Murano, the Glass Island
An illustrated travel guide to Murano, Italy, an island in the Venetian Lagoon where glass has been made for more than 700 years.
In English-speaking countries, glass artisans are often performer-pitchmen at craft shows and festivals, where they blow glass baubles for a few dollars or pounds each.
However, there was a time when the trade of glassblowing--indeed, glassmaking in general--was an elite pursuit dominated by craftsmen in the Venetian Republic, most notably on the island of Murano in the Venetian Lagoon.
"Supplying quality glass products since 1291"
Murano was a commercial port as far back as the 7th Century, and by the 10th Century it had grown into a prosperous trading center with its own coins, police force, and commercial aristocracy.
Then, in 1291, the Venetian Republic ordered glassmakers to move their foundries to Murano because the glassworks represented a fire danger in Venice, whose buildings were mostly wooden at the time.
It wasn't long until Murano's glassmakers were the leading citizens on the island. Artisans were granted the right to wear swords and enjoyed immunity from prosecution by the notoriously high-handed Venetian state.
By the late 14th Century, the daughters of glassmakers were allowed to marry into Venice's blue-blooded families. (This was roughly equivalent to Archie Bunker's daughter being invited to wed a Cabot or a Peabody.)
Such pampered treatment had one catch: Glassmakers weren't allowed to leave the Republic.
If a craftsman got a hankering to set up shop beyond the Lagoon, he risked being assassinated or having his hands cut off by the secret police--although, in practice, most defectors weren't treated so harshly.
What made Murano's glassmakers so special? For one thing, they were the only people in Europe who knew how to make glass mirrors.
They also developed or refined technologies such as crystalline glass, enameled glass (smalto), glass with threads of gold (aventurine), multicolored glass (millefiori), milk glass (lattimo), and imitation gemstones made of glass.
Their virtual monopoly on quality glass lasted for centuries, until glassmakers in Northern and Central Europe introduced new techniques and fashions around the same time that colonists were emigrating to the New World.
Commerce, art, and kitsch
Murano is still an exporter of traditional products like mirrors and glassware, and its factories produce modern items such as faucet handles, glass lampshades, and electric chandeliers.
At the retail level, there's a growing emphasis on art glass and--most important of all--the souvenir trade.
Visit the ubiquitous glass shops on Murano or in Venice, and you'll find countless paperweights, glass beads and necklaces, knickknacks, and items of glass jewelry.
Some items are amusing: e.g., colored fish in transparent glass aquariums, or wrapped hard candies of multicolored glass. Others are pretty--glass necklaces and beads, for example.
Still others are "hideous," in the words of Jan Morris, who adds:
To be fair, Murano's artisans do produce beautiful works of contemporary art from glass, although some of the designs are by foreign artists.
Visit the better galleries and showrooms on Murano, and you'll find works that are technically and aesthetically stunning. Also, don't miss the island's glass museums and leading churches.
To plan your trip to Murano (which is only a few minutes from central Venice by public waterbus), scroll through this guide and browse our menu of related content at the bottom of the page.
Murano's fascinating Museo Vetrario, a.k.a. the Glass Museum or Museum of Glass, offers a century-by-century tour of Venetian glassmaking.
The city-owned museum is located in the Palazzo Giustinian near the island's center.
It has samples of glass from Egyptian times through the present day, and the displays show how the art and manufacture of glass developed over the centuries.
Reaching the museum: The Museo Vetrario is on the Fondamenta Giustinian, between the Museo Actv (waterbus) stop and the Basilica of Santi Maria e Donato.
As you get off the boat at Museo, turn right, follow the fondamenta or canal sidewalk around the corner, and continue a short distance to the museum.
Accessibility: A staircase leads to the museum galleries, but a wheelchair lift is due to be installed at some point in the future. (E-mail [email protected] for current details.)
For up-to-date information, including ticket prices, see the English-language Museo del Vetro Web site.
The Barovier & Toso Museum
Barvovier & Toso, a long-established glassmaking dynasty and manufacturer of art glass on Murano, has a private museum with some 250 objects in the Palazzo Contarini (a.k.a. the Palazzo Borovier & Toso) on the Fondamenta Vetrai.
It also has an archive with more than 22,000 drawings, photos, and other documents related to glass.
The Palazzo and the museum were open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. the last time we checked. See the Palazzo page of the Barovier & Toso Web site for more information.
Murano Glass Factories
Public factory visits
The most interesting glass factories and ateliers on Murano aren't open to visitors, for two reasons:
Still, as you walk around Murano, you're likely to find mass-market fornaci or furnaces that welcome tourists. The V.I.A. factory is a good example:
From the Colonna waterbus stop, turn left as you exit the boat platform and walk along the water until you reach a "Fornace Glass" sign on a door below the Calle S. Cipriano street sign, pass beneath the entrance sign, follow the sidewalk, and enter the building to view a glassmaking demonstration for a small fee that can be credited against a purcase from the factory's shop.
