Murano Glass Museum: the History Behind the Art

Nothing ever seems real in Venice: its beauty, its history, its art. That same feeling expands all the way over to the Island of Murano, a small island near Venice, easily reachable by vaporetto. Murano is just as rich in beauty and art; it offers the warmth and cheer one usually expects to find in small Italian towns. This island, however, possesses a very special spot that sets the place apart: Fondamenta Giustinian 8, Murano’s Glass Museum.

The palace, Palazzo Giustinian, originally built in Gothic style, was used as a residence for the bishops of Torcello, and was later acquired by the Bishop Marco Giustinian in 1659. The bishop brought many changes to the property, refurnishing and redecorating it with rich frescoes and paintings by Francesco Zugno and Francesco Zanchi.

The museum’s biggest treasure is its vast Murano Glass collection that keeps expanding thanks to constant addition of contemporary pieces. Gathering such a unique collection in one place would not have been possible without the initiative of Antonio Colleoni, then the mayor of Murano. Working together with Abbot Zanetti, Murano Glass and art enthusiast, they set out to gather and systematize Murano Glass archives detailing the history of the craft through the ages. In 1861 Colleoni opened the palace’s doors as a glass museum for the first time in 1861. It was in the grand salon where it all started – the history, the archive, the unveiling of this long forgotten art – later expanding to every room in the museum.

Colleoni’s idea was that of sharing, preserving and showcasing the fascinating art of Murano Glass. Not only did he want to communicate this idea to its visitors, but he also had in mind the creation of an archive, a chronicle that would document the history of glassmaking through the very same works of art. Thanks to this idea the museum started to take shape, buying exquisite pieces and receiving numerous donations from several glass furnaces on the Island. The museum helped this ancient form of art regain the recognition it had lost since the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, it gave artisans the opportunity to find new meaning in their work and to reclaim their craft.

Murano Glass Museum
As artisans and art connoisseurs appreciated the significance of Murano Glass museum, Abbot Zanetti added a teaching and apprenticeship program to the museum in 1862. In his one-of-a-kind school he passed on the techniques of Murano glass-making, encouraging craftsmen to create new designs and teaching pupils how to preserve and protect older pieces. Thanks to Zanetti and Colleoni, the Glass Museum expanded its collection and cultivated this historic art. In 1932 Murano was formally added to the City of Venice, which turned out to be a benefit for the museum, for it helped enlarge its collection with even richer artworks and increased funding, making the museum a significant tourist attraction. The latest additions came from excavations, Venetian civic collections, and Renaissance archives.

Making of Murano GlassA unique journey of Murano Glass Art illustrates the perseverance and talent of people and the continuity of tradition and history, a treasured lesson not to be forgotten. That is why visitors can find a very detailed timeline just at the entrance of the museum. It is a tribute to the evolution of glass-making in Murano, the fundamental changes that defined the island’s essence and that of its craftsmen.

The narrative of glassmaking in Murano starts on the first floor, with a selection of over fifty glass pieces echoing the chronicles of the before-mentioned timeline; it is the core of the museum carefully represented through the most important objects all gathered here. The second floor tells a more chronological story, where the Grand Salon is regally ornamented with three gigantic glass chandeliers hanging from the exquisite frescoes on the ceiling. It starts with “The Origins”, showcasing glass artworks from the early medieval years, continuing on to the second and largest room of all: The Golden Age.

The second room encloses Murano’s highest point through the 1400’s, when the Islamic glass production suffered a crisis, and Murano’s crystal clear glass was all the rage, gaining recognition throughout the world and laying the foundation for modern glass art and glass industry. From here on, the museum splits its rooms into many different trends famous in the industry. Mirrors, opaque glass, engravings, Millefiori, and even the world-renown Venetian beads, they have all been trends and discoveries in the history of glass making.

This art, still alive and influential, continues to spur new initiatives and modern variations, all ready to be showcased in this museum. From the guided demonstrations of glass working at the Abate Zanetti glass-making school (Scuola del Vetro Abate Zanetti), to the most skillful artisans competing for the best design, the Murano Glass Museum is always full of live. Young people are inevitably attracted to such inventiveness, like the time in 1998 when the museum gave them the opportunity to work alongside expert glassmakers, repeating the experience year after year due to its success, and thus resulting in the creation of a unique collection of works of glass art mixing experience with fresh thinking.

While not as widely known outside of Italy, Murano is just as rich in art and beauty as Venice itself, and the Glass Museum pays homage to Murano and its primary craft with frequent special exhibitions. In December 2011, the museum celebrated its 150 years of history, remembering the story of the Bishop of Torcello who opened the palace’s door to the public in 1861. It revealed over 200 works of art that highlighted the uniqueness and brilliance of this artistry, a presentation in honor of Murano Glass: “Un’isola, Un’arte, Un museo” (“An island, An art, A museum”) After its closure for renovation, the Glass Museum reopened its doors this past February, delightfully showing a wider exhibition space, totally renovated installations and a completely new and dynamic curatorial principle, always welcoming new additions to its archive. It is no surprise that the museum evolved into what is now one of the most complete Murano Glass collections in the world.

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