Why is Murano Glass Special?

A collection of vibrant Murano glass vases in jewel tones Murano glass vases handmade in Murano, Italy. Photo via Shutterstock.com.

Murano glass is the biggest name in the history of glassmaking. The Venetian islands (including Murano, Burano, and Lido) have a long and respected history of technological and stylistic innovations that define decorative and art glass to this day. But why is Murano glass special; so highly regarded, you may wonder? How is Murano glass made and why is it expensive? Our editors took a deeper dive into the illustrious history of Venetian glass to uncover its little-known origins, the renowned families who pioneered the industry, and the remarkable, enduring styles and techniques still used by Murano glassmakers. 

What is Murano Glass? 

Murano glass refers to glass objects manufactured on the island of Murano, part of a network of islands in the Venetian Lagoon. For centuries, glassmakers across Italy flocked to Venice, a city with a port that made it a key center for trade when Venice was part of the Byzantine Empire. Until the late Byzantine Empire, the world’s leading glassblowers were primarily located in Egypt and Syria. Thanks to the reach of the empire, knowledge was shared throughout the region, and the glassmakers of Venice honed their skills thanks to these master craftsmen.

A Brief History of Murano Glass

In the 14th century, the walled lagoon city of Venice became an independent state. As glassmaking in the area became more established, glassmakers from the mainland flocked to the city to refine their craft and set up workshops. The city, however, became particularly fire-prone with its potent mix of buildings with straw roofs and industries that relied on intense heat. Among the worst disasters to fall upon the city was The Great Fire of Venice in 1105, which damaged 23 neighborhoods and destroyed 23 churches.

A view of buildings along the canals of Murano, an island in the Venetian Lagoon.

View of Murano, Venice. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

By 1291, the sheer number of furnaces contained within the city was threatening the livelihood of Venetians, so the Senate, the governing body of the Republic of Venice at the time, ordered the entire glassmaking industry to move to the islands of Murano to prevent and contain future urban destruction.

The Rise of Venetian Glass

A glassmakers guild was established in the late 13th century, giving artisans an elevated position in society. As such, the daughters of glassmakers were permitted to marry nobility and master craftsmen could carry swords and escape prosecution. In return, craftsmen were expected to continue the tradition in their families, and remain in Murano, keeping their expertise safely within the Venice Lagoon.

A glassblower placing a piece in a furnace at a glass factory in Murano

Murano glassblowing factory. Photo via Shutterstock.com.

Over time, the glassmaking industry began to take over the islands, and by the 16th century almost half of Murano’s citizens were involved in the industry in some capacity. With such a high concentration of glassmakers, Murano’s professionals were responsible for innovating a number of industry techniques, giving the islands a significant advantage in the industry of glassmaking. In short, Murano gained a monopoly on the glassmaking industry.

A Plague on the Industry

Venetian glassmaking fell into steep decline after the plague of 1630 decimated the city’s population. The other considerable factor that led to the decline of the industry was the fall of the Republic of Venice at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Habsburg Empire in 1797. This led to the dissolution of the Glassmakers’ Guild, which had previously served to protect the glassmakers of Murano. It also led to the rise of Bohemian glass, created in the wider Habsburg Empire (parts of the modern day Czech Republic), which eventually flooded the market.

A subsequent economic depression drove many glassmakers away from Venice, taking their trade secrets with them, or causing glass factories to shutter entirely. By 1820, only sixteen glass furnaces remained in the area, including two prominent makers: the Salviati family and the Fratelli Toso, a group of six brothers known for innovative artistry. Descendants of these exceptional glassmaking houses continue the family trade today.

Popular Murano Glassmakers 

  • Fratelli Toso (1854– )
  • The Salviati Family (1859– )
  • Umberto Bellotto (1882–1940)
  • Ercole Barovier (1889–1974)
  • Paolo Venini (1895–1959) 
  • Carlo Scarpa (1906–1978)
  • Alfredo Barbini (1912–2007)
  • Tobia Scarpa (1935– )
  • Davide Salvadore (1953– )
  • Massimo Micheluzzi (1957– )
  • Simone Cenedese (1970s– )

Modern Murano Glass

By the 20th century, Venetian glassmakers began to work collaboratively with artists and designers, elevating glassmaking as an art form. In the 1980s there was an influx of glassmakers creating unique art glass, as well as artists training in glassmaking specifically. As a result, Murano is now a global destination rife with cultural and artistic significance.

A green Murano vase by Laura de Santillana for Venini

Laura de Santillana, Venini, Murano, Biro vase, 1983. Sold for €700 via Cambi Casa d’Aste (June 2019).

