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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.

Murano glassblower

ABOVE: A glassblower offers a free tourist demonstration at the V.I.A. fornace near Murano's Colonna waterbus stop.

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 stained glassMurano 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.

Antique Murano vaseIt 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.)

  • Need a hotel, B&B, or vacation rental on Murano? See "Where to stay."

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.

Murano wineglassWhat 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.

Murano glass candyVisit 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:

"The Venetians still profess to find Murano glass lovely, but sophisticates in the industry, if you manage to crack their shell of salesmanship, will admit that bilious yellow is not their favorite color, and agree that one or two of the chandeliers might with advantage be a little more chaste."

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 or browse the menu at the bottom of each page.

Next page: Murano glass museums

In this Murano travel guide:
Murano (introduction)
Glass museums
Glass factories
Sightseeing on Murano
Hotels, B&Bs, apts
Restaurants & cafés
Tourist information
Glass repair & mosaic courses
More Murano photos

Also see:
Venice Islands Tour (by public transportation)

About the author:

Durant Imboden photo.Durant Imboden has written about Venice, Italy since 1996. He covered Venice and European travel at for 4-1/2 years before launching Europe for Visitors (including Venice for Visitors) with Cheryl Imboden in 2001.

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