Murano is a strange place to call home for a year.
The “glass island” is actually comprised of 7 small islands linked by 8 canals and a series of bridges. Aesthetically it owes much to its bigger and richer neighbor Venice, but it has its own unique history and its own small village vibe. Historically it’s been a fishing port, a hub for salt production in the lagoon, and for the past 700 years, the epicenter of glassblowing in the world.
We packed up and temporarily relocated to this tiny island so that Andy, my husband, could continue to work on projects and with people he’d met here in the three years preceding the pandemic. His experiences on Murano gave him a clear sense of meaning and purpose in his professional life — something he’d felt was missing as he toiled alone in his Portland studio. He felt deeply indebted to the traditions of craft on the island, and also wanted to support the people who are trying to envision and create a sustainable future for glass.
The challenges that the glass community on the island must confront are monumental. The confluence of climate change and the impact it is having on the fragile ecology of the Venetian Lagoon, a rapidly transforming global economy that values profit over craft, and rising costs of fossil fuels from the war in Ukraine all threaten the fate of traditional Venetian glassblowing today. But, I’ll get into more of that later in the post. First, I think it’s important to provide a little historical context.
Without further ado, here is a grossly incomplete history of Murano:
Historians have many theories about how and when glass knowledge originally arrived in the Venetian Lagoon. Some say that the craft was brought to Venice during the 5th century by artisans fleeing the city of Aquileia (near Trieste) during invasions by the Visigoths and the Huns. Others posit that glass traditions were introduced by traders moving between Venice and the Eastern Mediterranean, including Hebron (in Palestine) and Syria. Both areas had long cultural traditions of glassmaking stretching back to ancient Phoenicia.
Sidenote: There is a strong case to be made for the role that Jewish artisans played in the history of glass in Venice. In fact, one of the earliest records of glassblowers in Venice is a list of 29 artisans from the year 1224. Many of the names on the list were of Semitic and Hebraic origin. Initially, the glassmaking studios were located near the Rialto district in Venice, an area where the Doge and the Council of 10 allowed Jewish traders to set up markets. I digress.
By 1271 the glassblowers guild was given official status by the city and demand for glass around the world was increasing. Two problems arose: The first was that the furnaces necessary for glassmaking posed the threat of fire to the existing wooden architecture of the rapidly growing city. More importantly, with continued innovation, glassmaking knowledge had become more and more economically valuable.
In order to monopolize the glass market and protect trade secrets, in 1291 authorities in Venice decided to relocate the glass industry to the island of Murano— 3.5 kilometers from Venice—effectively marooning all the glass maestros and their families. Then, in 1295 a law was passed that forbade the glassmakers from leaving the island. The punishment for leaving was expulsion from the guild, and the cost of betraying glass secrets was death. But some maestros managed to escape nonetheless, setting up their own studios in England, the Netherlands and Germany.
Here’s where things get really interesting. In the 1450 glassmaker Angelo Barovier realized that he could use halophytic saltwater plants (Salicornia veneta) from the lagoon to make soda ash — one of the 3 essential ingredients of glass— to produce an extremely clear, viscous glass. You may have seen plants called “glasswort” before, that’s how they got their name. The glass produced from the soda ash of lagoon plants was given the name “cristallo” for the clarity and high quality of the glass it produced. This allowed for the production of mirrors, and Murano was the only place in the world that could make them. Thus, the ecology of the lagoon was an essential part of the evolution of glass technology and glassmaking.
In order to appease the imprisoned community on Murano, Venetian authorities bestowed upon the glass families the right to bear arms (swords), allowed them immunity from prosecution, gave them the summers off from work, and permitted the daughters of glassblowing families to marry into the Venetian aristocracy.
And so this little island functioned as a self-contained society for hundreds of years. The Muranese minted their own currency, developed their own dialect and worshipped at their own churches. Glass techniques, practices and secrets were passed through families, fortunes were built and lost, and a culture was constructed around a difficult, resource intensive, and rarefied art form.
Over the next 400 years the industry boomed (the 15th and 16th century) and faded (the 17th-18th centuries). A particularly low point was Napoleon’s invasion of Venice in 1797 —that guy was a TOTAL DICK—and his abolition of the glass guilds. During the Hapsburg reign Bohemian crystal was favored over Venetian blown glass, and the raw materials imported into the Lagoon in order to make the glass were taxed at an extremely high rate. Almost half of the factories on the island closed during the 19th century.
