Located north of Venice in Italy, the tiny island of Murano is unlike its medieval bigger sister. Yes, it is zigzagged by pretty canals, bridges and even boasts a lighthouse, nevertheless Murano exudes a rather industrial vibe and resembles a shabbier mini-Venice with a population of about 5,000 inhabitants. But the island is not known for its flamboyant architecture nor iconic gondola rides. Once you step off the vaporetto, the jumble of seemingly derelict factories reveal what Murano really is: the island of glass.
The history of Murano glassmaking dates back to the 13th century, when all glass factories were ordered to be relocated from Venice to the island of Murano, mainly to protect Venice from the hazard of fire caused by furnaces. Ever since, the industry of glassmaking has continuously thrived. Artisans perpetuated their trade from generation to generation, producing beautiful glass objects that rapidly became coveted artworks by the entire world.
Today, Murano glass is still avidly sought by art aficionados, museum curators and interior designers around the world, but due to massive commercialisation there is a prevalent perception that contemporary glass has lost its charm. There are countless factories that lure travellers with beautiful sculptures but the truth is the real glassmaking tradition is now in danger; there are even rumours that some of the glass sold here is actually made in China.
Despite these rumours, whilst strolling on the island, you can still come upon talented artisans who are incredibly dedicated to creating intricate glass pieces. One of them is Massimiliano Schiavon, whom Quotient had the pleasure to meet personally in his Murano atelier Schiavon Art Team, amid countless bright-coloured glass artworks and fellow artists who are in continuous motion — moulding, heating, blowing, inspecting and preparing materials.
Quotient: How did you become a glassmaker?
Schiavon: I grew up into a glassmaking family. I am the 6th generation living and working on this island. This is the place where my grandfather worked so the craft has been perpetuated from generation to generation.
How much has the industry changed since your grandfather’s time? Are you still using the same techniques as before?
The techniques remain, the materials remain. What changes is the way we create the objects. Sometimes we spend more time thinking the idea through, creating a mental image of a product that will be unique in design due to its composition, form, pattern and colours. This is possible thanks to my team of artists who play an essential part in the creative process. Also, what’s important is that all the materials we are using to create sculptures are made within our factory.
What was the biggest challenge you’ve ever had as an artist?
I created a massive sculpture for the King of Oman. I also worked on an important project for a family in Bangkok, Thailand, creating five chandeliers for one room. Actually, we always try to come up with unique pieces for each client.
How do you combine the modern and the classic in your work?
The technique we use can be described as classic because it follows the old ways our forefathers taught us. However, what is modern about our work is our vision. Nowadays, we use about 25 different tonalities per piece — this was almost impossible to undertake 20 years ago.
How do you think the image of Murano as a glass producing destination has changed in the last few years?
In my opinion, the mass production of Murano glass needs to come to an end. Murano was born because our predecessors opened some factories here and started to make art. Eventually several shops popped up on the island and owners started demanding more items from the glassmakers. Today, some factories work in series, almost mechanically. For me this kind of work is not interesting because it doesn’t have the right story behind it. If someone creates a unique product, at least you know there is a personal touch to it, it’s the outcome of an artist’s vision. About 25 years ago, all the glassmakers on the island would simply work in this commercial style. Tourists would come, visit and buy glass. These days, travellers are more aesthetically aware and they want to purchase something different. The future is to create more elaborate and intricate pieces.
How do you get your inspiration for your work?
Inspiration can strike anywhere, anytime. When you walk down the street, when you cycle, when you play basketball. It just comes from everyday life.
What is your favourite glass piece?
It’s not yet born. I have a lot ideas but sometimes time is not enough to create everything you want. Right now, I’d like to make a glass car that can actually function. I’m starting work on a taxi boat which features glass benches, beautiful aquariums and LED lighting technology.
What would you recommend travellers to do whilst in Venice or Murano?
To walk a lot, to understand the structure of the city, its beauty, the old and the new.