Murrine Madness

By Brian Kerkvliet, copyright 4/1/97

Mosaic cane has a long and rich history that is important to understand if you want to get closer to the mind set of making cane. This comes to you if you spend time researching reading, thinking, and a lot of time in the studio! Many of my biggest insights on how cane were constructed came to me in my dreams after working out in the studio until 2 AM. These dreams were connections to past memories, where I was involved with glass crafting of that time. Through these dreams I was able to advance my understanding of mosaic cane construction considerably. In this series of articles I hope to share some of these insights with you. I want to explore the various ways to make moraines and mosaic cane, by using a torch, furnace, or a combination of the two. Then I will go on to describe many of the different ways you can use cane in pieces. I have thought about writing this article for a while now, trying to figure out how to put it all together. Knowing that everything I wanted to write about would be too much to fit into one article, I thought I’d break it up into several parts.

From the Beginning

Let’s explore some thoughts on how some of the early glassworkers may have discovered, developed and started to use mosaic cane. The first glass work was thought to have begun in the middle of the third millennium BC around Mesopotamia. It seems that it was a natural outgrowth of experimentation with ceramic glazes and faience. (a highly vitreous form of ceramic). It isn’t surprising that the first identifiable items made of glass were beads, seals and small inlay components. The first obvious use for glass was to emulate semi-precious stones. If you think about when glass was first discovered it was difficult to create large hot furnaces, so people were compelled to use this new found medium in small and intricate ways. Beads and other small adornment like items, such as detailed mosaics were used for inlay in furniture, walls, shrines and boxes.
Let’s contemplate what life was like for these early glass masters. Early artisans came across a material that was like no other. It was a material that was easily formed either in a mold or by manually sculpting when molten. The ingredients were relatively accessible, cheap and a skilled master could create a variety of colors that could be used together. Given these attributes they drew upon current knowledge of various disciplines and applied them to manipulating glass.
From bronze there came knowledge of casting and mold making. From ceramics came knowledge of how to build the furnaces and some of the chemistry needed to mix colors. From lapidary arts came the cutting and grinding techniques and from work with inlay came the interest and need for detailed mosaic pieces. Coalescing this body of diverse knowledge early glass workers began experimenting with the unknown limits of this new medium. Much of the intuitive knowledge needed to form glass was derived from the actual experience. For example the delicate sense of understanding the internal heat base is necessary in forming any piece of glass and could not have been gleaned from any other existing sources. Soon they realized that it could be twisted and stretched like no other material and when it cooled it was a solid substance that retained the color and definition given to it while hot. In fact the Egyptian name for glass was ‘iner en wedeh’ literally meaning ‘stone of the kind that flows.’ It is important to note that this understanding of glass in terms of stone is very different then our own perceptions of the material. Egyptians soon realized that if they layered multi-colored pieces of glass, like the mosaic inlay they did so well, and heated that bundle up that they could then stretch it down and reduce it in size without distorting the image. At first these mosaic slices were used for jewelry and inlay in shrines etc. As they learned more about working with glass they started using mosaic pieces in beads, bowls and small amphora.
The first mosaic glass is thought to have been produced in Egypt as early as the 360 BC. and reached its climax in Rome and Alexandria during the two centuries around the birth of Christ. It then declined rapidly, due to the wide spread of the use of the blowpipe and, perhaps, to a change in taste.
Mosaic glass didn’t reappear until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, on the island of Murano, the Italian glass center. This was prompted by some archeological discoveries in Pompeii and Herculaneum which revealed some fine examples of early mosaic glass. In addition to furnace made cane there were also some amazing breakthroughs being done by lampworkers during the same period. This was happening around the time that lampworkers were shifting away from using oil lamps that burned animal fat, to torches that ran off city gas and forced air (1845-1850). Some of the most exquisite canes of all time were made by a beadmaker by the name of Giacomo Franchini. These canes were some of the first ‘portrait’ canes with refined detail, right down to the shading. I will discuss these canes in more detail later in this series. Lampworkers of that time added a lot to the knowledge and diverse styles of cane that people were accustom to.
After this period many of the complex canes went out of style, possible because of the time involved in making them and the price that one would have to ask to make it worth while. While many of the simpler furnace cane used in paperweights and blown ware continued to be made through to the present. The complex cane made on the torch, or torch and furnace combination, became nearly extinct, until the last few years. Recently several artists have taken it upon themselves to re-explore this fascinating world of mosaic cane at the torch.

