Millefiori, Murano Glass

Venetian glass is primarily made on the island of Murano, Italy. The distinctive hand-crafted Millefiori glassmaking technique was developed in Murano in the 13th Century. Highly regarded for their expert craftsmanship, Murano’s glassmakers gained prominence for their colorful, elaborate glassmaking skills and bestowed privileges by the Venetian state previously not enjoyed. They were allowed to wear swords, given immunity from prosecution and married their daughters into Venice’s most affluent families. In return, the glassmakers were not allowed to leave the Republic. However, many did leave, and set up their glass furnaces in surrounding cities; as far away as England and the Netherlands. 

Murano’s glassmakers monopolized the industry of quality glassmaking for centuries, developing and refining many glassmaking technologies including: millefiori (multi-colored glass), smalto (enameled glass), adventurine (glass with threads of gold), lattimo (milk glass) and other glass styles. Murano is the home of the Museo Vetrario, the Glass Museum, in the Palazzo Giustinian, which displays glass samples from Ancient Egypt through to contemporary glass. In Italian, Millefiori means "a thousand flowers".

Known as mosaic up until 1849, the Millefiori technique begins with the production of thin glass canes or rods that are bound tightly together, cut into sections when cold, and rounded when hot. This produces tiny, multi-colored mosaic patterns viewable only from the cut ends of the cane. The canes or rods, called murrine, are thinly sliced then pressed onto beads or other forms while the glass is still hot in layer fashion. Millefiori enjoyed its heyday from the late 1800s to the early 1900s and has once again become a strong influence in jewelry.

Making Murano glass is a complex process primarily using the lampworking technique. The glass is made from silica which liquefies at high temperatures. The glassmaker shapes the design at the point when the glass is changing from liquid to solid form and while it is still soft and malleable. Other raw materials, called flux or melting agents, help to soften the glass at lower temperatures. The proportion of sodium oxide present in the glass allows the glassmaker more time to shape the material. Raw materials are also added into the mixture; sodium produces an opaque surface and nitrate or arsenic is added to eliminate bubbles. Depending on the effect the glass master wants to achieve, various coloring agents and opacifyers are also added. For example, the color aquamarine is created by mixing copper and cobalt compounds; a rich red color is produced by mixing in some gold-colored solution.

Murano glassmakers use a variety of tools to create their art. Borselle are tongs or pliers used to hand-form the red-hot glass, canna da soffio is a glass-blowing pipe, pontello is an iron rod attached to the object after blowing to add final touches, scagno is the glassmaster’s work bench and tagianti are large glass-cutting clippers. Some wonderful Millefiori is being produced today with polymer clay and other materials, either on its own or in combination with Murano glass. Polymer clay has an advantage over glass with its extra pliability and does not need to be heated and reheated to fuse it. Read about clay millefiori techniques: Millefiori Techniques All rights reserved. Copyright Susan Dorling.

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