You cannot say that you know Venice without ever having seen it from the water. While tourists jostle to enjoy the picture-postcard scenes at the bustling Piazza San Marco, Rialto and the Grand Canal, there is a calmer side to this water city, out of the ordinary and only a short distance from the most famous city square: a placid space offering some respite from the congested passageways and hyper-tourism.
There are about 50 islands in the Venetian lagoon, and more than half sit within its northern part. Murano, famous for its furnaces and blown-glass ateliers; Burano, an island of cheerfully coloured ﬁshermen’s houses and shops selling traditional handmade lacework; and Torcello, known for its thousand-year-old basilica, as well as having been a favourite spot of Hemingway, are but three of the most notable and beautiful isles.
It is deﬁnitely worthwhile unplugging from the often chaotic city to indulge in an afternoon on the islands – and the charming, authentic and somewhat indolent Murano is the perfect place to start. You can reach Murano in 30 minutes by vaporetto (waterbus) from Santa Lucia Station, or in 10 minutes from the Fondamente Nove stop, on the north side of Venice’s historic centre, facing the lagoon. Be warned: even if you plan to spend just an hour or two, you may quickly fall in love with this island of glass and ﬁnd yourself spending several days.
Murano is made up of ﬁve main islands, cut roughly through the middle by the sinuous Canal Grande, which is crossed by a single bridge. As in Venice, the historical fabric thickens between the perpendicular streets and along the canals, dense with moorings and boat traffic. Leaving aside the landscape of glass factories and warehouses, which line up on the front towards the lagoon, Murano also has its share of palazzos, dating back to the island’s days as a popular resort in the 15th century. The façades of the buildings are an elegant tribute to their former owners’ social status and wealth.
Among the treasures of Murano are the Church of Santa Maria e San Donato, which has a splendid mosaic ﬂoor from 1141 rivalling that of the Basilica of San Marco; the early 16th-century Church of San Pietro Martire (St Peter the Martyr), which houses paintings by Veronese and Tintoretto; the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which was used as a hospital in the early 20th century; and the Murano Lighthouse, built in Istrian marble (the lighthouse is not open to the public but is interesting to see from the outside).
Most people visit, however, to view and buy the splendid glass objects that have been created on the island by skilled craftsmen for over 700 years, and to watch the artisans as they transform sand into sparkling masterpieces of light and colour in Murano’s 100-plus furnaces, each burning at up to 1,700°C.
Murano glass is pure art, a tradition of craftsmanship that has its roots in 1291, when the Doge and the Republic of Venice ordered all glassmakers to move to Murano in order to reduce the risk of ﬁre in the city. Many historical documents suggest that this decision was also seen as a way to prevent the knowledge of Venetian artisans from spreading elsewhere.
Factories consolidated the industry, and Murano became the leading manufacturer of glass in Europe. Over 500 years, craftsmen developed new types of glass and introduced elaborate techniques, creating a diverse range of products, from the ﬁrst mirrors on the continent to increasingly ornate and highly sought-after chandeliers.
Today, the streets along the main canal are packed with the showrooms of famous manufacturers such as Seguso, Venini, Schiavon and Cenedese, showcasing unique museum-quality artwork, as well as smaller stores selling a wide variety of objects from tableware to vases, and goblets to souvenir glass sweets. You can also spot curious glass sculptures across the island.
A visit to the modestly sized Museo del Vetro (Glass Museum) is highly recommended. Established in 1861, the museum is housed in the Palazzo Giustinian, the former town hall and the ancient residence of the Torcello bishops. Here you will be able to compare examples of Venetian glass from Roman times to the present, watch the history of glass unfold via video and marvel at the exceptional pieces on display. The absolute masterpiece is the Barovier Cup, considered one of the most valuable pieces of Renaissance glassmaking. Aim to visit during a live event, when master glassmakers demonstrate how glass is blown (www.museovetro.visitmuve.it).
You can also visit the factories to witness the talent and skill of the masters who breathe life into the molten glass. Some workshops oﬀer guided tours, while others simply keep their doors open and allow you to peek in from the street.
Often, artisans specialise in one type of product, such as jewellery, bowls, mirrors or chandeliers. They blend the use of the latest technology with ancient techniques, as master craftsmen before them have done for generations.
As you board a boat to return across the lagoon, back to the colour, life, bustle and swirl of Venice, look over your shoulder and marvel at how this relaxed little community has stood the test of time. La Serenissima indeed.
5 Senses – Sight HISTORICAL CHURCHES
Between 1866 and 1997, nearly all of Murano’s churches were replaced by glass factories and housing – four remain, and two are open to visitors. Visit Church of Santa Maria e San Donato to view its distinctive bell tower and fabulous 12th-century Byzantine mosaics – it is also supposed to be the resting place of the bones of a slain dragon. The 16th-century San Pietro Martire has a lovely airy aspect, heightened by beautiful chandeliers and paintings by Veronese and Tintoretto.