Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Author Guest Post : The History of Murano by Marina Fiorato

The History of Murano : An Original Essay by Marina Fiorato

"Murano is the glass heart of Venice."

When writing the historical strand of The Glassblower of Murano it was important to me to get some sense of the significance of glass in Venice at the end of the seventeenth century. And when you visit, the evidence is before your eyes; the city seems to be almost made of glass. As well as boasting the most beautiful windows in the world, exquisite chandeliers hang from the frescoed ceilings of every palazzo, the basilica is clothed in jewellike mosaics comprised of nuggets of glass covered in lapis and gold; and at the other end of the scale the streets in the Merceria dell’Orologio behind San Marco are crowded with bijoux little shops crammed with glass fancies, beads, and bonbons.

But it is Murano, one of the trio of islands set far into the Venetian lagoon, which is and was the glass heart of Venice. In 1291, an edict of the Great Council, Venice’s ruling body, decreed that all glass furnaces should be moved to the island after a series of serious fires which threatened the city. In the Renaissance period, glass was a priceless monopoly for the Republic of Venice, and at the heart of their mystery was the closely guarded secret of how to make mirrors. The manufacture of mirrors of reasonable size and reflectivity was deeply problematic until the glassblowers of Murano stumbled across the optimum method through an accident of glassblowing. Thereafter they began to make mirrors brighter, clearer, and larger than any in the world. Venetian mirrors quickly became the Republic’s most valuable commodity, more precious than saffron; more costly than gold.

The Council of Ten, the vicious ruling junta of Venice’s Great Council, quickly realized the value of the glassblowers of Murano, and threatened them with death if they ever divulged their methods. Often, the glassblowers’ entire families were kept as hostages by the state. Venetian law was very clear on the matter: If any worker or artist should transport his talents to another country, and if he does not obey the order to return, all of his closest relatives will be put in prison.

Incredibly, despite such threats, some of the glassblowers of Murano did betray their secrets and their city. In the 1680s, Louis XIV, the Sun King, was in the throes of his Grand Design: the Palace of Versailles, for which he planned to construct a great chamber made entirely out of mirrors, and needed assistance from the best of the best. Thus, many of Murano’s glassblowers were secretly transported to Paris. Recruited by Pierre de Bonzi, the French Ambassador to Venice, they were tempted by tales of foreign lands, exotic women, and great riches. By the autumn of 1665, twenty Murano fugitives had been spirited away to Paris where they began work upon the task of making the dream of a king a reality.

“It’s great to be, in some small way, part of such a wonderful tradition.”

As we now know, the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles was built and remains for all to see—a cathedral of glass that is undeniably one of the modern wonders of the architectural world. Not only does the work mitigate the treachery of those brave souls from Murano, it is also a tribute to the craftsmen of France, who would
someday become the forerunners for the genius of Baccarat and Lalique.

On a more personal note, I made a discovery of my own while researching the history of glassmaking in Murano: I was delighted to discover that Fiorato, my Venetian family name (which means “floral”), is also the name for a type of Murano glass. Fiorato glass features tiny glass flowers enameled and fused into beads. Fiorato beads are tiny, but they are beautiful. It felt great to be, in some small way, part of such a wonderful tradition.

A portion of the essay originally appeared in Italian magazine (© 2008). Reprinted with permission from the author.
** Reprinted here by permission of St. Martin’s Griffin.**
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  1. I just love all things Italy. Thanks for the guest post and I can't wait to read the book.

  2. It's difficult to mention this in any detail and still remain PG-rated, but - Murano glassworkers were at the forefront of another sort of, um, personal experience enhancement technology, rather notoriously so in the late Renaissance. (Google "murano parsnip" for the amusing details.)