own until a master craftsman takes control and creates refined, exquisite objects to eventually be exported and sold in Venice and beyond. A Murano glass object is so delicate that it can shatter into pieces at even the slightest exaggeration of pressure but if treated with care it can survive, blemish-free for hundreds of years whilst appearing as though it has only just come fresh from the furnace.

Now the glass factories on Murano are eerily quiet, lying cold, lifeless, and purposeless. Their owners are facing their biggest challenge to date. As the whole of Europe plunges ever deeper into an ongoing energy crisis with a likely 400% increase in natural gas bills, the glass industry is struggling to keep afloat. One Murano craftsman, Cristiano Ferro, explained how in the space of just one month, the cost of fuelling his furnaces rose from €40,000 in September to €170,000 in October. This crushing blow has led him, along with many of his peers, to turn off his furnaces without knowing when they can be started up again.

The energy crisis comes at a time when Murano is fighting battles on many other fronts. The high cost of the island’s glassware rightly reflects the intensity of skill, labour, and energy (both from fuel and from human toil) that goes into their production. Now, cheap replicas produced in China are severely affecting business. What is more, the global pandemic made a huge dent in sales and these challenges paired with the rising costs of energy, are beginning to form cracks in the island’s centuries-old trade.

But all is not lost. There are groups of individuals who are determined to preserve this important fragment of Venetian culture by finding viable solutions to its problems. Their goal is to keep Murano’s deep-rooted craft alive but in ways that are both suitable and relevant to the 21st century. Fondazione Berengo is one example of this.

FONDAZIONE BERENGO

Initially established in 1989 by Adriano Berengo, Fondazione Berengo blows fresh air into the Venetian glass industry by giving it a voice in the noisy arena of contemporary art. The institution invites globally-acclaimed artists from all backgrounds – many of whom have never worked with glass before – to experiment and produce objects which may allow Murano glass to transcend a status of purely decorative or functional to one of grounded importance in the history of art. Berengo’s breakthrough venture was inaugurated at the 2009 Venice Biennale and was titled ‘Glasstress.’ The mission was not only to launch glass into the conversation but to create a whole new artistic platform upon which it could thrive. Since then, the project – which Berengo prefers to call a ‘cultural movement’ – has been exhibited around the world and new endeavours to work with leading institutions (the Uffizi in Florence, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York to list but a few) continues to establish glass as an artform in its own right. Household names such as Tracey Emin, Pharrell Williams, Ai Wei Wei, and Zaha Hadid are among the long line of creatives who have collaborated with the Fondazione in its Murano factory and exhibition space. By touring ‘Glasstress’ and by working with prominent, international artists, Fondazione Berengo is not only able to boost the artistic significance of Murano glass, but also alert a wider sphere to the current threats which Murano’s glass industry is under.

LE STANZE DEL VETRO

Le Stanze del Vetro on the island of Giorgio Maggiore (located south of Venice) is campaigning for a similar purpose. Whilst also a permanent exhibition space, it further aims to create a general archive of Venetian glass so that it can encourage its ongoing use as well as preserve its longstanding history. Seminars, conferences, workshops and educational schemes are just some of the ways in which this institution illustrates the continuous development of glassmaking through science and technology, while also concentrating on how the production, trade and culture of Murano glass has always played an intrinsic role in Venice’s chequered past. It is a craft worth protecting and hearing the island’s glassmakers reflect on its importance to them, sheds light on the marvellously ephemeral nature of the objects which they lovingly produce. One such maker, Mattia Rossi exclaimed that Murano glass will ‘give you the greatest feeling in the world, make you feel like it’s alive.”

Through Fondazione Berengo and Le Stanze del Vetro’s efforts to provide spaces that elevate Murano glass into artworks, it might be possible to combat the industry of cheap churned out replicas that are thus far threatening the island’s reputation and business. It can instil further value into the glass objects and heighten appreciation for a trade which is currently on the brink of obscurity and collapse. In the meantime, the Italian government is providing over €3 billion of relief to its country’s retail sector specifically to aid in the rising energy bills. However, Murano’s factories will need further support to survive and as their furnaces itch to be powered up once again, the island’s inhabitants remain hopeful. Unlike the objects they produce, they will not allow the current pressures to shatter their ancient craft