Some Definitions

There are many different definitions for the terms Latticino, millefiori, murrine, and mosaic cane. Just as there are many different way that murrine is spelled. ( murrhine, murrine, murrina) Just to get us all on the same wave length I will explain what I understand to be the correct definitions.
Mosaic cane – this is an all purpose term used to describe any cane that has been layered up and drawn out so as to have an image or a design in the cross section. Basically a generic term for all cane that has a pattern in the cross section.
Millefiori – (Italian). Literally translated as a thousand flowers. millefiori is a cane made by layering consecutive dips of glass with intermittent optic mold patterns formed between the colored glass layers. This results in a radial symmetry, often forming floral or star like designs. This type of cane is commercially available from Italy. The style was known at Alexandria in the 1St century BC and in Rome in the 1St century AD, but it was so-called only after it was revived and modified in Venice in the 16th century. The name has an affinity with millefleurs, the French 18th-century term for porcelain from China and Meissen whose decoration is a multitude of tiny painted or molded flowers.
Murrine, Murrhine, murrine This is a cane made by layering up hot bits of colored glass , or by fusing together preformed components that are then pulled. The end result being an image within the cross section, such as letters, figures, animals, or faces. The name is said to be derived from the ancient murrhine bowls or the Italian word murra, the material they were supposed to been made from. The origin of this term is interesting, it appears to have no relation whatsoever to glass. In book XXXVII of his Natural History, Pliny the Elder describes murrhine vases as highly valuable objects , fashioned from a mysterious mineral of Eastern provenance: “Their value lies in their varied colors: the veins, as they revolve, repeatedly vary from purple to white or a mix mixture of the two, the purple becoming fiery or the milk white becoming red as though the new color were passing through the vein.” In the same book, Pliny included murrhine in a long list of the semiprecious stones that glass makers of his era (the first century A.D.) were able to imitate. Yet, while a modern equivalent could be found for all the other stones, murrhine remained a mystery. In the early sixteenth century, murrhine was identified with onyx, and subsequently with fluorspar, amber, mother-of-pearl, and even Chinese porcelain. By the mid-1800s, the conviction was taking root that the murrhine vases mentioned by Pliny had not been imitated by glass makers, but had been made directly and solely in glass.
Murrina- A single cross section chip of mosaic cane.
Latticino- This is a term that defines a twisted cane, that has color running the length of the cane which forms a spiral. Traditionally it is white twisted cane, hence the name “latte” meaning milk. This term is inappropriately used in a generic way in this country to describe other colors and styles of twisted cane as well.
‘Canna’ or Cane – is the word used in Murano to define solid and perforated glass rods that contained the same design in cross section at any point they are cut.
‘Canne-di-Canne’ or Composite Cane– A cane that has a pattern made by bundling together other less complex canes and then re-streching it, thus making one cane with a complex design.


There essentially 4-5 main methods used to construct mosaic canes. I will describe them briefly so that you get an understanding of the overall processes used to make mosaic cane. Then in the next several articles I will describe in more detail how each of these techniques are done. These techniques can then be used in conjunction with one another to achieve results that would not be possible if you were just using one process alone. I will briefly describe the simplest process first, and advance through to the more complex.


The Dip Stuff method

This is the process that is used to make millefiori, chevron beads and other designs that essentially have a radial symmetry with layers of color. The glass worker has a furnace that is fitted with two or more pots of molten glass, each containing different colors. From these pots glass is gathered onto a punty and stuffed into any number of different styled optic molds. These optic molds are generally tapered, wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. The mold puts a pattern into the glass, generally a star type design with anywhere from five to twenty points. (illustrations) The mold is usually made of either bronze or aluminum. These materials conduct heat away from the molten glass so as to chill the molten glass setting it to the design of the mold. When the glass is relatively cool it is then dipped into a pot of contrasting color, which in turn is stuffed into a similar or different patterned optic mold. This process is continued until the desired number of layers and patterns have been achieved. Generally the last dip of glass is left smooth so that the finished cane is round. This cane is then heated up very evenly and pulled to the desired thickness.


This technique is mainly used by furnace workers because it requires pots of molten glass. However you can do a similar process using a torch by itself or with the aid of a table top furnace. The trick is to have the right sized optic molds. You can do this whole process on the torch without using a table top furnace but it becomes a lot of work if you want to make a cane of any size or complexity. If you were to do this type of cane on the torch you would first gather up the center color into a good sized glob. Marver it out until it is in a cylinder shape and let it set up a bit . Then heat the cylinder lengthwise so that you can crease an indentation into the glass using a butter knife or other sharp shaper. Repeat this process until you have the desired number of creases around the outside of the cylinder. These groves are then encased in a contrasting color by striping rods of color along the groves carefully so as to avoid trapping air bubbles. The second color is built up enough to shape another set of groves and repeat the process again. This is much more time consuming than if you are able to use a table top furnace. 


