Why Is Murano Glass So Special (and Expensive)? Experts Give Us 8 Reasons

The Getty store justifies a cup‘s $ 45 noting that it is from the Venetian island of Murano, “famous for its highly prized collector’s glass”. Walmart writes that a $ 57.95 plum figurine embodies the “richness of colors, originality and unparalleled know-how of Murano”.

Stunning yet expensive, Murano glass is often sold this way: as the epitome of style and quality. But what, exactly, does it make it so special? And how did it become an international brand with such a strong resonance in the United States?

These questions are at the heart of “Sargent, Whistler and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano”At the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC (The exhibit is on view until May 8, when it will visit the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth.)

We asked exhibition curator Alex Mann, now chief curator of the Telfair Museums of Savannah, and other experts for an update on this popular material. Here’s why it’s captivated audiences the world over – and commanded such high prices – for centuries.

Manufactured by Compagnia di Venezia e Murano (CVM), Vase with dolphins and flowers (ca. 1880-1890).  Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Manufactured by Compagnia di Venezia and Murano (CVM), Vase with dolphins and flowers (circa 1880-1890). Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

1. Its know-how is unprecedented

Murano glass comes in many shapes and sizes, from relatively simple shapes to incredibly delicate and intricate constructions. It is unified by one common trait, according to Mann: excellence. Murano artisans shared “the ambition to be at the top of their field or their skills,” he told Artnet News.

The 150 objects in the SAAM exhibition, which runs from 1860 to 1915, reveal what American collectors considered to be excellent, which involved complexity, variety of colors, lightness and delicacy. (“If you define ‘excellence’ as durability, Murano glass fails,” Mann joked.)

The long and rich history of Murano glassmaking, which dates back to the Renaissance in Murano and to Antiquity when Italy was part of the Roman Empire, contributes to its uniqueness. The high quality materials used in the region “have resulted in the creation of some of the most elegantly designed and expertly crafted glass to be found in all of Western Europe,” said Diane Wright, Senior Glass Curator and contemporary crafts at the Toledo Museum of Art. From the moment it was produced, she said, “this glass has been sold and admired around the world.”

Italy, Veneto, glass processing in Murano, 1955 (Photo: Touring Club Italiano / Marka / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Glass processing in Murano, 1955. (Photo: Touring Club Italiano / Marka / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

2. It’s a little mysterious

An aura of another world surrounds Murano. The history of Italian glass production was fascinating and mysterious to American buyers, as glass making was not (and still is not) intuitive. “Unlike painting or drawing, it is complex in terms of material and involves equipment and skills that require a bit of extra explanation,” Mann noted. Even when you know how glass is made, many still see “a little bit of magic or witchcraft going on”.

Venetian glass beads discovered in Alaska.  Photo: Lester Ross.  Courtesy of Robin Mills.

Venetian glass beads found in Alaska. Photo: Lester Ross. Courtesy of Robin Mills.

3. It served as currency

Art-blown Murano glass has greatly contributed to the island’s reputation among Grand Tour visitors, but Murano glass beads should not be ignored. They were the bread and butter of Venice when one-time luxury glass incomes fluctuated. More than half of Murano’s glassmakers made beads, according to Mann. (Beads, mosaics, and blown glass are separate processes, produced in different kilns and factories.)

Innovative research published last year identified Venetian glass beads in Alaska decades before Christopher Columbus’ voyage, making them the first European artefacts to be found on the continent. But beneath their shiny plating, Murano pearls have a dark history. Scholars refer to them as “pearls of the trade” because they were traded, often in large quantities, in Africa, India and China, and with Native Americans in North America. Pearls were traded for slaves, gold, and gems in transactions that were often abusive for those on the other end of the transaction (not to mention those being traded).

Attributed to the Societa Veneziana per l'industria delle Conterie & Stephen A. Frost & Son, Sample Card with Millefiori and Flag Beads, (late 19th century-1904).  Courtesy of the Illinois State Museum.

