Every time I lead a photo tour in Venice, I always try to offer my students some new and unique experiences. These typically involve visits to workshops and factories where ancient and obscure crafts are still practiced by artists and craftsmen using the tools and techniques of yore.
In the past, we visited a workshop where an artist makes beautiful wooden marionettes and a boatyard where gondolas are still build by hand. This time, I want to tell you about a little shop where a couple creates jewels out of glass.
Pino and his Japanese wife Kanae are the owners of a place called L’Albero, where they create and sell beautiful artefacts made of glass. The glassmaking craft in Venice has of course a long and venerable tradition, especially on the island of Murano, but what Pino and Kanae produce is out of the ordinary.
They have perfected the art of making the murrine, which are small, round, multicolored pieces of glass that can be used as pendants or brooches or simply displayed on a mantelpiece.
You can find the murrine in many shops in and out of Venice nowadays and you can never be sure if they’ve been made in Venice or in Shanghai. Pino and Kanae create each jewel painstakingly by hand, using a time-honored method that produces uniquely intricate designs.
Their signature design is in the shape of a tree, hence the name of the shop. Albero is indeed Italian for tree.
I have to admit I was completely ignorant about what it takes to make a murrina, but Pino was more than willing to reveal to us the secrets of his trade. Well, at least some of them.
The process starts with a set of glass sticks that Pino and Kanae acquire from the glass factories in Murano. What’s important to note here is that it’s really difficult to find high quality sticks with very specific colors. The process for making them is highly imprecise and not easily repeatable. Therefore our artists are constantly searching for batches of sticks with just the right color, knowing that they might not be able to find the same color again for a long time.
In addition to that and because of safety regulations concerning the use of certain chemicals, it’s become practically impossible to produce blown glass in shades of red and brown in a reliable way. Because of this, you can be certain that a cheap murrina containing red parts was almost certainly produced industrially and is not made with blown glass from Murano.
Where do the red sticks that you can see in these pictures come from then?
The answer is that they are ancient sticks, produced before it had become illegal to use those chemicals. Pino and Kanae employ people who visit old glass factories and warehouses, hoping to find centuries-old boxes of red and brown sticks. Who’d have known?
Aside from their color, sticks differ also in the amount of detail they contain. Most are very simple, thin sticks of a single color. Some, though, have a very detailed structure, made of layers of different colors. Their section resembles a flower or a bunch of flowers. Because of this, they are called millefiori, literally a thousand flowers. Making those is a veritable trade secret amongst the master glass blowers of Murano.
Having chosen and cut some sticks to match a design he has in mind, Pino assembles them on a support that is subsequently put in the oven until the different sticks fuse together. Kanae is the one who takes care of the baking process, for the most part.
After being baked, the piece is left to cool and is finally cut with a rotating saw and polished with an abrasive wheel until it shines.
It was a great pleasure to watch Pino and Kanae create their masterpieces and feel all the love they put into their craft. I’m certainly going to visit them again next time I’m in Venice.
If you’d like to do the same, you can join one of my photo tours of Venice: