“I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you!”
This phrase was originally coined in the early 16th century over the top secret subject of Crystal glass recipes and Filigrana glass,….and it was true. The punishment was death without trial if information was leaked to non-members of the highly specialized Glassmakers Guild of Murano. The Venetian authorities were so protective over this secret that the Glassmakers movements were also restricted, making it difficult to leave the island of Murano in the Venetian Lagoon,although they were treated very well and highly regarded by the ruling elite and the general public.
Highly prized for its unbelievable delicacy and detailed patterns, Filigree glass was gifted to royalty and dignitaries around the world. Originally developed over two thousand years ago in Mesopotamia near modern day Iraq, this technology was taken by the Romans, and lost when their Empire fell. Centuries later the process was rediscovered and refined on the Island of Murano by master glassblowers Filippo and Bernardo Catani of the glass house Sirena. It was not long before its fame and popularity enjoyed a renaissance world-wide,and became known as a sophisticated art form.
Simply put, Filigrana glass is created by weaving together many colored glass threads within a clear crystal medium. The glass threads can then be regrouped and re-pulled to reveal increasingly complex patterns. Slices of this glass rod, or Murrini Cane, are fused together in a technique called Millefiore, or Thousand Flowers. Glass beads created from Millefiore were highly sought after by merchants and explorers, and used as currency with African chieftains, who exchanged them for neighboring tribesmen who would then be sold into the fledgling slave trade in the Americas. The more Millefiore beads a chieftain possessed, the richer and more powerful he became, dictating over an ever-increasing area. These slave or GoulImine Beads, as they came to be known, may also have been used as currency to buy Manhattan from Native Americans.
In spite of dire threats made by the authorities, the outflow of glassmakers from Venice resulted in secrets being lost. Under the protection of foreign governments, they spread information through Austria, Germany and elsewhere. German glassmakers appropriated the technique in the creation of German twist marbles, which are still prized and highly valued today. The secret has been out for many years, and is now taught in art schools worldwide. However, masters of Filigrana glass are rare today, even on the Island of Murano. The demands and intricacies of the art have become overlooked in the modern commercial focus on volume sales and production. It takes years of practice to pull and spin 2000 degrees fahrenheit molten glass in excess of 1500 rpm within a 60 second time period to produce the complex cane needed for filigrana art glass. Much like surfing the big waves, snowboarding or hot dog skiing, as long as you are in control, it can look easy, but one wrong move and you will literally crash and burn in the world of Filigree glass. This fact, along with the current state of the economy, applies much unneeded pressure to this amazing art form, pushing it ever closer to the edge of becoming lost once again.
To learn more on this fascinating and highly specialized art form, check out the TV series ‘How It’s Made’ for two episodes in Season 16. Episode one of the season features Millefiore Paperweights and episode five is on Filigrana Glass. You can also visit www.vwtglass.ca for the article titled ‘Murano Glass Secrets Revealed’ under THE STUDIO heading. This article covers recent advances that the artists have made which push the Murano style of Filigrana Glass into the future, with their Stardust Series.
The Filigree Stardust Series incorporates a sparkling mirror-like glass, designed and created by NASA for use in the Space Program on windows and visors of Space Suits. This new series is unbelievably stunning and exclusive to these artists. You will not find glass like this anywhere else on the planet.
“There has never been found a more delightful art form than that of glass.” Leonardo Fioravanti 156