A glass horse comes out of a furnace at the Zanetti factory in Murano, Italy.
A glass horse comes out of a furnace at the Zanetti factory in Murano, Italy. (Francesca Volpi/for The Washington Post)

After eight centuries of Murano glassmaking, a gas crisis is threatening its future

MURANO, Italy — There has been an unusual silence within the world-famous glass factories of this Venetian island. On a late December day, at the site of the largest producer, all that could be heard was the low buzz of the two furnaces still burning hot — their bellies roiling with molten sand. The 18 other furnaces sat idle, empty and cold.

“No one here remembers a muted December,” said Cristiano Ferro, 52, one of the owners of Effetre. Since then, the company has had to shut down the last of its active furnaces.

In a typical year, the glass factories here power down only once, for maintenance in August. But with Europe in the midst of an energy crisis, facing a 400 percent increase in natural gas bills, the gas-fueled blazes needed to produce Murano’s richly colored, ornate creations have become a luxury the glassmakers can scarcely afford.

“After two years scanning covid charts, we’re doing the same with natural gas prices as the curve rises, with the life and death of Murano hanging in the balance,” said Andrea Della Valentina of the Seguso Gianni factory.

The gas crisis stems from a combination of factors — insufficient stockpiles within Europe, constrained supply from Russia and increased competition from Asia for access to liquid natural gas. And with the Kremlin threatening to cut off flows if it is hit with sanctions over Ukraine, the crisis could get worse.

European governments have tried to shield households and businesses from the price spikes. For Murano’s glassmakers, who were already reeling from a pandemic lockdown in 2020 and massive flooding in 2019, support has come in the form of regional and national subsidies intended to help them get through the winter. But with gas prices continuing to rise, the subsidies aren’t expected to last them beyond next month, tops. That’s led companies like Effetre to keep their furnaces off — and some to consider closing up shop for good.

As Ukraine invasion looms, Europe fears Kremlin will cut off its gas supply

The glassmakers say half the monthly cost of operations comes from maintaining the required holding temperature. The furnaces burn at about 2,160 degrees Fahrenheit, 24-hours a day. But shutting down and starting up again is also hugely expensive. The cooling process cracks the crucibles — the clay vats in which glass is cooked. Both those and the fire-resistant bricks have to be replaced. It then can take two weeks to get back up to the right temperature. Effetre estimates that rekindling the 15 to 16 furnaces it typically has running at one time would cost $90,000 to $100,000.

In the eight centuries of Murano glassmaking, the use of natural gas is relatively new, adopted only in the 1950s. Many of the pieces one might see in museums — including in the Smithsonian’s current “Sargent, Whistler and Venetian Glass” exhibit — were crafted using wood-fueled furnaces.

But environmental regulations adopted in the interim prevent going back to wood. Local emissions would far exceed the legal threshold, explained Francesco Gonella, a physicist who specializes in artistic glass. “You may have a wood-powered stove up on a mountain, but you can’t have hundreds of wood-powered furnaces going at 1100 degrees Celsius,” he said.

The glassmakers prefer gas, anyway, for its ability to offer stable temperatures, Gonella said. It avoids the risk of cooling that could compromise their materials. It also provides an all-important flame — used in glassmaking much like a sculptor’s chisel — without the fire risk presented by wood, a serious concern for an island in the Venetian lagoon that’s not easy for fire departments to access.

Of course, burning natural gas produces carbon dioxide emissions, too. And gas production and storage is associated with the release of methane, a shorter-lived but highly potent greenhouse gas that is a major contributor to climate change.

Gas stoves in kitchens pose a risk to public health and the planet, research finds

The glassmaking industry is responsible for only a tiny fraction of Italy’s emissions. But the work is energy-intensive. In a normal year, the Murano factories guzzle more than 13 million cubic meters of natural gas, according to a market insider speaking on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized by his company to talk. That’s as much as a town of 30,000 people would typically use in domestic heating. Yet Murano is an island of 5,000.

The glassmakers that use the most gas are also those that deliver the most-dashing array of colors. The range and depth of those colors, along with the level of artistry, help authentic Murano glass stand out from mass-produced versions from China.

“What we need is variety,” said Ferro, whose company has a menu just shy of 300 colors. “This means there’s no alternative available for artistic glass production.”

Damian Farnea, 49, of Zanetti Murano said he was once chided by a former university mate: “You have a degree in environmental science and are still burning 40 thousand cubic meters of gas every month. You’ll go to hell!”

Farnea said he’s troubled by how his work contributes to climate change.

“Does the value of this art we make offset” the cost to the planet? he asked. “One day, someone will wake up and say, ‘That’s silly!’ I think we need to change, and finding an alternative is fundamental.”

“Murano’s is an unlucky sector,” said Gonella, the physicist. “It finds itself dealing with problems of different natures: commercial, because China rolls out counterfeit glass; environmental; and now the blow delivered by bills that are unsustainable for many.”

Going electric isn’t a real option, the glassmakers say. Electric furnaces can’t provide the kind of heat or artistic control they need. The sector has been looking into hydrogen as an alternative fuel. But that would require building a whole new network of pipes, designed to withstand corrosion from the hydrogen running through them.

Gonella said he doubts the viability of hydrogen as an energy source for Venice, beyond “filling a niche for sudden needs for power.”

For Venice, he said, “we’ll need a massive investment in local renewable technologies that won’t require the massive costs of importing power from the outside. Geothermic, absolutely, all around the island, and on it. Wind farms, off the lagoon, catching wind at dawn and dusk. And solar. All of these factories also need to be covered in solar panels.”

On a mid-December morning at the Zanetti factory — close to where the underwater gas pipe rises to the surface — master artisan Oscar Zanetti, 60, and his son Andrea, 36, were removing sticky, luminous, white-hot balls of glass from a furnace, attaching them to the figure of a horse and stretching them into the shape of slender legs. The horse would later gain its wings and become a Pegasus, the mythical creature.

The Zanetti business has been handed down through four generations, and Andrea plans to continue in his father’s footsteps.

Other glassmakers, though, say they can no longer afford to pass on Murano’s traditions. Mattia Rossi, 43, shuttered his family business this month because of financial problems made worse by skyrocketing bills.

“If I’m shelling out 5,000 euros for the electric bill one month and 15 [thousand] the next, I won’t be able to raise the price by 30 to 40 percent. My goblet would no longer cost 80, but 150 euros. People just won’t buy it then. Because glass is a beautiful thing, but it’s not bread and milk. It’s unnecessary.”

But while consumers can forgo elaborate chandeliers, the island of Murano, and its population, cannot exist as it has for almost a millennium without the glass that has made its name instantly recognizable the world over.

To hear Rossi speak about glass is to understand how essential it is to the people of Murano.

“When you wipe it with a cloth, it shines anew, even if it’s 30 years old,” he said. “It’ll give you the greatest feeling in the world, make you feel like it’s alive.”