The Getty store justifies a colorful cup‘s $ 45 price tag by noting that it comes from the Venetian island of Murano, “famous for its highly prized collector’s glass.” Walmart writes that a $ 57.95 plum figure embodies Murano’s “richness of color, originality, and unsurpassed craftsmanship.”
Murano glass, which is breathtaking yet expensive, is often used this way: as the epitome of style and quality. But what, Exactly, makes it so special? And how did it become an international brand with such a strong resonance in the United States?
These issues 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 can be seen until May 8, when it travels to Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum of American Art.)
We asked the curator of the exhibition, Alex Mann, now chief curator of Savannah’s Telfair Museums, and other experts to give us an overview of this highly valued material. Here’s why it has captured audiences across the globe – and received such high prices – for centuries.
1. Its craftsmanship is second to none
Murano glass comes in many shapes and sizes, from relatively simple shapes to impossibly delicate and complex constructions. It is united by one common feature, according to Mann: expertise. Murano artisans shared “an ambition to be at the top of their field or skills,” he told Artnet News.
The 150 objects in the SAAM show, stretching from 1860 to 1915, reveal what American collectors considered excellent, which involved complexity, color variation, lightness and delicacy. (“If you define ‘excellence’ as durability, Murano glass fails,” Mann said.)
Murano’s long and rich glassmaking history – which dates back to the Renaissance of Murano and to antiquity when Italy was part of the Roman Empire – contributes to its unique character. The high-quality materials used in the region “resulted in the creation of some of the most elegantly designed and expert-made glass found in all of Western Europe,” said Diane Wright, senior curator of glass and modern crafts at the Toledo Museum of Art. From the moment it was produced, she said, “this glass was sold and admired all over the world.”
2. It’s a little bit mysterious
A supernatural aura surrounds Murano. The history of Italian glassmaking was compelling and mysterious to American buyers, as glassmaking was not (and still is not) intuitive. “Unlike painting or drawing, it is complex in terms of its material and involves equipment and skills that require a little bit of extra explanation,” Mann noted. Even when one knows how glass is made, many still see “a little bit of magic or sorcery happening.”
3. It served as currency
Art, blown Murano glass sucked much of the island’s reputation among Grand Tour guests, but Murano’s glass beads must not be ignored. They were the bread and butter of Venice as disposable income from luxury glasses ebbed out and flowed. More than half of Murano’s glassworkers made beads, according to Mann. (Beads, mosaics and blown glass are different processes, produced in different kilns and factories.)
Pioneering research published last year identified Venetian glass beads in Alaska decades prior to Christopher Columbus’ voyage, making them the earliest European artifacts discovered on the continent. But beneath their shiny veneer, Murano pearls have a dark history. Researchers refer to them as “trade pearls” when they were exchanged, often in large quantities, in Africa, India and China, and with Indians in North America. Pearls were exchanged for slaves, gold, and precious stones in transactions that were often exploitative for them at the other end of the trade (not to mention those that were traded).
4. It was not just a man’s play
Although men worked in the Murano factories amid the heat and flames, women were heavily involved in the making of the pearls. “Bead making was a multi-step process where some steps occurred outside the factory settings, given that some tasks – sorting and stringing – could be performed at home,” Mann said. Venice’s economy benefited from the ability of pearl production to incorporate a broader workforce, providing secondary income to individual households.
5. It inspired other artists
American tourists began to notice Murano in the 1860s when Italy became independent and its glass furnaces returned to full swing. Artists were among the island’s most enthusiastic early visitors. John Singer Sargent, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and others shared their Venetian experiences, including glassmaking, with the American public, and 19th-century Americans valued Murano glass in their homes, offices, and world fairs.
The objects also began to appear in the art. When Mann had trained his eyes, he could hardly not see glass in paintings, especially in interior genre scenes. Many viewers have probably seen paintings by Whistler and Sargent portraying glass without realizing it; one can return to them and take a page from “Where’s Waldo?”
Today, many successful American artists reflect Murano’s influence in their techniques and styles (think: Dale Chihuly, Josiah McElheny, Fred Wilson). “This speaks to the interconnectedness of artistic movements, as well as the importance of global experiences in fostering creativity,” Wright said.
6. It has not always been popular
In recent decades, Murano glass has gone out of fashion. Since the 1920s and 30s, both collectors and museums have preferred more streamlined, traditionally modernist forms over ornate glass. “In many institutions, the pieces are no longer visible,” Mann said. “In a way, we discovered or cataloged and gave new attention to objects that had probably not been looking at these institutions – including the Smithsonian – for half a century or more.”
7. It was the epitome of “Art for the sake of art”
At the end of the 19th century, the idea of art for the sake of art was strong – and this concept also extended to Murano glass. That Fish and eel vase (circa 1890) included in SAAM’s show is an excellent example of useless beauty. Despite the name, “surprisingly, it’s not utilitarian,” Mann said. The complex object – which SAAM’s website notes has no historical precedent – seems to defy gravity. “There was certainly a premium on delicacy, fragility and complexity that fostered a specific set of ideals that are in line with the aesthetic movement,” Mann said.
Many Murano pieces are so fragile that a great deal has been lost in history. Stanford University’s collection was “hugely injured” in the great earthquake of 1906, Mann noted, after which the Salviati company of Murano glassmakers donated items to the university’s museum to replace those that were lost.
8. It has traveled across time and space
Mann sees a “network of lines” that spans the globe and stretches back in time, connecting contemporary glass collectors with glassmakers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many pieces from the era copied forms that were popular in the Renaissance or ancient Rome, so the objects also connect to the distant past. An example in the show is one copy of the Renaissance “Campanile” goblet (ca. 1912), which was discovered broken on St. Mark’s Square in Venice after the bell tower (campanile) fell in 1902.
The story of Murano glass inspires Mann to consider items in his personal collection, including those he inherited from his grandmother, and to ask questions about their layered journeys. “Every piece of glass,” he said, “is a starting point for telling stories.”
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