Murano Travel GuideIntroduction
Say “Murano” and the next word that follows would most likely be “glass” – and it can’t be helped since this little Venetian island IS strongly associated with the glassmaking industry.
Murano is actually a series of seven islands that are linked by bridges and separated by eight channels in the Venetian Lagoon. The area measures about a mile across, and is hence very easy to explore by foot in a single day. Don’t let Murano’s diminutive size fool you, though, because centuries ago, it was a giant by its own right as it was a prosperous and independent commune which had a monopoly in Italy’s and in Europe’s glass exports.
The island began in the seventh century as a fishing port which mostly prospered due to its trade of salt. Eventually, it became a commercial center thanks to its main port on Sant’Erasmo, and it had its own government, its own police force, its own merchant aristocracy, and even its own currency which they minted on the island itself.
The Murano glassmaking tradition only really began in the 12th century, however, when Venetian officials ordered that all glass foundries (or “fornaci”) within Venice be moved to Murano, as their furnaces posed hazards to the city which was mostly comprised of wooden buildings at the time. Soon enough, the glassmakers became valuable artisans and were granted many rights and privileges by the Venetian government. In fact, by the 1500s, daughters of glassmakers were allowed to marry into Venetian royalty as the merchant and artisan status of their families afforded them to do so.
This privilege didn’t come without restrictions, however, as the glassmakers were considered an exclusive commodity of Venice, and were therefore forbidden to leave the Republic. Those who didn’t abide by this rule were met with some very harsh punishments, usually carried out by Venice’s secret police.
The reason behind such a heavy-handed rule was the fact that the Murano glassmakers were the only craftsmen in the entirety of Europe who knew how to make mirrors made of glass, instead of the usual metal ones that were more common back then. On top of this, they were also able to create items from materials such as enameled glass, crystalline glass, milk glass, glass with threads of gold (also known as aventurine, or goldstone; it is a smooth, glittering stone which can be later carved into other items such as beads and figurines), multicolored glass (or “millefiori”), as well as glass imitation gems. This monopoly on glassmaking techniques and technologies lasted for centuries, and Murano became well-known for its vases, drinking glasses, sculptures, chandeliers, and glass wine stoppers.
These days, though no longer independent or exclusive, Murano glass is still highly sought-after by collectors all over the world, and the little Venetian island still produces some of the best glasswork around. Its factories still produce and export traditional glassware and mirrors, as well as more modern items such as glass jewelry, lampshades, electric chandeliers, door and faucet handles, as well as contemporary glass sculptures and various souvenir items and knickknacks.
What to See
Murano’s Glass Museums
Museo Vetrario (also The Glass Museum or Museum of Glass)
The famous Glass Museum is a great starting point for anyone who wants to learn all about glassmaking as well as the development of the art and manufacture of glass over the ages, as the museum offers a guided century-by-century tour of traditional Venetian glassmaking. It also showcases samples of glass from ancient Egyptian times all the way to the modern era. It is located near the island’s center, and shouldn’t be hard to spot.
Barvovier & Toso
Barvovier & Toso is a well-known glassmaking dynasty and manufacturer of art glass, and on top of their factory and showroom, they also have a private museum in the Palazzo Contarini which houses over 250 objects that features the Venetian glassmaking traditions, as well as an archive with more than 22,000 drawings, photos, papers, documents, and letters, all related to glass. There are free guided tours available which can be availed by booking in advance (ask your travel agent or tour organizer!) which normally runs from Monday to Friday starting at 9:30 am to 12:00 noon, and again at 1:30 pm to 5:00 pm.Murano’s Glass Factories
Being able to visit the source of some of the world’s best glass products wouldn’t be complete without a quick trip to a fornaci to see how the items are actually made, straight from the furnace and into the window display. If strolling around Murano, it is entirely possible to come across an artisan’s shop, and if you ask nicely, they may let you watch them create their wares (it would also be nice if you try to buy something, no matter how small, on your way out). More often than not, they would also be willing to answer questions that you may have, or provide you with small samples.
