Shopping in Venice: Venetian glass

by Anne.Hanley

From the moment you get off your plane or train in Venice, chances are there’ll be someone wanting to sell you glass

They’ll offer you a trip to ‘the foundry’ and try to tie you down to committing to their services. There’s no real harm in taking them up on it: after all, the glass-making island of Murano makes a pleasant half-day trip from Venice proper, and watching a shapeless blob of molten coloured glass being transformed into something recognisable is never anything less than magical.

Bear in mind, though, that the aim of these tourist-orientated furnaces is selling – and the products on the shelves are as often as not made in the Far East rather than Venice: you can tell that by the price tag, because the genuine Venetian article is furiously expensive. No serious Venetian fornace (furnace) with a real maestro vetraio (master glass blower) will open its doors to visitors without a private appointment and/or a lot of persuading. But show an interest in their wares in their shops and outlets and you may just be allowed a peek. Otherwise, look beyond the vetro-hype and choose your glass sellers wisely. There are pockets of true Venetian glass creativity to suit holiday budgets of all sizes.

Glass was being made in Venice long before 1291 when all the furnaces were banished to Murano, to curb the disastrous fires which frequently swept through what was then a city built mostly of wood. The move to Murano has proved lengthy: to this day, only flame workers – making intricate objects from sticks of coloured glass over bunsen burners – are to be found in Venice proper.

Murano’s Museo del Vetro (Glass Museum) (fondamenta Giustinian 8; www.museiciviciveneziani.it; closed Wednesday) gives an overview of glass and glassmaking from the ancient Romans to 20th century Venice and is an excellent place to start any glass-hunting trip. To get there, though, from Colonna vaporetto stop, you’ll be forced to run the gauntlet of the Fondamenta dei Vetrai where anyone not already clearly part of a group is subjected to the endless patter and hassly hard sell of the commercial furnace touts. Take a deep breath, stroll on, and ignore them.

Or put them off your scent by dodging into a shop. At Fondamenta dei Vetrai 50 is Venini (www.venini.com), one of the biggest names in Murano glass and seriously expensive. Many top names in art and architecture have provided designs for this company. From the very modern to the classic chandeliers, the lavishness is worth experiencing even if you have no plans to purchase. Further on, at number 109A, Adriano Berengo (www.berengo.com) commissions contemporary artists to come up with designs for startlingly colourful glass sculptures. Between the two at number 67A – and far more feasible if you’re in the market for portable souvenirs – is Cesare Toffolo (www.toffolo.com) whose lamp-worked minature copies of classic Venetian designs are a delight, though not a cheap one.

A morning wandering Murano’s alleyways – perhaps taking in the church of San Pietro Martire with its gorgeous Virgin and Child by Giovanni Bellini, or sticking around for a well-priced seafood lunch at Busa alla Torre (Campo Santo Stefano 31; +39 041 739662, open daily lunch only) – may leave you feeling that real Venetian glass souvenir opportunities lie elsewhere. So hop on a vaporetto back to Fondamenta Nove… but if you have to wait for your boat, and the tide’s low, hop down into the tiny stretch of shore and take a close look at the pebbles: it’s as much tiny multi-coloured balls of glass as real stones. Despite the hard sell and huge price tags, Murano can produce unexpected delights.

Calle del Fumo (Cannaregio 5311; +39 041 5222265) is right behind the Fondamenta Nove stop: here, Vittorio Costantini (Calle del Fumo, Cannaregio 5311; +39 041 5222265) uses a flame to fashion the most exquisite insects, fish and other lagoon creatures: all incredibly realistic, each individually hand-worked. Bruno Amadi (Calle dei Saoneri, San Polo 2747; +39 041 5238089) does something similarly fascinating in his workshop near Campo San Polo though his miniatures tend to be of larger creatures: lagoon birds, starfish, even cats and dogs. In both cases, these glass objects are about as far as you can get from the garish and overstretched Orient-produced animals on sale among the plastic gondolas. This is true craftsmanship: you can watch the masters at work at their flames.

