Millefiori: The colorful glass-making technique dating back to ancient Egypt

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Marija Georgievska
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One of the most amazing glasswork techniques can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt is the millefiori. It is difficult to credit its origin to one culture because throughout the centuries it has been used by many glass makers. The Italians defined the name for the technique, and in translation, it means a thousand flowers.

The term was used for the first time in the book Curiosities of Glass Making by the glassmaker from London Apsley Pellatt. He used it to describe mosaic beads, and after his description, the name appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1849.

Roman millefiori style cup from Emona grave. Author: Igor Lapanje. CC BY-SA 3.0

Before it became popular as a technique, the term millefiori was used to describe colorful decoration with glass flowers. It developed in many styles and fashions and is known all around the world. Many artists apply this technique to polymer clay and similar materials.

Because the polymer clay is more pliable and does not need to be reheated many times while being worked, it is a much easier surface with which millefiori patterns can be produced. The technique became world-famous after it came into the hands of Murano glass makers. The multicolored glass designs from the island of Murano became iconic, and the glassmakers there led Europe for centuries developing many different technologies.

Today, modern artists in Murano are still using this centuries-old technique of glass decoration, and they craft many figurines, chandeliers, and small souvenirs for tourists to buy. The Glass Museum in the Palazzo Giustinian (The Museo del Vetro) houses many of these objects from different periods in history, and there are even samples from Egyptian times.

The term millefiori was used for the first time in the book Curiosities of Glass Making by the glass maker from London Apsley Pellatt. Author: Lumaca. CC BY-SA 4.0

It is believed that the Egyptians were the first who knew how to mix different colors of glass. After their invention, the technique was used in Roman times, and no one knows if they influenced each other or if the idea came independently from different artists in the two periods.

Roman millefiori bead. Author: Fungus b. CC BY-SA 3.0

The technique was lost for several centuries, but it appeared again in the 15th century when the Venetians began using it. Until then, Murano glass makers produced only Rosetta beads. These beads are made from many layers of colorful glass put in a mold, and the soft glass was pulled from both ends until the cane reached the perfect thickness.

Ancient Roman millefiori plate.

After that, the glass is sliced into several pieces for further processing. Depending on the color of the cane, each piece shows a different flower. After cutting the flowers, each of them is immersed in a hot object made of glass and the final products are millefiori vases, lamps, or pieces of jewelry.

A millefiori vase. Author: Ulrich Mayring. CC BY-SA 3.0

Because this technique was lost for a long time, the Venetians spent lots of time refining their methods. The man who reinvented it was Vincenzo Moretti. After painstaking work, he finally uncovered the secret of millefiori, which brought instant success to the Venice and Murano Company, where he worked as a glassmaker. Moretti was so talented that he even produced exact copies of glassware made by the Ancient Romans.

Millefiori beads made from polymer clay from the 1920s. Author: EvelynS. CC BY-SA 3.0

The oldest Millefiori objects found by archeologist are the Roman beads that were made between 50 BCE and 300 CE. Also, canes that were likely made in Italy have been found in Ireland dating back to the 8th century. A piece of millefiori was discovered in a purse found in the Anglo-Saxon burial site from the 7th century known as Sutton Hoo.

Modern millefiori buttons. Author: lisaclarke. CC BY-ND 2.0

The knowledge of the technique was lost again, but it appeared in the 18th century. In the 19th century, many factories in Europe began manufacturing millefiori canes. Thousands of these objects were made, but the Murano ones are distinctive in their quality, as even today they are made by hand by the finest artists of the island.