It may sound ridiculous, but if you get to Venice, there is a great place to get away from Venice. Situated just about 40 minutes by water from St. Mark’s Square, is a cluster of small islands crisscrossed by canals much like the city of canals we all know.
But unlike the major part of Venice, it feels a bit more lived in; you can see the locals stopping to chat or hanging their laundry out the second-story window. Colorful shops and boats painted in bright primary colors like children’s toys reflect off the waters. People buy fresh produce from a man in a long boat, a floating greengrocer. But you never see the long lines of tourists waiting outside its twelfth-century church. For a break from the crowds, Murano is gold.
But quiet little Murano offers much more than tranquility. Its reputation for producing magnificent glass and crystal goes as far back as the late 1200s when it became the center for Venice’s glassmakers. I stepped from the water bus and before I could even consult a map, I was invited to a nearby glass factory for a free demonstration of the art. Small groups took turns in a room with bleachers for a better view of the glassblowers as they used long pipes to withdraw molten glass from raging furnaces and blow it into vases and bowls. A young woman narrated to us in both English and Italian and then led us to the showroom where we could purchase the end product.
This was all quite interesting but had about as much passion as one might expect from a tour given several times every day. I wandered deeper into Murano happy to find a quiet corner to relax. I had just sat on a park bench in a shaded piazza when I noticed a dark doorway into a small brick building tucked away behind bougainvillea. From within came the sounds of work being done and I decided to pop my head in and see if I might find a real display of the art.
I was rewarded. “Go ahead. Come in,” someone shouted to me in Italian. I stepped into the dim interior and into the work-a-day world of glassblowers.
The room was dim but for the glow of the furnaces and all about was the clutter and activity of production. There was no sign on the door of La Fornasotta, but it was easy to find its glassmaster, Gabriele Urban. He stood in the midst of three other men, directing traffic and putting the finishing touches on every piece. He carefully slid a small vase into an oven where it would be cooled, and then he beckoned me over to watch more closely. I stood, just a tad nervous, among the passing pipes with small masses of molten glass on the ends. “Don’t worry. As long as you don’t move suddenly I can get around you.” I thought it better not to move at all.
Urban was a tall man with a moustache who looked too young to have over thirty years of experience. His curly hair was long enough to cover his neck and he combed it back from a hairline that had receded halfway across his pate. Appropriate for the 1800 degree Fahrenheit heat he was facing, he wore a white t-shirt and shorts.
I asked him how he got started and he spoke to me as he worked. When he was still in middle school, his father took him to work in a factory one summer. He remembered the “smell” of
glass (which is odorless) and joked that it was like falling in love. He soon quit school and by the age of twenty he was a glassmaster. “Nowadays very few people want to learn.”
Around us his three apprentices maintained the glass supply, monitored the ovens, and worked and fashioned the simpler items. One of them brought him a long pipe with a molten globule on the end. He blew gently in the end of the pipe before laying it across a couple metal bars. Then he twirled it nimbly this way and that with one hand, while he nipped and tucked with metal pincers with the other, until a tiny pitcher complete with curling handle seemed to magically emerge from glowing rainbow caramel. The practiced fingers did the work themselves. “There’s no time to think or the glass cools,” he explained, holding up a dainty bowl streaked with colors for his meager audience.
Most items take 24 hours to cool down and are placed in an oven where the temperature is periodically reduced; cooling too fast would cause them to break. Very thick pieces need an even more gradual cooling
period of 48 hours. In an hour Urban can produce about 35 vases; bowls are somewhat easier and faster. All objects are made to order and no two are the same.
The raw material is produced from local sand and he pointed out that different sands cannot be mixed. As he spoke, one of his assistants shoveled “raw” glass into an oven and it looked like crushed ice going in. The colors came from glass beads laid into the base glass, and tissue-like sheets of gold.
An assistant handed him another pipe and he made a snail, again with such rapid movements that it seemed a minor miracle. He chuckled, “When I first made snails kids would visit and they’d ask, ‘What’s that? A dog? A rabbit?'” He just sighed and rolled his eyes.
He handed me a round lump of clear glass with a multi-colored flower frozen inside. “Here. A souvenir.”
There is no shortage of souvenirs in Murano. Glass showrooms line the main canal showcasing a variety of local artisans’ work ranging from simple vases and figurines to extraordinary and complex artwork that carries price tags in the thousands. The Murano Glass Museum offers a look at some very old and exceptional pieces, but many of the showrooms are museums in themselves.
He warned me about buying glass in Venice. Tourists get duped all the time, he said. Taiwan and China produce a lot of glass which is cheaper and it finds its way into their market. He warns that buyers have to be careful; anyone can put a Murano label on something. Of course, there are differences obvious to the makers in Murano, “even the colors are different,” he said. But he confessed that even he could sometimes make a mistake. But when the glassmaster is sweating before the flames in the next room, the authenticity is unmistakable.
Murano is reachable by public water bus or water taxi and offers a great day trip for your Venetian vacation. Another half hour stretch past Murano is Burano, an even drowsier island/canal community famous for its lace. The town clearly takes a lot of pride in its community; we were hard pressed to find a house that didn’t have a fresh pastel paint job. Every picture is a post card, and the leaning bell tower of the local church tells you Pisa didn’t suffer alone.La Fornasotta Gabriele Urban Campo del Pra’ Murano (VE) +39-041-73-98 991 Murano Glass Museum Fondamenta Giustinian 8 +39 041-73-9586