For centuries, Murano glassmakers have been masters of experimentation. True to the Venetian interest in reflective materials and saturated color, over the centuries Murano glassmakers experimented with techniques that would impart the shimmering effects and deep contrasts of hues that travelers and collectors still appreciate today. In particular, they developed ways to formulate many shades of red—the color most associated with Venice—from deep burgundy to translucent pink-lavender. Murano glassmakers also played with different combinations of opaque, translucent, and transparent glass.
What is glass, exactly?
Glass consists of a paste made with little more than sand, water, and ashes. The main component of glass paste is silica, made from sand or crushed pebbles, which forms about seventy percent of the mix. Sodium carbonate is obtained from the ashes of burned plants. Lime is also added to the mix on Murano, distinguishing it from crystal and lead glass. To create color, cobalt, manganese, and other metallic oxides may be added to the mix.
By the mid-fifteenth century glassmakers had perfected the use of cobalt oxide to produce a deep, sapphire blue; manganese to achieve reddish-purple; tin oxide to produce white; and copper and iron to achieve hues of red so varied and greatly valued that Venetian dialect has not one but many different words for “red.”
Making an object
Traditionally, a glass furnace is a three-story structure with firewood on the ground level, the main oven or crucible in the center, and another furnace at the top that operates at a lower temperature than the one below. The glassblowing process begins when a specialized glass artisan called a gaffer lifts a molten blob from the furnace on the end of a blowpipe. Next, he blows through the mouthpiece, then, twists, pulls, and cuts the shape. The gaffer may also roll or press it against a smooth table surface called a marver. Special tongs and other glassmaking tools forged by a blacksmith are then used to form handles, spouts, stems, and other shapes. The gaffer continues to work the piece until it results in its final form—a goblet, a plate, a vase, or another type of object.
Another way to form glass is through lampworking. Lampworking refers simply to the way in which the glass is heated. Instead of heating the mixture in a furnace and blowing glass through a blowpipe, some glassmakers melt the glass using a handheld torch instead. In past centuries, lampwork was accomplished using a torch or an oil lamp, hence the origin of the name of this technique. Now glassmakers tend to use torches fueled from gas canisters. Lampwork may be used to create any type of vessel or object, and alllows for maximum control and intricate detail.
This basic process of glassmaking has remained unchanged for centuries. However, Venetian glassmakers have developed and refined many specialized—and purely Venetian—types of glass, such as the popular flower-like patterns known as millefiori, enameled or incised glass, glass infused with gold leaf, and other works that appear to imitate precious materials such as gems, marble, or chalcedony.
Tell me… Have you discovered authentic Murano glass? Drop a comment below. I love to hear your stories and see your pictures!