Murano Glass: A Fusion of Science, Art, and Mystery

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“Smiling, she accepted the stemmed glass, then dipped a finger of her left hand into the wine he offered. Reaching up, she touched his face, slowly tracing the wine across his lips. He did not resist, and her confidence grew. Her eyes conveying desire and consent,1 he embraced and kissed her. She bared her neck for his caress. With her head tilted back, it was easy for her right hand to find and deftly snip the last of four dangling glass beads from her right earring. His warm breath flowed across her bare shoulder, and she waited for him to lose himself in passion before she gently pushed him back. His eyes were fixed on hers. As her left hand found his belt buckle, her right hand slipped the bead into her wine, then joined her left in its deliberate, distracting fumbling.” nom de plume. Les affaires des sciences et des arts. Translated by K. Lee Lerner. All rights reserved.

1pre-Title IX and #metoo consent, of course.

 

January 14, 2020

Periodically prized, falling in and out of fashion’s favor since the 14th century, handcrafted artisan Venetian Murano glass ranges from relatively simple, small bottles and perfume atomizers to large, colorful, and complex works of collectible art.

Murano glass is manufactured using techniques dating back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. It was Venice’s position as a mercantile and shipping hub between 1300 and 1500 that helped establish a worldwide appetite for the glass made by generations of glass workers, both men and women, on the nearby island of Murano. References describing Murano glass as “dragon glass” refer not only to fiery flecks of color in Murano glass but also to the legend that the bones of a slain dragon are embedded in the colorful mosaic floor of the Romanesque Church of Santa Maria and San Donato.

Murano artists also churned out glass beads, called trade beads, that substituted for money in many exchanges. Indeed, one of the best documented examples of the use of trade beads was in Dutchman Peter Minuit’s acquisition of Manhattan Island. Trade beads were used in exchanges–including the purchase of people and gold–across Africa, India, and China, and with the aboriginal peoples of North America.

In 2021, archaeologists working the Brooks Range of Alaska found Murano beads brought by aboriginal explorers across the Bering Strait in their search for caribou hunting grounds.

Assuming a Venetian origin for beads found in the Americas is possible because there is no evidence that either the technology or the techniques used to create them were ever developed by America’s aboriginal peoples. What made the beads found in Alaska so interesting, however, is that accelerator mass spectrometry carbon-dating of plant fibers intertwined with the beads showed that they dated to at least 1440-1480, a time predating the voyages of Columbus and subsequent European explorers.

Along with beads found at other Alaskan sites, these Murano beads became the earliest known artifacts found thus far in the Americas.

Some of the alchemical secrets of Murano artistry included the fast, high-temperature melting of metal oxides and salts of tin and titanium to create vibrant colors, as well as the embedding of tiny copper crystals in aventurine glass to mimic the presence of gold. Highly refined glass, slow-cured in kilns to remove impurities, was made clear for “cristallo.”

The use of ornate glass has now largely yielded to modern elegance in glassware. Near the turn of the 20th century, however, inspired by paintings of Murano and its glassworkers by John Singer Sargent and James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Murano glass become very popular in America and was later featured in Art Deco and Art Nouveau works. After falling out of favor–in part due to its fragility–Murano glass experienced another wave of popularity in the luxury-conscious 1980s.

Murano glass, a fusion of science and art, has always carried a mystique.

It was once widely believed that glass containers could be used as poison detectors. Bottles made from exquisitely delicate Murano glass (or Venetian glass) were thought to fracture or explode when filled with poison.

During the Elizabethan era, Murano glass was used in attempts to detect poison, and even used during autopsies.

Venetian glass’s unique place among objets d’art used as means of personal protection against poison (e.g., opal rings, agate stones, and necklaces made of amethyst) was culturally cemented in the early nineteenth century, when a character in Lord Byron’s ‘The Two Foscari’ (a play set in Venice) says, “‘Tis said that our Venetian crystal has // Such pure antipathy to poison, as // To burst if aught of venom touches it.”

If Lucrezia Borgia used a hollowed-out opal ring to administer poison, one could imagine cautious tradecraft consisting of discreetly testing suspect wine, sauces, and the juices of food by seeing if they shattered Murano beads or amulets.

In some accounts, the purity of Murano glass could not only detect but also absorb and neutralize poisons.

More romantically, one can imagine a wary lover discreetly dislodging a hollowed-out Murano bead from an earring or cufflink in order to slip it into their drink, in a dance of forensic foreplay, a prudent prenuptial.

There is no scientific evidence, however, supporting claims that the crystalline structure of Murano glass would vibrate beyond the frequency and amplitude expected with temperature changes.

Sleight of hand (pardon the pun) for those attempting to sell the glass to the poison wary involved grabbing a cool glass with a warm hand and then quickly adding a warmed liquid that would fracture the crystalline glass lattice.

Murano glassware technology and techniques can be dated to at least 1800 BC in Egypt. As early as the third century BC, glassmakers created “thousand-flowers glass,” which became signatory of both Islamic and Renaissance glass art. It was a widely exported product of Murano in the 14th century.

Millefiori glass is a form of murrine glass in which thin slices of glass rods, each composed of several multi-colored glass strands, are melted into one single rod. The cross-sections of these glass rods look like flowers, or flower petals. Silica sand, soda ash, and lime are mixed and heated to 2372 degrees Fahrenheit (1300 C) to form lead-free liquid crystal. Bars of molten glass are then shaped and placed in preheated patterned molds to assume their intended shape before being placed back in the furnace to be encased in molten crystal. The molten glob is then stretched into a murrini cane, cooled, and cut to the desired length. Individual cane rods are bundled into complex murrini rods which, after cooling, are again cut to desired lengths before being incorporated into paperweights, decorative objects, and pieces of jewelry.


Lee Lerner’s portfolio covering science and global issues has garnered respected writing, book and media awards, including books named as Outstanding Academic Titles. His writing, both in print and across digital media, transverses the human intellectual enterprise. A collection of his work at harvard.academia.edu/kleelerner consistently ranks among the most recommended and read sites on the Academia platform. Additional information is available at scholar.harvard.edu/kleelerner

Photo Credits: All photos and content by K. Lee Lerner.
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