Take note, however, that with smaller artisan forges and ateliers, they may or may not be open for visitors, mostly because their main professions are crafting glass, and not entertaining tourists. Also, particularly when dealing with master artisans, they probably wouldn’t want anyone they don’t know watching them use proprietary techniques that they have spent their lives perfecting, since the competition may be taking notes. So if a glassworker refuses to let you watch him or her work, don’t take it to heart. Politely take your leave and look for another one.
Of course, there are bigger factories which are actually open to the public, and whose business includes actually giving tours of their premises. These are usually organized tours and may require advance booking, so make sure to ask your tour organizer about it. Depending on the time of the year, these factories may also offer short glassmaking courses where you get to try your hand at the craft. Sometimes, there are even similar courses meant for children!
Other Points of Interest
The Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato
Other than the glass-related places, the basilica is Murano island’s top sightseeing attraction. It is one of the oldest churches within the Venetian Lagoon dating back to 1141, and is, according to legend, also said to house the bones of the dragon that was slain by Saint Donatus. Mostly, however, the basilica is famous for its beautiful and opulent interiors that are decorated in elaborate glass mosaics. Its floors are mostly paved in marble as well as mosaic compositions, and its apse features a beautiful portrait of the Virgin Mary. It also has a separate bell tower which offers beautiful views of the surrounding areas. Its visiting hours are 8:00 am to 12:00 noon, and 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm from Mondays to Saturdays. On Sundays, it is open to tourists from 3:30pm to 7:00pm.
Chiesa di San Pietro Martire
Murano’s other major church is the Chiesa di San Pietro Martire (Church of Saint Peter the Martyr) which was first build in 1437, and again in 1509 after a devastating fire. When it was rebuilt, it was decorated with artwork made by master painters of the era such as Bellini, Tintoretto, Veronese, Letterini, and Domenic. Though not as lavish as Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato, it is worth a visit as it also has a museum which contains church relics.
Campo Santo Stefano
Campo Santo Stefano is most well-known for its leaning clock tower which was built in the 19th century. It was built on the foundations of another bell tower from a 12th century church, and though the church has long since been destroyed, remnants of it can still be seen standing within the area.Tips and Advice
- The best time to try to visit glass factories are in the mornings, since a lot of them close down for lunch and only tend to reopen at any time during mid-afternoon. Also, note that a lot of the factories are closed during August as it is ferragosto, and people are away on vacation. Some establishments may choose to remain open, but make sure to check schedules with your tour organizer.
- Many tourist-oriented factories, shops, and showrooms are usually open on weekends. However, take note that those that are more geared towards the trade are only open on weekdays.
- When it comes to shopping, there really isn’t much to buy in Murano other than the glass products. However, it is also good to know that not all merchandise sold at the shops are finished products and that it is also possible to buy raw materials here. For example, those who are into jewelry-making would find that Murano is a fabulous place to stock up on beads and pendants.
- For serious glass buyers and collectors, it is possible to visit the more artistic fornaci, but only by appointment. We suggest speaking with your tour organizer to arrange a meeting for you.
- IMPORTANT: Many vendors and souvenir shops will try to pass off cheap counterfeits as “Murano” glass. When purchasing glass pieces, be aware that the Venetian authorities considers glassmaking in Murano as a protected industry, so look for the “Vetro Murano Artistico” sign or mark in the windows of a store before making a purchase to ensure that you are buying a genuine product.
- SCAM ALERT: While in Venice, beware of the offer of “free” boat trips and factory tours in Murano from show room representatives. More often than not, once you are at the venue, you will be pressured into buying items at grossly inflated prices. If you choose to not buy anything, it may result in you having to find your own transport back to Venice proper, or coughing up equally inflated amounts of money for a ride back.
- There are also various stores and shops on Murano that sell guidebooks, souvenirs, and postcards. There is also a small shopping center, as well as many places to buy groceries and other necessities from. There are two pharmacies, as well as several banks with ATMs, in case you need to withdraw cash.