Lampworking on Murano

Murano Through The Ages

Since ancient times people have paid an almost mystic attention to glass, attributing something magical and supernatural to this transparent material. Magicians predicted the future by gazing into a crystal sphere and chemists and alchemists studied prisms in search of a stone which would turn metal into gold. Like the fire that gave life to the popular belief of the Phoenix (the mythological bird with the golden plumes) glass became synonymous with beauty.

    Even now visitors to Venice find the same scenes which inspired writers and legends. The furnace structures have remained largely unaltered over time and new technology is rarely found. All this is because of the attachment the craftworkers have toward tradition. They seem to have frozen in time over more than a thousand years of history.

    The origins of the art of glass blowing in Venice can be traced back to the 7th Century. This is confirmed by a document written by a Benedict monk named Domenico who manufactured phials for use in the home. The technique used to make the phials was that of blowing into glass using the same instruments Roman glassblowers had invented before passing them down through the ages. It is presumed that the technique was refined in Venice more than elsewhere in Europe because of its trading contacts with the Orient and with peoples that had an ancient tradition in glass blowing including the Syrians and the Egyptians. This mix of traditions gave Venetian production a uniqueness that has made its glass so important throughout the world.

    Murano itself is usually described as an island in the Venetian lagoon, although like Venice itself it is actually an archipelago of islands linked by bridges. It lies about a mile north of Venice and is the most famous 'district' of Venice for glass making, particularly lampworking. It was settled by the Romans and first prospered through fishing and the production of salt before becoming a major port for trade.


Murano in the prospective map by Jacopo de'Barbari
Reproduced with the kind permission of Correr Museum, Venice, Italy.

    Murano’s reputation as a center for glass making was born when the Venetian Republic, fearing fire and destruction to the city’s mostly wood buildings, ordered glassworkers to move their foundries to Murano in 1291. The glassworkers were soon the island’s most prominent citizens. By the 14th Century glass makers were allowed to wear swords, enjoyed immunity from prosecution by the Venetian state and found their daughters married into Venice’s most affluent families. Of course, there was a catch: glassworkers weren't allowed to leave the Republic. However, some craftsmen escaped and set up glass furnaces in surrounding cities and as far afield as England and the Netherlands.

    Murano’s glassworkers held a monopoly on quality glass making for centuries, developing or refining many technologies including crystal, enameled glass (smalto), glass with threads of gold (aventurine), multicolored glass (millefiori) and milk glass (lattimo). Today, the artisans of Murano are still employing these century-old techniques, crafting everything from contemporary art glass to glass chandeliers and glass beads for jewellery.


Murano Glass Beads

There are many different methods a Murano glassworker can employ in the creation of beads depending upon the desired result. With infinite possibilities in colour and texture the manufacture of desired beads is a careful and delicate process. The process begins with the production of solid or hollow coloured glass canes using the finest quality Moretti crystal, a task which presents a significant challenge of its own. The compounds involved in color fabrication are extremely sensitive so they must be mixed with absolute accuracy. Aquamarine is created through the use of copper and cobalt, green with iron, blue with cobalt, purple with boron, amber with manganese, red with selenium. Ruby red is achieved by adding a gold solution. A wide variety of precious metals and compounds are used to create the brilliant colours and effects found in Murano glass beads.

    Most Murano beads are made using the lampworking technique, a method which was invented by a Murano mastercraftsman in the 1700's. Lampworking is the most time consuming mode of glass bead making as each one is formed individually. Using a torch for heat, glass canes are heated to a molten state and spun around a metal rod (usually copper) until the ideal shape is achieved. Several layers of different coloured glass, precious metal dust or foil including 24 Carat gold and 925 Sterling Silver and compounds such as Aventurina (a bronze-like compound) are used to produce the desired effect. Once the bead has cooled it is removed from the rod producing a hole for eventual stringing. While lampworked foil beads represent the bulk of manufacturing on Murano a wide variety of other manufacturing methods exist producing different forms of bead including:
Seedbeads (Conterie). Seedbeads are small round beads. To produce this tiny bead, hollow canes of coloured glass are formed then chopped and re-fired for roundness and shade.

Chevron Beads (Rosetta). These beads are made from a hollow cane of six layers of glass typically: white; blue; white; brick red; white; and finally blue. After this layering the canes are chopped and re-fired to produce individual smooth beads. The product is distinguished by a red, white and blue zigzag pattern.

Lace Beads (Millefiori). The vibrant and abstract millefiori beads are made in a similar fashion to Chevron beads but from a solid cane of multiple layers of coloured glass.

Venetian Blown Beads (Filigrana and Filigree). When lampworking was introduced beadmakers soon discovered they could melt the canes and then blow the glass, producing beads with stripes of colour and spirals.


                                                         Abstract          Sommerso            Klimt             Millefiori              Miro               Missoni

Typical patterns include:
Abstract. Abstract features gold or silver foil over opaque (pasta) Moretti crystal and possibly the use of other randon colours.

Sommerso. Sommerso glass beads are named after the technique which submerges different colours beneath Moretti crystal. The use of gold, silver and aventurina dust gives them sparkle.

Klimt. Gold foil under a layer of clear Moretti crystal. Often found with millefiori exterior.

Millefiori. Millefiori means 'thousand flowers' in Italian. These are thought of as the more traditional Murano glass beads.

Miro. Worked with Moretti crystal over gold or silver foil then decorated with bright colors and abstract designs.

Missoni. Multiple coloured stripes inside transparent coloured Moretti crystal filled with gold or white gold foil.