In search of: Glass in Venice

Swirly vases and funny clowns? No, no, you've got the wrong idea, says Charlotte Mullins; this is the hottest place for chic home accessories

Glass objects have been around for thousands of years. The Egyptians were a dab hand at combining soda ash, pounded limestone and silica sand to form transparent drinking vessels, but the decorative glass-making industry reached its zenith during the Renaissance, with Venice at its epicentre.

Glass objects have been around for thousands of years. The Egyptians were a dab hand at combining soda ash, pounded limestone and silica sand to form transparent drinking vessels, but the decorative glass-making industry reached its zenith during the Renaissance, with Venice at its epicentre.

Why Venice?

Even though the Venetians had to import their raw materials, glass production flourished. By 1291 the number of furnaces in the wood-built city was so great that the industry was moved to the neighbouring island of Murano, officially because of the fire hazard. But in reality the encasement of the industry in Murano allowed the Venetians to protect their monopoly on quality glass production; the glass-makers were virtual prisoners, threatened with death should they ever attempt to leave Murano and spill their secrets.

What's so special about Venetian glass?

By assimilating Eastern glass techniques and effectively running a closed shop until the 17th century, the Venetians were able to advance the industry to such an extent that nobody could come close to imitating it. Until, that is, Louis XIV persuaded the master craftsmen of Murano to work on his palace at Versailles, whereupon their secrets came out. Soon other countries were making glass objects cheaper and faster. But the Murano glass-workers were resourceful, and by the mid-19th century they were at the pinnacle of their industry again. Their vases and chandeliers, mirrors and lights were fit for a queen: Queen Elizabeth II, in fact, who visited Murano in 1961 and went away with a sackload of glass.

What about those cute clowns that are peddled as Murano glass in Venice?

What indeed. One highly respected glass-maker in Murano intimated that 70 per cent of glass sold in Venice has never been near Murano; the tourist tat can be produced cheaper practically anywhere else in the world. But clowns are not what Murano glass is about: the real designer stuff has won international awards and is coveted the world over.

Who covets it, then?

Well, Elton John visits Barovier & Toso every year to buy lights and decorative objects for his Venetian palazzo, and the Four Seasons hotel chain has an account with the firm. The late Gianni Versace "wallpapered" his Italian lakeside retreat with Baroque Barbini mirrors (weighing more than 60kg each), and Philippe Starck also bought a load to enhance the interior of London's chic Sanderson hotel.

So where can I get hold of this quality glassware?

Head for Murano: the main waterways may be lined with tourist emporia, but look for the masters in the workshops just behind. For lights and vases try Barovier & Toso at 28 Fondamenta Vetrai, Murano (00 39 041 739049). The Barovier family can trace its glass-making ancestry back 22 generations, to 1295, and Ercole Barovier's 1950s Forme Nuove vases, made from contrasting coloured squares of glass fused together, are collectors' items. To marvel at his work, ask to see the top-floor museum. Angelo Barovier, another ancestor, invented lead crystal in 1480, but to buy the best etched lead crystal around, you must head back to the mainland. Although the glassware used by Bottega Varisco is made in the company's Murano factory, it is etched in the nearby town of Treviso, at 59 Via Nervesa della Battaglia, Treviso (00 39 0422 300980). The showroom and workshop are combined, and you can watch in awe as Italo Varisco and his sons take glass goblets, plates and vases and confidently press them against spinning stone wheels, cutting the glass intuitively, without a template.

Chandeliers, vases, goblets ... there's quite a range

There's more. Fratelli Barbini produces exquisite glass-encrusted mirrors at 36 Calle Bertolini, Murano (00 39 041 739777). The ramshackle workshop is hidden behind tall gates, but Guido Barbini is always welcoming, and will usher you into the showroom, a magical space overlooking the lagoon and lined with extravagant, opulent, extraordinary mirrors.

So how much will all this cost? Will I have to swim home?

It depends what you're after. As Italo Varisco says: "The price can go as high as your imagination." His hand-engraved glasses and jugs start from €30 (£20), but for something a little more dramatic, the price can rise to €12,000 (£8,000). A Barovier & Toso 16-light chandelier will set you back about the same, but you can buy vases handmade to Ercole Barovier's award-winning designs for about €600 (£400). Buying similar pieces in London will cost you double. Barbini's mirrors are made to commission, so the price really does reflect your taste, but again you could walk out with something for under €100 (£66).

Can I really walk out with it?

Well, you could if you bought a small, off-the-peg item. But in reality this isn't the kind of glassware you buy for Auntie Mabel's birthday (unless you are a Versace), so chances are you will end up ordering something grand to your own specifications. On large orders you can wait up to a year for delivery, but nobody ever complains; quality takes time.

I want to go now! How do I get there?

Ryanair flies from Stansted to Venice- Treviso three times a day from £80 return (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com). The airport is on the outskirts of Treviso, and it's worth staying there and visiting Venice by train. Treviso is a medieval city with numerous hotels; I stayed at the Ca' del Galletto (within walking distance of Bottega Varisco) at 30 Via S Bona Vecchia (0039 0422 432550; www.hotelcadelgalletto.it), where suites start from €135 (£85) a night, including breakfast.

Trains to Venice are cheap – less than €6 (£4) for a return ticket – and the journey takes 30 minutes. Take vaporetto 52 to Murano from outside the train station; you can buy a day pass for €9 (£6) from the yellow booths on the waterfront.

I want to know more

John Ferro Sims's book Handmade in Italy (published by New Holland at £24.99) is a useful guide to finding out-of-the-way artisans; it includes all the glass-makers mentioned in this article.

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