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Murano glass is a famous product of the Venetian island of Murano. Located 1.5 kilometers from the main city Venice, Italy, Murano has been a commercial port since as far back as the 7th century. By the 10th century, the city had become well known for its glassmakers, who created unique Murano glass. The tradition of glassmaking on the island continues to the present day with products from Murano being praised for their artistry and craftsmanship.
History of Murano glassmaking
It is believed that glassmaking in Murano originated in 8th century Rome, with significant Asian and Muslim influences, as Venice was a major trading port. Murano’s reputation as a center for glassmaking was born when the Venetian Republic, fearing fire and destruction of the city’s mostly wooden buildings, ordered glassmakers to move their foundries to Murano in 1291. Murano glass is still interwoven with Venetian glass.
Murano's glassmakers were soon the island’s most prominent citizens. By the 14th century, glassmakers were allowed to wear swords, enjoyed immunity from prosecution by the Venetian state, and their daughters permitted to marry into Venice’s most affluent families. However glassmakers were not allowed to leave the Republic. Many craftsmen took this risk and set up glass furnaces in surrounding cities and as far afield as England and the Netherlands.
By the end of the 16th century, three thousand of Murano island's seven thousand inhabitants were involved in some way in the glassmaking industry.
Murano’s glassmakers held a monopoly on quality glassmaking for centuries, developing or refining many technologies including crystalline glass, enamelled glass (smalto), glass with threads of gold (aventurine), multicoloured glass (millefiori), milk glass (lattimo), and imitation gemstones made of glass. Today, the artisans of Murano are still employing these centuries-old techniques, crafting everything from contemporary art glass and glass figurines to Murano glass chandeliers and wine stoppers.
Today, Murano is home to a vast number of factories and a few individual artists' studios making all manner of glass objects from mass marketed stemware to original sculpture. The Museo del Vetro (Glass Museum) in the Palazzo Giustinian houses displays on the history of glassmaking as well as glass samples ranging from Egyptian times through the present day.
Murano Glass was produced in great quantities in the 1950s and 1960s for export and for tourists.
The art of glassmaking
The process of making Murano glass is rather complex. Most Murano glass art is made using the lampworking technique. The glass is made from silica, which becomes liquid at high temperatures. As the glass passes from a liquid to a solid state, there is an interval wherein the glass is soft before it hardens completely, allowing the artisan to shape the material.
Murano glass today
Some of Murano's historical glass factories remain well known brands today, amongst them Gabbiani, Venini, Salviati, Barovier & Toso, Pauly, FerroMurano, Berengo Studio, Seguso, Formia International, Simone Cenedese, Alessandro Mandruzzato, and many others. The oldest glass factory is Antica Vetreria Fratelli Toso, founded in 1854.
Overall, the industry has been shrinking as demand has waned. Imitation works from Asia and Eastern Europe take an estimated 40% - 45% of the market for Murano Glass, and public tastes have changed while the designs in Murano have largely stayed the same. Due to these factors, as well as the difficult and low-paying nature of the work, the number of professional glassmakers in Murano has decreased from about 6000 in 1990 to less than 1000 today.
In an effort to curb imitations, a collection of companies and concerned individuals in Murano created a trademark to certify authenticity. Today about 50 companies use the Artistic Glass Murano® trademark of origin. The trademark was introduced by and continues to be regulated by Region of Veneto Law no.70 of the 23/12/1994. Factories on the island are not required to apply for the trademark and many choose not to, but if a work carries the trademark, its authenticity is guaranteed.
The other raw materials, called flux or melting agents, soften at lower temperatures. The more sodium oxide present in the glass, the slower it solidifies. This is important for hand-working because it allows the glassmaker more time to shape the material. The various raw materials that an artisan might add to a glass mixture are sodium (to make the glass surface opaque), nitrate and arsenic (to eliminate bubbles) and colouring or opacifying substances.
Colours, techniques and materials
Colours, techniques and materials vary depending upon the look a glassmaker is trying to achieve. Aquamarine is created through the use of copper and cobalt compounds, whereas ruby red uses a gold solution as a colouring agent.
Murrine technique begins with the layering of coloured liquid glass, which is then stretched into long rods called canes (see caneworking). When cold, these canes are then sliced in cross-section, which reveals the layered pattern. The better-known term "millefiori" is a style of murrine that is defined by each layer of molten colour being molded into a star, then cooled and layered again. When sliced, this type of murrine has the appearance of many flowers, thus mille- (thousand) fiori (flowers).
Sommerso (lit. "submerged" in Italian), or "sunken glasses", is a form of artistic Murano glass that has layers of contrasting colours (typically two), which are formed by dipping the object in molten glass; the outermost layer, or casing, is often clear. Sommerso was developed in Murano during the late thirties and was made popular by Seguso d'Arte in the fifties. This process is a popular technique for vases, and is sometimes used for sculptures.
Special tools are essential for Murano artisans to make their glass. Some of these tools include borselle (tongs or pliers used to hand-form the red-hot glass), canna da soffio (blowing pipe), pontello (an iron rod to which the craftsman attaches the object after blowing in order to add final touches), scagno (the glass-master's workbench) and tagianti (large glass-cutting clippers). The tools for glass-blowing have changed little over the centuries and remain simple. An old Murano saying goes "Good tools are nice, but good hands are better," reinforcing the artistic nature of the glass-making process, which relies on the skill of the worker rather than the use of special tools. 
In popular culture
In The Sopranos episode, "A Hit Is a Hit", Tony Soprano's neighbor, Jean Cusimano, hosts a dinner party, at which she comments about the Soprano home: "Oh, but that bar with the goombah Murano glass". Dinner party guest (and Tony's psychiatrist), Dr. Jennifer Melfi, responds: "I like Murano glass". This exchange occurred in the context of a larger conversation that addressed the blurred distinctions amongst various socio-economic classes of Italian-Americans and between gangsters and successful professionals.
- Sharon Stajda. "Murano Glass".
- "Venice Glass Museum Official Website". Retrieved December 15, 2012.
- Derek Ferrar, photos by Linny Morris Cunningham (June/July 2002). "Eye Candy". Hana Hou! Vol. 5, No. 3.
- Carl I. Gable, Murano Magic: Complete Guide to Venetian Glass, its History and Artists (Schiffer, 2004), p. 44. ISBN 0-7643-1946-9.
- John Hooper, Glassmakers of Murano fight to survive influx of cheap imitations, The Guardian, 30 January 2012
- Guide to Murano trademark
- Corning Museum of Glass, Tools of the Glassmaker
- IMDb. "Memorable quotes for "The Sopranos" A Hit is a Hit (1999)". Retrieved November 20, 2010.
- History of Murano Glass
- The Heart of Venice: International Competition for Ideas
- Promovetro Consortium, Association of a group of Murano Glassmakers
- Corning Museum of Glass
- Glasstress - Contemporary artists and Murano glass at the Biennale of Venice