Fast forward to the 20th century when a lawyer from Milan, Paolo Venini (our dear friend Alice’s great grandfather), bought a glass factory on Murano and decided to employ two fledgling architect/designers: Gio Ponti (one of my favorite designers) and 26-year-old Carlo Scarpa (legend) to modernize glass design. It is my opinion —ahem, hot take — that their work for Venini provided an aesthetic template upon which much of the contemporary glass world has been relying ever since.
In the 1970’s a few guys from the newly established studio glass movement in the US came to Murano to learn Venetian technique from the glass masters. They then invited two Italian maestros, Checco Ongaro (from Venini) and Lino Tagliapietra back to Pilchuck Glass School, in Stanwood, Washington, to teach a growing number of young artists how to blow traditional Venetian glass. The ideas and techniques they brought with them spread throughout glassmaking studios and classrooms in America, eventually trickling down to people like Andy.
In 1970 upwards of 6000 people were employed in the glass factories of Murano. Today there are only around 1000 people on the island working in glass, and that number pre-dates the energy crisis stemming from the war in Ukraine. Currently around 40% of Italy’s gas supplies arrive from Russia, which is proving to be a challenging obstacle to glassmaking in Murano. The cost of gas is so high right now —a 600% increase—that it is irrevocably altering the glassmaking model on the island.
I should pause for a moment to say that writing about this subject feels a little tricky. I am neither a glass artist nor glass historian, and my observations are those of someone who is adjacent to this community. I am invested because Andy is invested, and also because I believe that the cultural contributions of Muranese glass deserve not only to be protected, but carried forward. I am also an outsider in an insular community at a time of real uncertainty.
Andy and I have a running joke that contemporary glass is essentially a group of ripped dudes making large pink vases from the bodies of dead dinosaurs. What used to be funny about that joke— the absurdity of macho glass culture, the saturation of the market with goods nobody really needs, and the heedless waste of fossil fuels—doesn’t really seem that funny anymore. Actually, it feels like more of a cautionary tale. It cannot and should not go on this way. Figuring out how to pivot is the challenge.
The tug of war between tradition and evolution is ongoing on Murano. The historical origin story of the glass industry and the cultural traditions stemming from initial imprisonment and isolation all contribute to a closed culture that protects itself through strict allegiance to tradition and family. Although the island is open for business, as evidenced by the numerous shops and galleries that line its canals, it is not necessarily open to new ideas about how things might change. And outsiders coming in to propose possible solutions aren’t always welcomed with open arms.
Obviously there are exceptions. There are older maestros working towards efficiency as a way to survive this shaky time, and there are young people like our friend Roberto, who is coming up with ingenious technical solutions to problems of sustainability and inviting people from around the world into his studio to work.
But the problems of how to move forward persist. What do you do when your economy is focused on glass tourism and the price of making glass is prohibitively high? How do you maintain a sense of community and place when your home is inundated with tourists every day? And how do you evolve and change while still respecting and protecting a historical legacy?
My favorite thing about living on Murano is the lagoon. The windows of our apartment open out towards the island of Sant Erasmo in the east and Venice towards the south. In the mornings I can tell time by the sounds of boat traffic; at 3 am the first fishermen head swiftly into the wilder areas of the lagoon, and around 5am the vaporetti (water buses) begin to travel with increasing frequency. This afternoon as I made lunch, I noticed a large flamboyance of flamingoes (yup, a flamboyance) congregating in the tidal grasses and salicornia just east of our apartment.
I really love taking a vaporetto as my main means of transportation, mostly because being out on the water is incredible. The novelty has not worn off, even on the coldest and wettest days. Two weeks ago an enormous storm battered the lagoon, testing the limits of the new MOSE tidal barrier. I had the unfortunate experience of being on a vaporetto in the middle of the storm —I was the only passenger on the boat which says everything — experiencing my first bout of seasickness, and also seriously fearing that the boat might capsize. Despite being shaken by the ride, I happily jumped on the boat again the next morning.
I also return over and over again to the butcher shop on the island, Macelleria da Sergio (he makes the most insanely delicious potatoes and an excellent roast chicken), and to the vegetable vendor Luigina; she is tender and patient with me, and has beautiful and tasty produce. The gelato shop Murano Gelateria Artiginale (now closed for the winter) is our favorite in all of Venice. And the back of the island, with the boat club, the soccer fields, playgrounds, tennis club and walking paths continues to be a place of respite and normalcy.
The glass tourism on Murano is another story. The rhythms of tourism seem to go something like this: In the high season the tourists begin to arrive between 9 and 10 am, and leave around 5. During that time they swarm the narrow walkways of the island with little regard for anyone or anything that might get in the way of their window shopping or picture taking. During the low season (now) the daily onslaught comes more sporadically, with small-sized cruise ships docking in the canals and groups of tourists decamping for an hour or two at a time. Trying to get anything accomplished (walking, grocery shopping, etc.) during peak visitor hours can be frustrating.
