Shopping for Glass on Venice’s Island of Murano

Ballarin Glass Shop, Murano (Photo copyright Stillman Rogers)

Ballarin Glass Shop, Murano (Photo copyright Stillman Rogers)


“Signor, signor
,” the voice and running footsteps followed us alongside the canal. We turned to see the man from the glass shop we’d just left.

Il prezzo sta bene!” Resignation infused his voice, expression and gesture as he said it – “the price is OK.” We were already several doors down the fondamente, my husband Tim still looking downhearted at my insistence that the brandy snifters he’d fallen in love with were too expensive

We followed him back to the shop, where the six ruby glasses stood on the counter where we’d admired – and bargained for – them. And now they would be ours, at a price fair to both parties. That’s how bargaining should end, with everybody satisfied.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Murano has been famous for its fine glassmaking since the 13th century.
  • There’s something here in every price range, and the best values are on the island where it’s made.
  • You’ll never forgive yourself if you leave Venice without at least one piece of Murano glass.
  • Good for travelers who like to bring home an authentic local craft.

Of course, he’d hoped for more — after all, Americans always paid high prices. But we’d lived in Italy long enough to know the game, and we usually played it well, even on Murano, the Venetian island where squeezing every last lira from tourists was as fine an art as glassblowing.

We bargained as a team. Tim’s face betrayed his longing to sip brandy from the parchment-thin glasses with the bold gold N on the side; my poker face was just as genuine – I don’t like brandy. The combination was just right, assuring the salesman of real interest, while making it clear that only serious price negotiation would open our wallets. We had another advantage: it was February, and the tourists, who normally pour from each arriving vaporetto, were thin on the ground. Business wasn’t booming.

Murano looks like a miniature Venice (Photo copyright Stillman Rogers)

Murano looks like a miniature Venice (Photo copyright Stillman Rogers)

Browsing on Murano

We’ve celebrated a few anniversaries since that day we bought the snifters. Today we’re back in Murano on a glorious May afternoon, when the shops are all open and the touts are out on the fondamente trying to entice potential customers inside. We’re no longer newlyweds, lira have become euros, and prices have risen. But we still have the same weakness for Murano glass.

We ignore the touts and browse windows, stepping into shops whose displays we like. We follow signs to watch a free demonstration of glassblowing, an art that came to this island in 1291, when the Venetian Republic ordered all glass foundries moved to Murano fearing fire might spread from their furnaces to the city’s predominantly wooden buildings. Glassmaking soon replaced commerce as Murano’s main industry, and glassmakers rose to social and financial prominence. But there was a price: so carefully guarded were the secrets of their art – and the Venetian monopoly of fine glass production — that none was allowed to leave Venice.

Tips for Buying Glass on Murano

  • Shop around before you buy to compare prices and quality.
  • Move away from the vaporetto landing for the best value.
  • Look for the Vetro Murano Artistico decal on shop windows to be sure glass is made here.
  • Be fair to salespeople; don’t bargain just for sport.
  • Decide your best price before you begin, so you don’t get carried away.
  • Think about how you’ll get it home; don’t rely on the shop shipping it.

Murano Glass is Fit for Royalty

Murano craftsmen were the only in Europe that knew how to make mirrors. Artists there could literally spin gold threads into delicate glass filigree. Their colors were unsurpassed, they could make translucent milk glass, and they perfected the intricate mosaic of fused and sliced glass rods known as millefiori. The courts of Europe couldn’t get enough of it. It was even thought that the glass in Venetian wine goblets neutralized poison, quite an asset in some royal circles. Glassmaking was far too valuable a commodity for Venice to let slip through its fingers and shatter.

We are pleased to see that as any fine art should, glassmaking here has continued to change and develop. Although there are still the inevitable do-dads, gaudy kitsch and spindly glass gondolas (most of them made elsewhere), we see beautiful work in designs as contemporary as tomorrow, side-by-side with pieces we’d not be surprised to find on the dining table in a royal palace.

Murano glass necklaces (Photo copyright Stillman Rogers)

Muarano glass necklaces (Photo copyright Stillman Rogers)

To get a better sense of the art, we head into the interior of the island to the Museo Vetrario, for a chronological tour of Venetian glassmaking. Here we learn of a tour later in the afternoon to the Abate Zanetti Glass School, where we see more of how these beautiful art works are made.

But first, we shop. I am looking for beads, and I find them everywhere. Some I think garish with too many colors, but finally find necklaces in harmonious colors, and settle on one of sea green glass separated by tiny crystal conterie (seed beads). I buy a couple of other strands of bright millefiore to restring with solid-color beads when I get home.

In a shop with very traditional styles we find a set of cordial glasses, each a different tint: violet, amber, pale ultramarine, rose, peach and apple green. The shop that holds us longest is Ballarin, on Fondamente Manin, where we see original designs in glorious, vibrant colors. Everything in the small shop stands out from the other showrooms that line the canal. Visions of a table set with their plates dance in my head, but we settle for a pair of bowls in bold shades of scarlet, deep orange and buttery yellow, and a set of water glasses with contrasting bands of millefiore.

These glasses will join those ruby Napoleon snifters we’d bargained so hard for. We still have all six, and even I occasionally sip a little brandy from one – if only to share the laugh at our invariable toast when we use them: “Signor, signor!”

Practicalities

Vaporetto boats run from San Zaccaria, just off Piazza San Marco, a scenic 40-minute ride across the lagoon to Murano. There, the Colonna stop is near the big shops and glass-blowing demonstrations and Museo is near the Glass Museum. Don’t take free Murano shopping tours; you’ll be taken to shops with fat commissions for the guide. And it’s more fun to explore on your own.

Glass shops are not open in the evening, and some close midday, especially outside of high season.

Most Murano restaurants open only for lunch, but Dalla Morra, a good choice with shaded canal-side tables, also opens in the evening and specializes in fresh seafood from the lagoon.

Comments

  1. Fran Folsom says

    I bought some a gorgeous glass beaded necklace on Murano. It still looks great even though it was 25 years ago that I bought it.

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