Glass Types and Techniques 

There are many different types of Murano glass depending on the technique used by the glassblower. Below are five key types you’ll find in the market.

Cristallo Glass (Cristallino Glass)

Pair of cased cristallo Murano vanity accessories

Pair of cased cristallo Murano vanity accessories. Sold for $225 via Kaminski Auctions (September 2013).

Cristallo glass was the first colorless example of Venetian glass; distinct because others would typically bear a green or yellow tinge. The transparent properties of cristallo glass were achieved by mixing glass with manganese, a chemical element often found in stainless steel. This was a pivotal discovery because it also offered greater malleability, which meant that it could be blown into delicate vessels with thin walls. Its discovery in the mid-14th century is attributed to Italian glass artist Angelo Barovier.

Smalto Glass (Enameled Glass)

A Smalto bowl by Vittorio Zecchin in enameled glass featuring floral motifs

Vittorio Zecchin, Smalto bowl, Italy, 1938. Enameled glass. Sold for $6,250 via Wright (June 2013).

Enamelling was a popular way of making durable objects, including Murano glass jewelry and small pieces of decorative art. Until the 19th century, each craftsman or workshop had a proprietary recipe for their own enamel. Later, industrial innovation made it easy to produce enamelled items on an industrial scale and was applied to many household items.

Goldstone Glass (Aventurine Glass)

Murano glass vase by Ferro Toso Barovier

Ferro Toso Barovier, blown glass vase, Murano, c. 1935. Offered for €500 – €600 via Cambi Casa d’Aste (February 2019).

What is aventurine glass? This glittering, shimmering glass gives the impression of being filled with tiny golden shards. There is a common misconception that there are shards of metal actually contained in the glass. In fact, the effect is created through the addition of a metallic compound to molten glass, which is slowly cooled. The slow cooling gives the metallic ions time to form into octahedral-shaped crystals; the slower the cooling, the larger the crystals. Goldstone can be identified by examining it in a directional light. The hallmark of goldstone glass is that the crystals should all face the same way in the light so that they reflect light simultaneously. Glass that exhibits these characteristics can be described as aventurescent.

Chinese amber glass snuff bottle

Chinese amber glass snuff bottle, sold together with a Chinese blue glass snuff bottle for $438 via Doyle New York (March 2016).

It was around the 17th century that glassmakers began leaving Murano and spreading their knowledge further afield. Goldstone is one technique that was shared internationally, and small glass bottles in the style were commissioned by China’s Imperial Workshop and given as gifts by the Qing Court.

Millefiori Glass (Murrine Glass)

Millefiori is a multicolored glass that looks as though it is comprised of scores of flowers (hence the name Millefiori, which literally translates to “a thousand flowers”). Millefiori glass is also known as Murrine, which is derived from the name Murano. Although Millefiori glass is closely associated with Murano’s illustrious history of glassmaking, the technique originally hails from the Phoenicians.

Murano Millefiori vase by Fratelli Toso

Fratelli Toso, Murano, ‘Millefiori’ vase, c. 1920. Murrine glass in gourd form with applied handles. Sold for CHF800 via Koller Auctions (June 2014).

Creating Millefiori is an intensive and complex process beginning with murrines, or canes of glass with a composition akin to rock candy. They are made up of many different colors that create a pattern when cut into cross-sections. 

Lattimo Glass (Opalino Glass)

Lattimo glass, also known as Opalino glass, is a milky, semi-opaque glass with a pink-blue iridescence akin to the aesthetic of opal or moonstone. It was developed on the island of Murano in the 15th century and is created by adding lead, lime or tin to the glass composition. Centuries-old Lattimo pieces are often decorated with either golden designs or blue enamel to imitate motifs commonly found on contemporaneous Chinese porcelain.

A Venetian lattimo glass vase

A Venetian Lattimo glass vase, together with five other jelly glasses, 18th century. Sold for £312 via Bonhams (May 2016).

How to Identify Murano Glass

The legacy of Murano glass in the market has been threatened in recent years by an influx of imitation glass, with some very convincing examples. It is estimated that counterfeit glass makes up over 40 percent of the market for Murano glass. It can require a specialist to correctly identify Murano produced before 1980, but after that date, Murano introduced a certification system. Consequently, any items made and sold in the last 40 years should be accompanied by a certificate of authenticity, so be sure to ask about documentation for modern examples when buying from a dealer or auction house.

Looking for more? Explore Italian glass available now on Invaluable.

Sources: Glass of Venice | Salviati | Fratelli Toso | Encyclopedia Britannica