Like most aspects of late capitalism and consumer culture, this tourism seems bereft of much that is meaningful or real. If you arrive on the island looking to have an easily accessible, genuine experience, you will not readily find it. What you will encounter instead is a lot of mass-produced glass, only some of which is actually made on the island. You’ll encounter shop after shop that caters to tourists that simply want to buy something as a keepsake, with little regard or care for what that thing actually is or how or where it was made (unfortunately, sometimes the answer is China).
That is not to say that there is not really beautiful glassware to be found here, it’s just that it can be more difficult to obtain. The same goes for the factories. Most of the factories that allow visitors are doing it as a sort of glass theater and as a way to hock glass. Most functioning factories and smaller studios are not opening their doors to visitors (Wave being one of the exceptions).
Like anywhere, the only way to get a more genuine experience is to slow down, explore more carefully and move beyond the obvious. Sitting on a bench in the square near Osteria La Perla Ai Bisatei (simple and delicious traditional Venetian food) and observing for awhile will yield a much more fruitful understanding of the island and the people who live here than just walking from store to store. The cemetery also reveals a complex and interesting story of the island. And I also highly recommend a visit to the Museo del Vetro (Museum of Glass) and the Basilica of Santa Maria and Donato to see the incredible mosaics.
Though we are lucky to have a few friends here on the island already, it is not an easy place to meet new people. It’s taken us months to even get a nod of the head from the people we encounter on a daily basis. My modus operandi has been to frequent the same vendors, stores and cafe over and over again, hoping that eventually they will realize that I keep showing up and they’ll be a little kinder and more open. So far I’ve had extremely limited success. Learning Italian is also part of that plan.
With that as the goal, I finally started my formal Italian language study. As a result, I learned that I’ve been telling people I’ll be living on Murano for one anus, rather than one year. The pronunciation of the word “anno” (year) changes to the word “ano” (anus) if you elongate the “ahhh” sound at the beginning of the word, rather than the two n’s in the middle.
So that seems like an appropriate place to sign off.
Watched and really loved the film Bergman Island directed by Mia Hansen Love. This movie is sneakily great, and it’s stuck with me.
Cleo and I watched and were deeply moved by the film The Swimmers directed by Sally El Hosaini. It prompted some really interesting discussions about refugees, war and current events.
Watching and devouring this season of “White Lotus.” Aesthetically it is everything. Also, the soundtrack has some serious bangers, including this song that I have on constant repeat.
Andy and I just finished watching the show “The English.” It has many flaws (the orchestral soundtrack is a melodramatic mess), and it is SO violent, but it is also gorgeous and a fascinating glimpse into the absolute depravity of the history of the late 19th century in Wyoming.
Just read the book “Outline” by Rachel Cusk. It was stylistically so different from anything I’ve ever read. Ostensibly it’s autofiction (I guess it’s my favorite genre???) but the narrator is only revealed through her sharp observations and detailed interactions with others during a short stint in Athens. Worth a read.
I tore through the book “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Otessa Moshfegh. It’s told from the perspective of a woman in her early twenties who is attempting to sedate herself with pharmaceutical drugs effectively enough to hibernate/sleep for a year. Apparently Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite, The Lobster) is planning on directing the adaptation which sounds intriguing. I have no idea (yet) what I think about this book other than I found it compelling and also completely maddening. I’d love to talk about it with someone. Give a shout if you’ve read it!
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Thanks for sharing your insights about history. And thanks for including info about how the situation in Ukraine is impacting the glass business. For those of us in the states, we don't fully understand the impact to Europe resulting from the situation in Ukraine/Russia.
Separately, you look genuinely happy (and quite beautiful) in the photo of the 3 of you in Verona. That indicates to me that this year abroad was a good idea.
Thank you so much for sharing the history of glassmaking. Your post was so well researched and informative. The Vaparetto ride in the storm sounds quite scary but a not to be missed experience. :) As always your observations resonate so much with me and bring back memories. Some of the locals embraced us enthusiastically and some never did even when my Italian got passable. I will never forget going to a take-out place where you ordered in the morning and picked up a hot lasagne or baked ziti in the afternoon. I went in one morning and got in line with the locals. I was eyed with some suspicion but when the proprietess saw me she enthusiasically welcomed me with a hearty Ciao Patrizia! I felt like a local in that moment and it made me insanely happy. Enjoy your trip to Rome. One of our favorite places. Many many good gelato places too. :)