The Cold Bundled Composite canes

With this technique you can re-bundle sheet glass or previously pulled cane into one large composite cane. This is done

 by laying up your design using seven or more thick sections of the cane made by the dip stuff method, or cut pieces of sheet glass. This is then bundled up with stainless steel wire and heated up in an oven to above annealing temperature where it can then be picked up with a punty or pipe. The wire is sniped off and the bundle is heated and marvered repeatedly so as to work out the air that is between the canes. This is then pulled out to the desired thickness.
The same process can also be used to bundle up strips of sheet glass or solid colored rod so as to build up other intricate designs like a checkerboard or spiral. Some silhouette and face cane have been made using this technique. Thin colored rods can be bundle cold so that an image results, similar to the way pixels build up an image on a T.V. screen. This bundle is then heated up and drawn out in the usual way. This process has several drawbacks however. There is a tendency to catch a lot of little air bubbles between the small colored cane if you are not very careful. This makes for a finished cane that has slightly distorted lines because using the round colored rods tend to create a honeycomb effect between the canes.

The Cast Jig Saw Puzzle method

This is done by creating a series of molds to cast glass into parts of a cane that fit together like a jig

saw puzzle. Take a wave for instance. (illustration) The curved wave can be cut out of Styrofoam and a plaster investment made in which the glass is then cast into. Another mold of the negative space around the wave can be made and glass cast into it. When the glass from these two molds have cooled, they can then be cold worked to fit together. These puzzle pieces can then be put into a kiln and heated up, picked up on a pipe, worked together and drawn out. This series of cast pieces can be as complex as you care to go depending on your skill at casting glass of this kind. It is important that the casts have a good fit with the other pieces or you will end up trapping air in the pull. This process can be used to make parts that can then be incorporated into other cane pulls.


The Hot Strip Method

This process can be done on the torch or at the furnace. This process is done by building up a non-symmetrical design by sculpting a series of gathers applied to a punty so as to build up the desired image. The cane usually begins at the center and carefully worked outwards. Laying on one bit of molten color at a time and shaping it before if cools. When it is in the desired shape another colored bit is applied and shaped. Sometimes preformed components are added and the more hot bits are applied to case the preformed components. This process continues until the desired image is achieved. It is then heated evenly and pulled out.


This is the most difficult of mosaic cane to make because the artist must be constantly working to achieve the correct heat balance in the whole piece. Some parts of the cane want to be kept comparatively cool, while other parts need to be kept very hot so that the desired shape can be formed. One must also be able to visualize the image from the end of the cane. Which can be difficult because of the way the artist is positioned and the distortion that tends to happen on the end of the cane if you are not careful. Most of the time the cane is being made it’s viewed from the side rather than the end that it will ultimately be viewed from. 
The more elaborate hot strip canes often contain many separate components, sections of previously made cane, such as the eyes in a face cane or the letters and numbers in a signature cane. In fact sometimes the components are drawn out several times before the finished cane is achieved. Some of my more elaborate canes have as many as 35-50 pre- pulled components. For instance the dragonfly cane has 35 separate pre-pulled parts that were assembled together hot that was pulled into the final cane.
This is a basic overview of the main “known” techniques used to make mosaic cane. Of course any or all of these processes can be combined together in any number of ways to create infinite results. Not until recently have glass workers been re-exploring with enthusiasm the possibilities and uses of mosaic cane. By far the most exquisite canes were made by anonymous Egyptian and Roman glass masters. This nearly lost process has been copied by people who work with polymer clay, which has no real connection to the difficulties that are encountered when trying to make mosaic canes out of glass. In the next few years I believe that we will see a new explosion of cane made and used in new and exciting ways. I hope that this series of articles can contribute to the quest for discovery and artistic excellence in this field.
If you have any questions or would like to add something to future articles please contact me through Glass Art magazine. If you have photos of cane that you have made or know of someone making outstanding cane, send me some slides for possible use in a future issue on canes being made today. You can message me at Inspiration Farm , or visit my web site to see more!

Selected books on Mosaic cane.

Miniature Masterpieces

Mosaic Glass 1838- 192
By Giovanni Sarpellon
published by PRESTEL
ISBN 3-7913-1454-8
Millefiori Made Easy
by Marie Segal
Designs in Miniature:
‘The Story of Mosaic Glass.’
by Jutta- Annette Bruhn
published by the Corning Museum of Glass
Pre-Roman and Early Roman Glass
by Sidney M. Goldstein
published by the Corning Museum of Glass
The Glass Menagerie
‘A Study of Silhouette Canes in Antique Paperweights’
by John D. Hawley
Paperweight Press
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3 thoughts on “Murrine Madness

  1. Great article although the images did not load for me but your descriptions of how the cane was made was most excellent.

    1. I am glad you liked what I wrote so many years go. Thanks for the heads up on the images not being linked, they are now working. I have a lot more to add to this overview on how cane are made but not enough time. So it goes.

  2. Must share this with the other glass artists I know in the SCA! And, it also shows me how little I know, and still need to learn of this amazing art!

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