August 19, 2022

Murano Pursues a Renaissance

A wing of a late 19th century brick factory built by the Società Veneziana Conterie e Cristallerie, once one of the largest bead and glass factories on the island of Murano, is metamorphosing into a 130-room, deluxe hotel, which is expected to open in the summer of 2012.

At the height of production in the 1920s and early 1930s, when the Conterie’s beads were wildly popular in clothing and design around the world, the factory employed as many as 1,000 people, with another 4,000 working on contract. But it shut its doors in 1992, a victim of changing tastes and a rapidly globalizing economy.

The hotel has claimed one former Conterie structure; another is to become an annex of the island’s glass museum, if funding for the project can be found.

Off a nearby canal, work is under way on another former glass factory destined to join the top-end Kempinski Hotels chain when it opens in 2013 (though construction has been stalled for some time as building permits await approval). The luxury digs — about 150 rooms and suites — are to include a sun terrace, a spa and fitness center and a ballroom, as well as meeting and convention spaces.

Another, smaller hotel in an abandoned glassworks is still on the drawing board.

The new hotels reflect a radical change in the self-image of an island whose history has been inextricably linked with glassmaking since 1291, when Venice moved its glass furnaces to this site, which it considered a safe distance away from the main islands.

Since that time Murano’s core industry has had its highs and lows, and the economic roller coaster of recent decades has dulled some of the luster of Murano artistic glass.

In the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s, boats weighted down with glass products — miniature animal families, glassware and vases, delicate rococo chandeliers constructed of hundreds of pieces — set sail from here to satisfy insatiable foreign markets.

Then, the majority of Murano’s inhabitants, who today number about 4,600, were involved in one aspect of glassmaking or another. Local boys would begin working in the furnaces before they turned 10 and spend a lifetime honing their skills.

Things are different today. Official industry figures for annual revenue from artistic glass do not exist but can be estimated to hover around €150 million, or $217 million, according to Gianni De Checchi, secretary of the Confartigianato di Venezia, a trade group for artisans.

Ten years ago it was €200 million, he said, with profit margins worn away by rising production costs — especially the cost of energy and transportation — as well as labor costs.

“There’s been a massacre of companies,” said Gianluca Vecchi, chairman of Andromeda, a chandelier and lighting factory that he said is facing a bumpy patch. “Too many things have happened in too short a time,” and now “there are no more tears to cry.”

In many ways, the island has mapped its own decline.

Murano’s current situation “is typical of what happened to other industrial districts in Italy in the past 10 years,” said Stefano Micelli, a professor of innovation technology at Ca’Foscari University in Venice and dean of Venice International University.

Comfortable after years of prosperity, many Murano companies did not look beyond their fiery furnaces and failed to evolve toward a more industrial and managerial model, he said.

“Instead of selling vases to tourists, they should have thought of ways to look to the future,” he said.

Now the island is being forced to imagine a future beyond glass. Proximity to Venice had already fueled a fledgling tourism industry, and in a few short years glass shops catering to day-trippers have colonized waterfront palazzo locations, muscling out residents and traditional retail stores.

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