The island of Murano is closely linked to the idea of Venetian glass. Here, the Glass Museum, part of the Venice Civic Museums Foundation, has been locatd in a former patrician palace for a century. Despite being possibly less famous among the large audience than other counterparts, such as the Corning Museum of Glass in the United States or the glassware section of the V&A in London, the Museo del Vetro in Murano is surely worth a visit. It hosts not only a rich collection of early modern glassware and a bountiful section of contemporary glass-artworks but it is also suggestive for the context it is situated in: that very same isle where many of the items on display were created.
The permanent exhibition is divided into eight main rooms. Thousands of pieces are displayed in chronological order and arranged typologically.
The itinerary begins with a room that traces the history of glassmaking back to its origins, where fragments and pieces produced or found in the wider Mediterranean area are shown; these include items from the pre- and Roman and early Medieval period (bestowing particular consideration upon Byzantine glass) and which are therefore not strictly linked to Venice and Murano glass manufacturing. The conclusive part is focused on glass masterpieces created by the Muranese glass industry during the second half of the 19th century and on recent works from contemporary glassmakers till nowadays.
However, it is the central part of the exhibition that catches the eye of visitors and scholars interested in the golden age of Venetian glassmaking, from the later Middle Ages and the Early modern period to its revival of splendid classics during the 18th century. Thematic rooms, such as the ones dedicated to chalcedony glass or to glassbeads provide a deeper knowledge of the Venetian glassmakers’ capability to continuously innovate their craft through the centuries and show how they satisfied a demand from different markets. For instance, in the 17th century they introduced drops of sparkling ‘avventurina’ glass to gleam the usually very dark shininess of chalcedony, and by doing so improved their imitation of the characteristics of the namesake natural stone. The same can be observed in the room where visitors can appreciate the incredible multiplicity of glassbeads shapes and motifs, as immediately noticeable in the case of the sets of samples hanged at the walls and dating from the 19th century, which mirror the coeval catalogues now in the archives.
With regard to the research project, the main chamber (the old ‘portego’ of the palace) was undoubtedly the room I found most interesting during my visit: in a luminous atmosphere, that exalts the natural transparency of glass, a rich collection of early modern examples of what the ingenuity of Venetian glassmakers could create is on display. Visitors can find some of the most renowned pieces of the collection, such as the coppa Barovier (a blue enamelled cup designed as a wedding gift and due its delicacy traditionally – but not historically – attributed to the famous master Angelo Barovier), but also some oddities like lamps and candlesticks in animal and human shape or even rarities such as a glass trumpet.
Despite the beauty and refinement of the single pieces, what I appreciated most was the opportunity to compare, side by side, dozens of specimens of the same typology of items, as there showcases are sorted by groups on the basis of the glass style. From graceful enamelled flasks and beakers decorated with dotted floral motifs in red, blue and gold, typical of the early Renaissance period, to refined ‘glass ice’ objects reproducing their frozen effect in trays and buckets, and to the sophisticated and intricated designs of crystal “filigree glass”, so popular and appreciated since its invention at the beginning of the 16th century.
Sets of similar objects from close-range periods and analogous roots displayed one next to the other prove that despite being blown into moulds or entirely shaped by glassmakers, there were main forms and decorative motifs followed for every type of object, even for the high quality products. As a consequence, often only small particulars were to differ from one to the other and the element of the creative touch was less common and less important than what we contemporary viewers are used to think; a fact that their similarity manifests at a first glance. Next to commissioned production of single stylish items demanded by courts and notables (often under specific shape requests as well known from documentary sources), these samples show that not only common glassware, but also more refined high quality crystal items could be born from serial standardized production, in order to satisfy large but less rich or sophisticated vending markets; in doing so their added value could come from single small variations, such as tiny details in their ornamental motifs or shape. After all, sketched catalogues of products still existing in the archives, and originally thought to be given to important clients, seem to confirm this aspect, proving the same range of recurring sets distinguished only by lesser features. An aspect strictly linked to the production system of the time, in which not only the master, but all the workers of the furnace were, in different moments, part of that unique process that ended both in common glassware and in this range of production. A consideration that also links to what emerges from the visit to the thematic rooms mentioned above.
As nowadays we tend to think of high quality glass production as single pieces created by a single master/artist, materiality incredibly helps in considering and remembering that in the early Modern period also ‘artistic glass’ was more a branch of a mass production than a manufacturing by itself. Artistic glassmaking was not only a labour of art, instead often created by the same men and furnaces that worked the cheaper and massive production of common glass. By consequence, the organization of work reflects on the products and vice versa and having comparable objects displayed next to each other improves its understanding. The same is true when we consider the production outside Venice, the façon de Venise, and how it spread, often with the help of Venetian immigrants (some of those objects, especially from Spain, are also on display near the Venetian pieces).
A sharing of shapes and taste that a stroll in Murano can also help to explain. At a very short foot distance from the Museum entrance, after crossing just a couple of bridges, there is the rio dei verieri (‘the canal of the glassmakers’) overlooked by the two alleys where furnaces and glass-shops were located since the Middle Ages. Workshops follow one another along and the visitor can physically notice how small the area is where such a renowned production was located, how limited is the parish of Saint Stephen’s church where the vast majority of the furnaces concentrated for many centuries: a spot even inside the Venetian lagoon. But here not a disadvantage, instead a useful circumstance that during the Renaissance permitted to technical knowledge, ideas and tastes to spread and refine fast, together with the men that worked and lived here side by side.
In addition, we can also appreciate that the physical proximity of the workshops mirrors how during the centuries the needs of the glass industry projected into the urban plan of the island, materializing the economic identity of the Muranese glass manufacturing into the shape of the production site. The rio dei verieri not only was the main canal to wedge itself into the narrow alleys of the isle, but its economic heart too. Here both side alleys still run wide and straight, as in past times they had to allow an easy loading and unloading of the goods headed to and from the Venetian market. In the same way the projecting floors of the buildings remind that in those ground floors the glass-shops and the furnaces were usually located and that under those porticos crates full of glassware waited to be sold, as probably happened to the pieces admired at the museum.