Attributed to Venetian Society for the Conterie Industry & Stephen A. Frost & Son, Sample card with Millefiori and flag beads (late 19th century-1904). Courtesy of the Illinois State Museum.

4. It wasn’t just a man’s game

Although the men worked in the factories of Murano in the midst of the heat and flames, the women were heavily involved in the making of the beads. “Bead making was a multistep process, in which some steps occurred outside of factory settings, as some tasks – sorting and threading – could be done in home settings,” said Mann. Venice’s economy benefited from the ability of pearl production to integrate a larger workforce, which provided secondary income to individual households.

John Singer Sargent, A Venetian Woman, (1882).  Cincinnati Art Museum.  Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

John Singer Sargent, A venetian woman (1882). Cincinnati Art Museum. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

5. It inspired other artists

American tourists began to notice Murano in the 1860s, when Italy gained independence and its glass kilns resumed full swing. The artists were among the most enthusiastic first visitors to the island. John Singer Sargent, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and others shared their Venetian experiences, including glass-making, with the American public, and 19th-century Americans enjoyed Murano glass in their homes, offices, and world fairs.

Objects also began to appear in art. Once Mann trained his eyes, he almost couldn’t to not see glass in paintings, especially in interior genre scenes. Many viewers have probably seen paintings by Whistler and Sargent which depict glass without realizing it; we can come back and take a page from “Where’s Charlie?”

Today, many successful American artists reflect the influence of Murano in their techniques and styles (think: Dale Chihuly, Josiah McElheny, Fred Wilson). “This speaks to the interdependence of art movements, as well as the importance of global experiences in fostering creativity,” Wright said.

Installation photograph by Sargent, Whistler and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano, 2021, courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum;  Photos by Albert Ting.

Installation photograph from “Sargent, Whistler and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano”, 2021. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum; Photos by Albert Ting.

6. It hasn’t always been popular

In recent decades, Murano glass has gone out of fashion. Since the 1920s and 1930s, collectors and museums have preferred more streamlined and traditionally modernist forms to ornate glass. “In many institutions, the pieces are no longer visible,” Mann said. “In a way, we were discovering or cataloging and paying new attention to objects that had probably not been on display in these institutions, including the Smithsonian, for half a century or more.

Smithsonian Museum of American Art

Vittorio Zanetti, Fish and Eel Vase (around 1890). Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

7. He embodied “art for the sake of art”

By the end of the 19th century, the idea of ​​art for the sake of art was strong and this concept also spread to Murano glass. the Fish and Eel Vase (c. 1890) included in the SAAM spectacle is a perfect example of unnecessary beauty. Despite the name, “it’s surprisingly not utilitarian,” Mann said. The complex object, which the SAAM website notes has no historical precedent, appears to defy gravity. “There was definitely a premium on delicacy, fragility, and complexity that promoted a specific set of ideals consistent with the aesthetic movement,” Mann said.

Many pieces of Murano are so fragile that many of them have been lost in history. The Stanford University collection was “extremely injured” in the great earthquake of 1906, Mann noted, after which the Salviati company of Murano glassmakers donated objects to the university museum to replace those who had been lost.

John Singer Sargent, Venetian glassmakers (ca. 1880-82).  Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

John Singer Sargent, Venetian glassmakers (around 1880-1882). Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

8. He traveled through time and space

Mann sees a “web of lines” that spans the globe and goes back in time, connecting contemporary glass collectors with glassmakers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many pieces from this era reproduced forms popular in the Renaissance or ancient Rome, so the objects also connect with the distant past. An example in the show is a copy of the Renaissance “Campanile” beaker (circa 1912), discovered broken on Saint Mark’s Square in Venice after the bell tower (campanile) fell in 1902.

The history of Murano glass inspires Mann to consider objects in his personal collection, including those he inherited from his grandmother, and to ask questions about their journeys in layers. “Each piece of glass,” he said, “is a starting point for telling stories.

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