Maestro of Murano Glass Chandeliers
A rare glimpse behind the scenes in an intimate interview with a Murano Master Glassblower
By Robin Jay
With a history richer than most people fathom, Murano’s distinction as the epicenter for glassmaking started in 1291. This is when rulers of the Venetian Republic worried enemies would burn Venice to ruins because it contained mostly wooden structures. Officials mandated glass foundries relocate at once to the safety of the island of Murano. The revered glassblowers there grew quickly in stature. They were granted special immunity from prosecution, allowed to be armed with swords in public, and their daughters were encouraged to wed into the affluent families of Venice. The one stipulation? Master glassmakers were forbidden from leaving Murano. As a result, by the 16th century, nearly half of the island’s population worked in some aspect of glassmaking.
While researching stories for this issue of South Florida Opulence, I met Pierfranco Rossi of VeniceArte.com, purveyor of the best Murano chandeliers online. He arranged for me to interview one of their finest Murano artisans, Giuliano, a Master Glassblower of more than 43 years. Our conversation is a compelling look inside the world of Murano chandelier making.
Q. Why is Murano glass the finest in the world?
A. Giuliano, Master Glassblower: No doubt, Murano has a tradition of showmanship in giving a “soul” and a meaning to the glass, not only for the beauty of the glass itself, which is unique, but for being able to give a “feeling” to this magnificent glass. This can only mean one thing: art!
It is easy to understand why so many people who work here say, “you live in glass.” Above all, there is the passion that brings you to choose your true path in Murano glass. The work is very hard and the conditions are extreme, very hot both in summer and winter: If you lack the passion you will never, ever do this job. My family has worked in glass for generations, my father, my grandfather and so on.
Q: How long does it take to learn the art?
A: Regardless of the learning ability of the future Master Glassblower, the period called “apprenticeship” is five years, during which you must attend to the teacher, cleaning, washing and so on: Your job was “garzone di bottega” (apprentice).
You have to know that our environment is different, special and unique. The names of tools, the stages of the processing, the way we work. We use terms which are handed down for generations, and it takes a long time to learn all this.
In my house, we used to talk about glass, to “breathe” glass, we “ate” glass, we lived in the glass, but not obsessed to the point of forgetting the good-night kiss.
Q: What special skills do you need, especially when it comes to chandeliers?
A: Mostly it is work experience: analyzing the work of the past, admiring the works of fellow Glass Masters. You must coordinate your thoughts. That goes beyond the mass of red-hot glass you have in your hands, with all the movements needed to complete the piece you are creating. With the experience of years, your hands move by themselves. It is at this moment that the ‘soul of the artist’ is expressed.
The Murano glass is a glass that reveals its artistic beauty because of its forms and its colors. The ability to give a shape to the glass itself, with lines and colors that are always different, but especially to include in these forms a feeling, a soul and an expression. In my own words “to animate the glass.”
Q: What would surprise readers most about the art?
A: When we talk about the preciousness of Murano glass, it is not the glass itself that is the true value, but the time necessary to make it and the skill needed to make each part of a chandelier. Yes, we can give the Murano glass shades and unique colors, shapes and stunning curves, but the real secret is the art.
The new technologies have helped; everything has become easier. Once, ovens ran with coal or oil. When you took out the glass, it was necessary to remove a black outer crust thick up to 3 cm; the gas did not exist. The glass often came out stained and with bubbles.
But, to be honest, some of the safety rules repress our artisanship. Who issues these rules is not familiar with our traditional methods of working. Therefore imposing rules which affect the ability of expression and craftsmanship of our work, makes it more difficult and increases the working time, too. There must be risks for certain jobs, as they were performed in the past, if you want special results.
You are forced to use your bare hands, to keep a close contact with fire and molten glass. Forcing Glass Masters to use gloves, glasses, earplugs, leather bibs etc., degrades and depresses our manual labor.
It is not feasible to describe in a few lines all processes involved in the making of a chandelier: There are so many! In summary, after a draft, a drawing or a sketch, we prepare the various mixtures of colored sands. These sandy mixtures are melted into separate ovens, the night before the manufacturing. The next day we start, at 6 o’ clock in the morning, the production of each component, divided by type: the arms, the central body, the cups and finally the flowers, leaves, curl and any other decorative item. Each gesture is almost automatic, but requires utmost care.
After that, the parts are put into another oven for “re-cooking.” The glass can’t go from a high production temperature of 500/800 degrees, to an ambient temperature too quickly, or it will likely suffer a thermal shock with terrible consequences: cracks, breaks or small explosions. Then each piece is cut to an exact size, smoothed and polished from its sharp edges, and then inspected to remove any imperfections, such as scratches or dust deposits.
For the flowers, leaves and curls are applied to the bushings. The arms are then wired according to the country of delivery. Finials and pendants are then tied with wire.
Q: Do you have any interesting stories you’d like to share about your career?
A: Yes, one in particular. It is an anecdote that could be useful if you require a special diet for weight loss. When I was apprentice, in the morning, when I began my work, I weighed 87 kg. By the evening, when I was back home, I weighed 82. I used to recover those kilos greedily eating during the night.
I would like to add one more thing: In our industry there might not be educated, polite and respectful persons. But no doubt those people share a great passion for their work. Despite their ignorance and rudeness, they are pure and genuine people – artists who make a tough and difficult job, working in a hard and difficult environment, but always with their heart and imagination free from any bond.
To see more magnificent work of Murano’s Master Glassblowers, go to www.VeniceArte.com.