QUESTION: Last year to went on vacation to Italy. While there, I visited Venice. One day, I took a boat over to Murano, a group of islands where they make glass. I saw a lot of tacky souvenirs, but then I happened on the studio of one of the glass artists. His work was beautiful. I think I’d like to start collecting Murao glass, but I have no idea where to start. What can you tell me about it? How collectible is it?
ANSWER: While Murano glass has been made for several centuries, collecting those antique pieces may be out of your league. But you could start a collection of pieces from the 1950s or sooner.
Murano glass objects have gone up in price in recent years. Those items made in the 1950s are especially popular because of their reasonable prices. Typically, Murano pieces are low bowls and ashtrays with abstract shapes. Some are rounded or blobbed, kind of like an amoeba. Others have pointed "fingers" in the design which reach outward or up in many directions. A few stand higher, with fingers reaching upward to form a handle for a basket. There are also bud vases. All are have deep, vibrant colors, and all are heavy and have polished smooth bottoms.
Murano is a series of islands linked by bridges in the Veneto, or Venetian Lagoon, less than a mile north of Venice. Today, it has a population of over 5,000 and is famous for its glassmaking. This reputation as a center for glassmaking came about when the Venetian Republic, fearing fire and destruction of the city's mostly wooden buildings, ordered glassmakers to move their foundries to Murano in 1291. The glassmakers of Murano have specialized in fancy glasswares ever since.
They developed or refined many glassmaking technologies, including crystalline glass, smalto or enameled glass, goldstone or golden glass, mullefiori or multicolored filement glass, or milk glass, and imitation gemstones made of glass. Today, the artisans of Murano still use these centuries-old techniques, crafting everything from contemporary art glass and glass figurines to Murano glass chandeliers, as well as tourist souvenirs..
Murano's glassmakers eventually became the island’s most prominent citizens. By the 14th century, glassmakers could wear swords, enjoyed immunity from prosecution by the Venetian state, and had permission for their daughters to marry into Venice’s most affluent families. But there was a downside. Glassmakers weren’t allowed to leave the Republic. Anyone caught exporting professional glasmaking secrets was put to death. Many craftsmen took this risk and set up glass furnaces in surrounding cities and as far afield as England and the Netherlands. By the end of the 16th century, three thousand of Murano island's seven thousand inhabitants were involved in some way in the glassmaking industry.
The late 19th century saw a resurgence in the art of glassmaking on Murano. By the turn of the 20th century, they only produced special pieces for La Biennale di Venezia, the Venice Biennale, an international art exhibition that began in 1895.
Following World War I, the glassmaking factories began normal production of non-traditional pieces. By the 1930s, they began producing pieces in the Art Deco style. This continued until the Biennale of 1942, at which the Murano glassmakers outdid themselves by exhibiting pieces in exciting shapes and colors that brought a lift to war-weary Venice.
Some of Murano's historical glass factories, including De Biasi, Gabbiani, Venini, Salviati, Barovier & Toso, Pauly, Berengo Studio, Seguso, Formia International, Murno Gladst, Simone Cenedese, Alessandro Mandruzzato, Vetreria Ducale, Estevan Rossetto 1950, remain well known brands today,. The oldest glass factory is Antica Vetreria Fratelli Toso, founded in 1854.
Overall, the Murano glass industry has been shrinking as demand has waned. Imitation works from Asia and Eastern Europe have stolen an estimated 40-45 percent of the market for Murano glass, and public tastes have changed while the designs in Murano have largely stayed the same. The difficult and low-paying nature of the work has decreased the number of professional glassmakers in Murano from about 6000 in 1990 to fewer than 1000 today.
Today, about 50 companies use the Artistic Glass Murano® trademark of origin. Regionale di Veneto Law Numero.70, passed in 1994, introduced this trademark and continues to regulate it. While glass factories on Murano aren’t required to apply for the trademark and many choose not to, works that bear it have their authenticity guaranteed.
One of the main characteristics of Murano glass is its bubble-free quality. By adding fluxes and stabilizers such as soda and lime to silica sand, glassmakers can melt the glass at a lower temperature, making the glass homogeneous and bubble free. While basic Murano glass is colorless, the addition of small amounts of minerals, oxides, and chemical derivatives to the base composition of the glass powder gives it its brilliant colors.
Today, the island of Murano is synonymous with glass. Everything imaginable is made from Murano glass: wine goblets, vases, candlestick holders, miniature animals, paperweights, chandeliers, lampshades, dinner services, tiny pieces of glass candy, beads, and every kind of jewelry you can imagine. There’s tremendous variety in quality, price, and style. When it’s quickly turned out for a cheap profit among the tourist trade, it can look hideous. When it’s well done, Murano glass is exquisitely beautiful.
Learn more about Venice by reading "Venice Sets the Stage for Magical Moments" in the Travel Article section of my Web site.
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