The Good Life

In a glass of its own

More than a geographical label, Murano represents Italy’s quest for nurturing design over the millennia

The water-bus from Venice to Murano takes half an hour, but comes after periodic gaps, and in season, at least, causes such an unseemly scramble among tourists that it puts you off the virtues of exploring this tiny island that has been making glass since the 10th century. Murano’s attractions as a tourist haven are slightly exaggerated. True, it is quaint, but compared to Venice it has little to offer besides a production history in glass making. You can’t help feeling, when you are there, that it is a tourist trap.

But if you do have a genuine sense of curiosity or interest, piqued by the ‘Murano glass’ on offer in India, then there is nothing to do but — and I strongly recommend this despite the extra cost — hire a private yacht and prepare to spend the better part of your day here. My own trysts with Murano glass have been more down than up, partly because everyone from interior designers to shopkeepers is keen on pushing all coloured glass as Murano and charging commensurately. Then, again, ‘copying’ Murano-ware has become somewhat of an industry, and fakes from Ferozabad are passed off as genuine articles at a huge cost to the uninitiated. 

My interest in Murano was first flagged when I learnt that artist Anjolie Ela Menon had done a glassblowing stint on the island. I was researching Italian design and it coincided with the opening of a Murano showroom in Delhi’s Lok Nayak Bhawan, but if the designs — the promoters had picked the most outrageous rococo — didn’t put one off, the prices did. Yet, Delhi’s farmhouse fraternity was charmed, and Murano chandeliers were soon a rage. 

That demand is almost as vibrant today, but buyers look for contemporary rather than heritage styles. Unfortunately, one can’t tell a genuine Murano piece from a fake or similarly styled piece. Even though Murano glassware carries the Artistic Glass Murano® trade mark, paperwork and labels can be easily forged. The rest is easy too — create an Italian-sounding label, or pass off an internship with a Murano-based company as a partnership for which you might well be producing your wares anywhere from Louisiana to Ludhiana. 

Made using the lampworking technique, glass artists at Murano layer coloured liquid glass, which are stretched into long rods called canes. When cold, they are sliced in cross-sections to reveal the layered patterns and colours. It is only after spending time at Murano that you realise that the pots, vases, amphoras, masks, lights and beads are easier to produce in multiple colours than in monochrome, which is the true test of an artist. 

At the Massimiliano Schiavon showroom, all the creations in the front of the store were in striking black and clear glass (though there were variations in black and red). There was a mid-sized vase that I liked. The price, though (Rs.8 lakh) was hardly worth the bargaining unless the senora could bring it down, we suggested hopefully. She was willing, but on probing the extent of our budget (Rs.50,000), she shook her head dismissively and offered us a kitschy piece worth only a few Euros from the vendor carts on the landing deck. We did go on for a bit after that, but our heart wasn’t in it. But it did provide an invaluable lesson — Italians will bargain, as hard as Indians, so the final price could be at great variance from the labelled one. 

For something that originated in Rome in the 9th century, Murano’s foundries have done very well, and names such as Venini, Salviati, FerroMurano and Alessandro Mandruzzato are now respected labels. I’m still a little iffy about the tawdry beads, touristy plates and mugs, but when it comes to large pieces in contemporary glass art, I won’t hesitate to put my money on a piece of Murano sculpture, or candelabra, or the Schiavon vase — are the ingrates listening?

— The author is a Delhi-based writer and curator