If miniature animals don’t grab you, head for the sestiere (district) of Dorsoduro, where there’s a concentration of smaller glass shops selling a variety of interesting wares. L’Angolo del Passato (Campiello dei Squelini, Dorsoduro 3276; +39 041 5287896) sells a fascinating rag-bag of affordable objects, from antiques to the brilliantly coloured goti – beakers traditionally fashioned by furnace workers from left-over bits of glass – made by Marie Brandolini (www.lagunab.com, from €50).

Massimo Micheluzzi (Fondamenta Bollani, Dorsoduro 1071; +39 041 5282190) makes and sells his own beautifully elegant contemporary glass vases in strong colours. There’s little here, though, for less than €2000.

In pretty Campo San Vio, the Sent sisters Marina and Susannasell their own extravagantly elegant glass jewellery plus sinuous vases and bottles by other glass designers (Sent – Campo San Vio, Dorsoduro 669, +39 041 5208136; www.marinaesusannasent.com). The sisters have another outlet by the Ponte (bridge) San Moisè (San Marco 2090), right by Carlo Moretti’s shop L’Isola (Corte Foscara/Campo San Moisè, San Marco 1468; +39 041 5231973; www.lisola.com) where the star turns are Carlo’s collectable calici glasses (€240). Other gorgeous cups and bowls begin at €57.

More expert advice on Venice

Read my overview on Shopping in Venice.

For suggestions on where to stay in Venice, read my overview on Venice hotels.

Anne.Hanley

I have been writing about Italy for over 25 years for papers (Sunday Telegraph, Independent), magazines, news agencies and – most prolifically – travel guides, editing many editions of Time Out's Venice and Rome guides.

I pitched up in Rome in 1984, thinking of staying for a year or two; but I've never managed to drag myself away from Italy. After 20 years in the Eternal City, I'm now in the wilds of the Umbrian countryside where I continue to edit guides, and design gardens (www.laverzura.com).

Of all Italy's glorious cities, Venice is undoubtedly my favourite: I love its unique beauty and that special feeling of complicity it gives anyone who gets to know it well. I make sure I visit the lagoon city three or four times a year: sometimes for a few days, occasionally for weeks. Any excuse will do: an article to write, a garden to look at, my Time Out Venice guides to update, a new hotel to check out, or just a much-loved restaurant with a pavement table and a view I find myself hankering after. What never ceases to amaze me about the place is how, despite my constant visits and endless exploring, every time I go there, I happen across something new. There’s always a reason to return to a city that reveals its secrets so slowly but so surely.

My Venice

Where I always grab a coffee - The selection of excellent coffees at the Caffè del Doge (Calle del Cinque, San Polo 609, www.caffedeldoge.com) means that there’s always the perfect cup to match my mood.

My favourite stroll - With construction work at the Punta della Dogana finally over, I can once again do my walk; the view across to San Marco from this easternmost end of the Dorsoduro district is stunning.

Fiction for inspiration - Donna Leon’s Commissioner Brunetti crime novels show this American writer’s excellent knowledge of the city. But I have a sneaky affection for Henry James’ wordy The Wings of the Dove.

The most breathtaking view - The spectacle from the campanile (bell tower) of San Giorgio Maggiore is heart-stopping. But the view from the Molino Stucky Hilton’s Skyline bar (Giudecca 810, www.molinostuckyhilton.com) is pretty good too – and you can enjoy this one with a glass in hand.

The best spot for some peace and quiet - When busy Venice gets too much for me, I hop on a vaporetto to the Giudecca and wander through to the boatyards and echoing alleys on the southern side. So atmospheric.

Shopaholics beware! I find the purposeful bustle and real Venetian spirit of the food morning market at the north-western foot of the Rialto bridge quite wonderful, even if I’m not buying.

City soundtrack - Anything by Vivaldi is the obvious choice here in his city, but I also find the works of Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli very fitting. These 16th-century composer-brothers wrote works for performance in St Mark’s basilica in the 16th century.

Don’t leave without…trying to round the column: looking at the Doge’s palace from the lagoon side, go to the third column from the right. To one side, stand with your back against it; now try to walk around it without falling off the pavement. I’ve never managed.