Murrina is a term used in Venice and in Murano to address both a fascinating, ancient technique and a specific creation, which can be a finished work of art or can serve to create more art in glass. In other words, the murrina for glass artists is a great challenge.
The word was first used by abbot Vincenzo Zanetti at the end of the 19th century. Zanetti is the founder of the wonderful glass museum we can visit on the island of Murano, located in what used to be the noble residence of the bishop of Torcello island, Marco Giustiniani. Collecting glass pieces from Venice and Murano, Zanetti made it possible to understand what research investment Muranese glaziers made in the past centuries to make Murano glass an authentic guarantee of quality and creativity.
What is a murrina according to Vincenzo Zanetti?
Zanetti referred to vases and bowls made by the ancient Romans using different sections of glass sticks. Flowers, animals or abstract illustrations might feature in these sticks, too. In particular in Alexandria, in Egypt, glass masters showed preference for this technique.
Where does the term “murrina” come from?
In 61BC, Gneo Pompeo Magno had some vases brought to the Temple of Zeus, which were made in a special stone called “murrha” or “murra”, containing perfume, also myrrh. The special resin employed to make those vases in ornamental stone had a strong, special sent. Romans replicated these vases using glass, and the same name was kept. It would not be the only case in which glass pretended to be something else…
Re-discovering the murrina after the Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages the technique was less trendy. Historians have found some pieces using the murrina technique in the Renaissance. Most scholars agree it was re-discovered in Murano no earlier than the 19th century by glaziers like Domenico Bussolin, Giacomo Franchini, Vincenzo Moretti, his son Luigi and his grandson Ulderico.
Right after the unification of Italy, Moretti brought Murano back to its prestigious past focusing on figurative murrina: at the 1878 Paris Exposition, Moretti’s glass was described as “the most beautiful gem” of Italian craftsmanship. It featured together with Bell’s telephone, Edison’s phonograph and the head of the Statue of Liberty.
The murrina technique: the process
The process to make a murrina requires patience. You need to prepare glass in different colors in their melting pots in fire clay inside different furnaces.
The classical murrina cane is made in this way: you dip the pipe into one pot, you extract a blob of glass of the texture of honey, you can also give your glass some pattern, like a star or a flower, using a mould. After it cools down a bit, you dip that blob of glass into a different pot, creating one layer of glass after the other, a multicoated piece of glass. The shape you gave using the mould is kept, after each passage.
Keeping the glass always hot, rotating the pipe and placing it in the oven, finally you reach the moment when the blob of glass has to be pulled into a thinner and thinner cane. Whatever pattern your blob was given, it will not get lost, but only slightly deformed, while the cane gets pulled into a thin colorful stick, which once cooled down, will be cut in small tiles.
Contemporary figurative murrina: Antonio Dei Rossi and his conceptual approach
Murrina in Antonio Dei Rossi’s hands becomes an extraordinary object. First of all because of the high level of expertise involved. The technique Dei Rossi (born in 1964, Burano) adopts requires an incredible patience, but shows a restless soul. Acquiring the process from his father, Mario Dei Rossi (1926-2019), who revolutionized the figurative murrina, Antonio has taken this technique to its extreme.
His murrinas are the result of over 30k micro mosaic tiles like pixels placed one close to the other, in months and months of work, to form a specific figurative representation to be finally melted together, pulled in a cane, sliced and polished.
Art icons, animals and insects, flesh and organs and more
Should we consider Dei Rossi’s murrina the result of this physical operational effort, however, we would not render justice to what lies behind the outcome. Take for example his piece on Egon Schiele. It is not an isolated piece. The murrina belongs to a series dedicated to art history icons, featuring different academic painting and drawing techniques. In this way, Dei Rossi experiments, tests himself and challenges the versatility of glass to represent those different techniques.
Or take the piece originated from an old photo of a young girl from Burano.
Dei Rossi found the photo by chance, dating back to the end of the 1800s. This murrina narrates the story of the casual discovery. The black and white, evanescent representation of this girl forces us to think who she was, what story it is behind, an object perfect for a seance.
The technical complexity of the murrina may distract us, but it should not. It is a cultural and conceptual approach that breaks the limits of the murrina as it was known in the past centuries.
In Dei Rossi you find the artist’s research, his finger print, both physically and conceptually.
Dei Rossi provokes you, in a constant attempt to let you know what a murrina is, what it implies to make it and what potential lies in this means of communication.
A device to create: Lino Tagliapietra’s use of murrina for unique pieces
A completely different approach to murrina in contemporary glass can be enjoyed in Lino Tagliapietra’s work.
Making his own murrina, Tagliapietra (born in 1934, Murano) keeps different murrinas in his showroom in Murano all beautifully strung together.
When I look at it, it reminds me of the abacus ancient Romans used to help for arithmetics. A sort of a grammar to write with glass.
Sugar candies in glass, playful and harmonious
This contemporary abacus is a collection of colors and shapes which turn into unique, unrepeatable art works in glass. A murrina in Lino Tagliapietra’s work is the result of a large blob of glass layers of brilliant, contrasting, but always harmonious colors which being pulled becomes a cane, finally cut into a series of small tiles, similar to sugar candies. But just like the abacus or the ABC book for children, these sugar candies are reused, melted at high temperature again and blown. Stretched, they become large again, transparent, psychedelic and magnetic.
A close look at these unique glass creations, whether we talk about a vase or a panel of stained glass, lets us enter a diorama. Glass versatility takes us away from reality, overwhelming us with special effects, constantly changing according to the light, as if the murrina were a living creature.
All hand- and mind-made, by the way.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy