Why Murano Glass Has Endured for 5,000 Years

Jennifer Hawkins Opie states in Contemporary International Glass, “Glass is a responsive, challenging, and vivid material for artists. It is also a practical, waterproof, unobtrusive material for design in daily use. It is special and everyday, flamboyant and functional, collected and discarded.” Like the human body, it is simultaneously fragile yet strong. The versatile material has captivated not only artists  but also scientists, manufacturers, and humanitarians. As one of the safest materials in which to store and serve food, glass has promoted increased life spans worldwide and drastically reduced disease. Through its half millenia history, Murano, Italy holds a special place as Europe’s first glassmaking center and as a place of innovation in material and process.

 

The vicissitudes of Murano’s glass tradition date back to the Roman Empire. In the late 1200s, ostensibly in a measure to protect Venice’s overpopulated wooden structures, glass manufacturing moved to the island of Murano. Soon after, laws forbid glassmakers from leaving the island, spawning a culture of guarded secrecy that continues to this day in certain circles. Murano glass flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries due to Venice’s advantageous geography but as Venice’s power on trade routes weakened in the 17th century, new centers for glass emerged throughout Europe. Yet Murano continued to innovate and develop new techniques. In the late 19th century interest in Venice renewed sparking a new demand for its traditional crafts including Murrini. The 20th and 21st centuries saw the rise and fall of Murano glass due to world wars, cheap imitations, and economic shifts. Even through its numerous ups and downs, Murano’s glass tradition continues to persist and evolve.

 

Murano’s influence on the contemporary international glass art community cannot be ignored. In 1979, Maestro Lino Tagliapietra visited Pilchuck Glass School to teach his highly honed techniques to a new generation of passionate yet rudimentary skilled glass artists. It remains an unprecedented moment in glass art history that continues to shape the present and influence the future. Benjamin Moore, owner of Benjamin Moore, Inc. in Seattle, Washington, who first invited Lino to Pilchuck, recounts in the Fall 2018 issue of glass, The UrbanGlass Art Quarterly how upon Tagliapietra’s return to Murano some people called him “Americano” in a derogatory way. Despite being ostracized by some, Lino continued to share his knowledge with the outside world. Moore says, “Lino was always such an anomaly compared to most of the masters on the island; he always brought this worldly sensibility, an interest in design and art.” Lino’s work with glass artists in America and beyond liberated him to take more risks and use the material for high art.

 

The Pacific Northwest then became a funnel through which instructors, students, and assistants the world over filtered. Tagliapietra’s sharing of Murano’s techniques elevated Murano’s standing and raised international standards for studio glass craftsmanship. The collaborative process of glassblowing naturally creates camaraderie between artists, assistants, and apprentices in shared studios, resources, and techniques. Hawkins Opie sees this team-oriented nature of hot glass artists as “one of its most attractive characteristics of their community.” Suddenly an international nomadic network developed to import talent and send emerging artists to study abroad.

 

As glass artists began developing workshops and communities in their home countries, Tagliapietra and other visiting artists travelled abroad to these new glass centers in order to demonstrate techniques firsthand. The Australian studio glass movement, for example, gained momentum in the 1980s thanks to the combination of state support, the establishment of JamFactory, the continent’s longest-running hot glass studio, and the creation of glass programs at several universities. Like the Muranese, the Australian artists began to innovate. Margot Osborne writes in her book Australian Glass Today, “Glass artists in Australia are historically informed by, but not constrained to follow, traditional approaches. They are technically accomplished but use their skills and knowledge of the behavior of glass as a departure point for evolving distinctive personal languages.” Giles Bettison, known for his intricate murrini vessels, developed a technique for making murrini from sheet glass that expanded artistic possibilities in color and pattern. Osborne states in Bettison, Pattern and Perception that this innovation “opened up a whole universe of modulated color combination and of grid or cellular patterns deriving from miniaturized linear designs of the fused sheets.” Clare Belfrage added the element of time to the traditionally fast-paced hot working methods with her intricate and layered cane drawing methods.

 

Studio glass continues to evolve as new artists the world over turn to this material to express their vision. Japanese artist Kazuki Takizawa creates his sculptural and installation works using both traditional Italian and unorthodox techniques to create multiple layers of complexity in his blown vessels.

 

Murano Mosaics - Persistence and Evolution pays homage to Murano’s influence on contemporary studio glass through the iconic works of Tagliapietra, the distinctive murrini vessels of Bettison, Belfrage’s contemplative pieces, and Takizawa’s metaphorically charged sculptures. While each artist’s work remains a unique expression of his or her artistic vision, the pieces as a whole share similarities in technique and form.

 

Caneworking, for example, was originally invented in southern Italy during the latter half of the third century BC and was later elaborately developed centuries later on Murano. The use of cane remains a central component in each artist’s work in the exhibition albeit in different expressions. Tagliapietra makes canes to decorate his blown vessels. Bettison uses cane as the building blocks of his intricate murrini or mosaic glass tiles. Belfrage draws with cane to make her layered, linear works that, like the best abstract paintings, create an immersive depth. Takizawa’s canework on his vessels creates web-like surfaces.

 

The vessel remains an important form for contemporary studio glass artists. Osborne says, “Vessels have archetypal resonance as containers of precious and ritually significant essences, both real and metaphorical. They are symbols of rites of passage and of the quintessence of existence. Vessels carry the history of glass and its interwoven cultural histories.” Indeed, in Japan human beings are often referred to as vessels. Vessels refer the body, a container so to speak for the soul. Tagliapietra’s vessels appear to defy the laws of gravity balanced as they are on such a small base compared to the expansive volume above it. Bettison’s intensely patterned vessels dazzle the eye will their varying level of detail, line, and color. Belfrage’s organic vessels sit like stones, contemplative and elegant. Takizawa’s vessels range from spherical to oblong like varying body types: short and stout to tall and lanky.

 

Additionally, these works share a combined use of organic and linear in both overall shape and surface line. The bulbous overall shape of Tagliapietra’s Africa 2015, for example, is covered with thin, sharp intersecting lines that create a net of geometric shapes: diamonds, triangles, rhombuses, and parallelograms. Bettison’s Vista 14 #3 mimics the structure of a cell with an off-center nucleus surrounded by cytoplasm and mitochondria within a rigid rectangular form. Belfrage combines an organic shape with crisp, interwoven lines in Open Work #4413. Takizawa’s Minimalist BW Threads similarly pairs a spherical shape with irregular lines that circumscribe the entire surface.

 

Even with these similarities, each artist’s distinct voice shines through the work. Tagliapietra’s exquisite technique, bold color combinations, and seemingly impossible engineering make his work inimitable. Flamboyant patterns and impeccable craftsmanship remain the hallmarks of his oeuvre. Bettison traffics in color and complexity with a definitive sense of rhythm, order, and beauty in his loose, organic grids. Belfrage’s intense yet meditative surfaces mimic those found in nature to create subtle yet complex structures and patterns. While appearing at first to be simple, Takizawa’s multi-layered vessels contain complexity and chaos within a simple form.