The demonstration takes less than 10 minutes, but it's interesting if you haven't seen a glass furnace.
Tips for visiting:
Sightseeing on Murano
Nearly all of Murano's churches were torn down and replaced by housing or glass factories during the French and Austrian occupations (1797-1866). Today, only four churches remain, and two are open to visitors.
The Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato is the island's top sightseeing attraction, and it's one of the oldest and most interesting churches in the Venetian Lagoon.
The Venetian Byzantine building is deceptively simple in outward appearance, except for the colonnaded apse facing the Canale San Donato.
Inside is a different story: The richly-decorated interior has a lovely marble-and-mosaic floor that was laid in 1141, around the same time as the similar floor in Venice's Basilica di San Marco.
Another key architectural feature is the mosaic dome in the apse, which dates to the 12th Century and shows the Virgin Mary against a simple gold background.
The bell tower (see top photo) is separate from the church.
Visiting hours are 8-12 and 4-7 Monday through Saturday and 3:30-7 p.m. on Sundays. The basilica is on the Campo San Donato, just up the canal from the.
Murano's other important church is the Chiesa di San Pietro Martire, on the Campiello Michieli across from the Campo Santo Stefano in the middle of the island (just south of the bridge across Murano's main canal).
The church was first built in 1437, reconstructed in 1509 after a fire, and decorated with paintings by artists such as Veronese, Giovanni Bellini, Bartolomeo Letterini, and Domenico and Jacopo Tintoretto.
San Pietro Martire isn't nearly is pretty as Santi Maria e Donato, but it's worth a walk-through, and you can visit the adjacent sacristy and museum if you're a fan of church and human relics.
The Campo Santo Stefano is notable for its 19th Century clock tower, which was built on the foundations of a bell tower from a 12th Century parish church. (The church is long gone, though its decaying oratorio is still standing.)
You'll see a handful of other ancient palazzi and houses as you explore the island, along with plenty of brick glass factories and other industrial buildings from the 19th Century.
Buying Murano glass
Glass is why most people come to Murano, and there's no shortage of retail outlets (including factory showrooms) on the island.
If you're a casual buyer, you won't need a shopping guide: Just look in display windows, browse in shops that look interesting, and buy whatever strikes your fancy.
If you're serious about Venetian and Murano glass, we'd strongly recommend buying one or more of the books reviewed elsewhere in this article.
Other types of shops
Unless you're shopping for glass, there isn't much reason to shop on Murano, with these few exceptions:
Many shops and showrooms close for lunch at 12:30 or 1 p.m. and don't reopen until anywhere from 2 to 3:45 p.m. Weekend hours vary: Tourist-oriented shops are likely to be open on Saturdays and Sundays, while showrooms and galleries that cater primarily to the trade may be open only from Monday to Friday.
Banks and money
Murano has several bank branches and cash machines where you can obtain euros with your ATM card.
Murano is easy to reach from Venice by public transportation. Here's how to get there with the ACTV, Venice's transit company:
From S. Zaccaria (just up the waterfront promenade from the Piazza San Marco and the Doge's Palace):
From the Fondamente Nove (on the north side of the historic center, facing the Lagoon):
From the Piazzale Roma or Ferrovia (the bus and railroad stations):
From Venice Marco Polo Airport:
Where to stay
Murano has several hotels that are worth considering for a final night's stay if you have an early flight from Venice, since the Alilaguna airport boats take only 30 minutes to cover the distance from Murano to Marco Polo Airport. Visiting artists and glassmakers can put a strain on Murano's limited accommodations, so book early when possible.
Hyatt Centric Murano Venice
Another excellent place to stay is the Casa Sulla Laguna guesthouse, which is small and inexpensive.
Finally, Murano has a few vacation apartments that can be rented by the night or week. Try the excellent Ca' Mazzega Murano Grand Canal View Apartments, which consist of four holiday flats near the Murano Venier ACTV station.
Restaurants and cafés
Murano has a fair number of restaurants, cafés, and bars scattered along its canals, next to the Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato (right), and on the Campo Santo Stefano across the canal from the San Pietro Martire church.
Some are pricey, but you can easily find snack bars, osterie, pizzerias, and gelato parlors for every budget. Just check the menus before you go inside.
For recommendations with photos, see Michela and Nicoló Scibilia's Comprehensive Guide to the Island of Murano.
