Explore Murano, Italy’s Island of Glass

Murano draws collectors and shoppers across the water from Venice for the ultimate hunt and gather for gorgeous glass pieces.

By Edward Readicker-Henderson

Put it on the list of things that should be impossible: pieces of glass more than 700 years old. I can't even keep glasses alive in my kitchen for more than a few seasons. But then that's why I've come to Murano, and to its Glass Museum—to see the possibilities. This island in the Venetian Lagoon is the world's greatest producer of glass, an island devoted to nothing but what happens with sand and heat and alchemy.

Since I was last here a couple of years ago, I've had dreams in Murano tints. Now I return for a souvenir I can bring home in my hands, not just my memory.

"Really?" my partner says. "We're going shopping?"

Absolutely. From Murano, I want something that will always remind me of how the canals gently rub against ochre-fronted buildings; I want something that shines like the twilight right when the church bells start to go off. I want something to remind me of Daz's surprised smile when she realizes our itinerary may shift from its usual rounds of churches and paintings.

We board the vaporetto and watch, as we speed across the lagoon, how this tiny island rises in our view as Venice sinks behind us. Just a half hour offshore and a 20-minute walk end to end, Murano is like a gleaming sparkle of the mainland. Of Venice.

And on display in Murano's Glass Museum are objects that have been reflecting the water's light since my own ancestors were painting themselves blue and freezing in kilts every winter. These fragile pieces have survived war and revolution, careless children and drunken dinner parties; still they shine. Murano's glass was so prized it was even used as currency during the age of exploration—Christopher Columbus set sail with chests full of Murano beads, more than a dozen kinds of glass turned in details so small it takes a magnifying glass to take them all in.

As the continent's trading center, Venice was the center of European glassmaking; its merchants imported and combined techniques to make something entirely Venetian. The problem with having so many glass studios in one place, though, was the risk that they'd catch fire and burn the city down around them. Which is why, in 1291, Venice exiled all its glassmakers to a small nearby island where they could only set fire to each other. They built new homes and workshops as a reflection of the place they'd left behind.

And so Murano became a Venice in miniature, a landscape of canals and tawny-fronted houses. Today, glass shops stretch away past a curve in the canal, each with its own personality: one a veritable (and overflowing) Aladdin's cave, one a carefully spotlit fine-art gallery, another barely containing a collection of glass butterflies that looks like it's ready to take off.

Doors open on workshops, aproned men beckoning visitors in with glass-blowing demonstrations. I choose by random, by feel, by the simple fact I like the way one shop's teacups are entirely individual. "This one?" I ask Daz, who has stopped dead in her tracks in front of a display of red vases with glass flowers the color of her own powder blue eyes. "This one," she agrees.

Fine glass can't be mass-produced. The artist takes a glob of molten color, the reds and yellows of the inside of the sun, and twirls it onto the end of a long metal tube. With gentle puffs of air, like an angel playing a muted horn, he shapes, moving so quickly it feels like watching a season of flowers bloom in minutes as he turns fire into glass. I watch him do it again, remembering the glassblowing class I once took. With great patience and practice, I turned blobs of molten glass into new blobs that looked like escapees from a lava lamp.

We've seen the old glass in the museum, and we've seen the newest glass drawn from fire. Now it's time to find our glass. Around every corner, there is another shop of chandeliers, goblets, vases, picture frames built of beads melted together. It can be dizzying, until you realize Murano's great secret: Your own treasure, that thing you've been needing all your life without knowing what you need, is here somewhere.

This day on Murano, I buy a figurine of blown glass, a heart made from a thin red tube and, in the center, a glass woman on a swing. To me, it's like a portrait of my companion, a shimmering version of her smile as she buys a glass vase that she will never put flowers in because that's overkill; the vase's own hues are enough.

Even the dusk glows here, flaring up in windows, dancing in the rippled canals, lighting clouds and shop windows holding new glass like a prom date offering up a corsage. The fires are banked for the night, Murano's treasures awaiting the cold sparkle of starlight.

Back in Venice proper, we line up our new treasures on the windowsill of our hotel room. Across a canal, the sunset paints Monet colors on the facade of San Giorgio Maggiore's bell tower. In fact, Monet liked this play of light so much, he painted this very view many times—smears of purples and reds. We are not painters, but neither are we deprived of the joy of changing light. Our bits of Murano glass shine at us, diffracting the world like we are inside a kaleidoscope.

The easiest way to make the trip to Murano is by vaporetto, Venice's water bus, from the Fundamente Nove stop. From here, three lines run to Murano.

For the Monet view, The Westin Europa & Regina, Venice is the place to go. Rates start at 300 Euros; 39-041-240-0001.

For Venetian seafood, go to La Perla Ai Bisatei; 39-041-739528. If you're still on Murano at dinnertime, Restaurant alla Vecchio Pescheria offers simple local food, expertly done; 30-041-527-4957.

Shop and see glassblowing at Massimiliano Schiavon and NasonMoretti. Murano's Museo del Vetro, the Glass Museum, is newly refurbished and has one of the world's great displays of glass; 39-041-739586.