NEW YORK – Gather different colored glass, roll it together into a cane in such a way as to create a distinctive pattern, mosaic or detailed image, then fire it at high temperature. Before it cools, cut the cane into slices to create identical pendants or beads to infuse other glassware with artistic patterns of imaginative flowers, stars, animals, portraits and landscapes that fill the room with color from the morning sun. This is the long-lost art of murrine glass.
Producing elaborate patterns of glass is an ancient art form dating to the Roman, Phoenician and the Middle East periods dating back 4,000 years. But, over time, its very practice was inevitably lost to history when most of its practitioners had died out.
Slowly, painfully and with much patience, the art of weaving mosaics of glass into distinctive shapes and designs was revived by the early 17th century. “The technique was then refined … by the 19th century by Salviati Glassworks and Vincenzo Moretti. It reached its peak in the 20th century, thanks to Artisti Barovier and Venini & Co glassworks,” according to the article ‘Murrine glass: history and production of a Muranese icon’ on muranonet.com
Curiously, this revival took place where the art was lost to history, the islands of Murano outside Venice in Italy, and it became known in different ways.
“The term murrina derives from Murrino, the name given in 1878 by Vincenzo Zanetti, a Muranese priest and historian, who founded the Murano Glass Museum in 1861 with the intent to restore the luster of Muranese glassmaking,” the article continues.
The art of murrine starts with different colors of long, heated glass cylinders rolled together to form a pattern of stars, flowers, shapes, landscapes or even detailed portraits. Once rolled, the colors fuse together. The glass blower pulls the hot fused glass into a long, unbroken rod called a cane, then slices the cane into individual discs or squares.
Once cut, the pattern is revealed as a cross section known as murrine (murrina singular) or murrini. With so many slices, they can be artistically arranged and rolled directly onto a clear or colored glass sheet and fashioned into bowls, bottles, paperweights, sculpture or decorative items to form distinctive colorful patterns within the glass itself.
Similar in manufacture to murrine, the glass of millefiori, Italian for “thousand flowers,” usually features a star or flower pattern rather than a portrait or a contrived landscape scene as murrine glass sometimes does. And instead of round or square slices, they are long rounded beads with a hole pierced in the center and were once known as “mosaic beads.” The hole allows a string or metal wire to fashion millefiori beads into colorful necklaces, bracelets and pendants.
Millefiori was another lost art until it was revived in the 19th century. Early versions were called rosetta beads and were manufactured in a similar fashion as millefiori until the 15th century, but the final canes were pulled from a mold, rolled around a metal pin to create a hole, then cut into spherical pieces and left to cool. Millefiori is pulled without a mold.
Artists and Artistry
Hand-blown murrine glass art in the traditional square and round slices are found in the studios of artists such as Dante Marioni, Kait Rhodes, Lino Tagliapietra and Richard Ritter. Artist Loren Stump creates full portraits and landscapes of murrine glass art near Sacramento, California. An example of the art of portrait murrine is an image of poet Walt Whitman added to a glass orb of flowers and murrine glass by artist Paul Stankard in 2008 that can almost be compared to a photograph because of the high level of detail.
The final designs of murrine glass catches light and imagination with its colorful swirls, patterns, and sometimes lifelike portraits and landscapes. Watching an artist fashion murrine is fascinating. How is it that colored glass rolled together, fused by fire one over another in what seems to be a random and spontaneous pattern of color and art finally reveals itself only when sliced and cooled. It is artwork all by itself.
But then each slice of art is scattered or added in a pattern to a glass sheet and hand-blown to create a second piece of art such as a vase, paperweight and sculpture, turned into glassware, a photo frame or even made into whimsical glass dolphins, dogs and fish.
We can be grateful that the art of murrine glass was rediscovered and is practiced again for our delight, hopefully to be uninterrupted for the next 4,000 years and beyond.