If you're really short on cash, you can buy sandwich makings, pizza by the slice, and other snack foods at the two-story, wheelchair-accessible InCoop supermarket and shopping center. InCoop is near the Colonna Actv boat stop, on the fondamenta that runs south along the canal from San Pietro Martire.
Murano was absorbed into the municipality of Venice in 1924 and is represented by the Venice Tourist Board. The island is small, so you'll find most of the information that you need in this guide or in any comprehensive Venice guidebook.
Murano glassmaking information and courses
To learn more about Murano glass production, visit the industry association's Web sites at www.promovetro.com and www.muranoglass.com. You'll also want to read Marco Piazzalunga's comprehensive article, "The Wonderful History of Venetian Glass Beads and Murano Glass Jewelry."
If you're seriously interested in glass, you can take classes at the Abate Zanetti Glass Center or read about the Experimental Glass Station on Murano. Another option is a 3- to 14-day mosaics class in Venice at Orsoni, which has been making glass and gold mosaics since 1888.
Most Venice guidebooks have short chapters or sections on Murano. Still, for in-depth advice on the island and its glassmakers, there's no substitute for Michela and Nicoló Scibilia's Comprehensive Guide to the Island of Murano.
This guidebook has a list price of €19,90 and is available in several languages, including an outstanding English translation by Giles Watson.
The book was published in 2007 and is now out of print, but if you're lucky, you may be able to find a copy at a secondhand bookseller such as Libreria Alta Acqua in Venice's Castello district.
The Scibilias' 162-page book discusses the island's history, the history and techniques of glassmaking, tourist itineraries, the leading glass factories and workshops (arranged by type of production), and hospitality.
The book is richly illustrated with glass photos, aerial pictures, and maps. It's well worth buying even if you aren't planning a trip to Murano but are interested in Murano glass.
We can also recommend Gianfranco Toso's Murano: A History of Glass, which was published in 2002 by Arsenale Editrice of Venice.
The inexpensive 190-page book is printed on quality paper and filled with beautiful color and black-and-white photographs.
In Venice, look for Murano: A History of Glass at museum gift shops, larger bookstores, Amazon.com, or the publisher's own store (Bookshop Arsenale Punto Libri, San Pantalon, Santa Croce 29).
Another book to consider is Carl I. Gable's Murano Magic, which is based on content that formerly existed on Mr. Gable's Murano Magic Web site.
One of our favorite Venice coffeetable books, Venice Master Artisans by Cristina Gregorin and Norbert Heyl, has profiles of leading Murano glassmakers. (See our illustrated review.)
Finally, don't miss Venice (U.S. title: The World of Venice), by Jan Morris (formerly James Morris). The noted British travel writer's entertaining blend of history, social commentary, and personal narrative is the definitive "must read" introduction to Venice and Venetians. The author's comments on Murano glass and factories are well worth reading.
Repairing and restoring Murano glass
We often get e-mails from readers who want us to repair, replace, or make replicas of their broken glassware, light fixtures, and other objects from Murano. Sorry, folks, but we aren't glassmakers, Murano glass dealers, or even glass collectors--we're writers who publish a European travel-planning site.
If you're looking for an item to replace a broken glass object, your best bet is to visit Murano (or Venice) and find a substitute that you like even better.
The island and city are dotted with glass galleries, shops, and factory showrooms that offer goods in every price range, so it's unlikely that you'll go home empty-handed.
If you must have an item repaired, or if you insist on commissioning a replica, we'd suggest contacting the original supplier or reading one of the books described in this article's section above to find a vendor that handles that type of item and accepts custom orders.
Another possibility is to contact an antique dealer or the glass curator at a museum to find a restorer within your own country.
Or read "Put a Crystal Vase Back Together" in The Washington Post, which listed two repair services in the United States when it was published a few years ago.
Warning: Restoration or custom replacement won't come cheap, so you might be better off buying a substitute on eBay if your object isn't valuable and you're strapped for cash.
The Scuola del Vetro Abate Zanetti offers training courses in glassblowing and other glass-related techniques for serious students who have time and money to spare.
Orsoni offers "Master in Mosaic" courses of 3 to 10 days at the Angelo Orsoni mosaic factory in Venice's Cannaregio district, which is a quick trip from Murano by public water bus. (Orsoni has been making mosaics since 1888. Its mosaics are in Venice's Basilica di San Marco, Barcelona's Sagrada Familia church by Antoni Gaudi, Rudolf Nureyev's Tomb in Paris, and the Golden Buddha in Sing Buri, Thailand.)
If you'd just like to spend a couple of hours making jewelry with Murano glass beads, check out Viator's Private Tour: Murano Glass Workshop.
Next page: More Murano photos
Inset photos copyright © Michel Velders (1),
George Green (2),
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