The History of Millefiori / by Layl McDill

I am constantly asked "How long does it take you to make things?"  My answer is usually "it's in-calculable" and then I go on to share how I make all the parts and pieces because I think that is REALLY what people are asking.  Of course it's very hard to explain in a nutshell how I build tiny images into chunks of clay because most people have never heard of the ancient process of Millefiori.

First of all, the word "millefiori" means "thousand flowers" in Italian, which is where this technique was mastered in glass, mainly in Murano, the island off of Venice, famous for glass art.  When I went there, I hoped to see someone creating millefiori in glass but I guess it isn't as showy as glass blowing because that's all they were demonstrating.  If you have seen the tiny little flowers in a glass paperweight (or on a vase) you were most likely looking at Murano millefiori.  

But I'm getting ahead of myself because the technique was used long before it got it's name. In fact, it was originally called "mosaic glass."  It actually dates back as far as Egyptian times but I have found very little information on Egyptian millefiore, except what I have seen in person.  In 2014, when I went to the Louvre in Paris, there was this chunk of glass with a cow in it!  It was an amazingly detailed millefiori glass and it's many hundreds of years old.  Egyptians were using the millefiori technique as far back as 1400 BCE. This isn't the best photo, below, since I took it through the glass, but you can also see a cane of glass with a geometric design next to it too.

So just think what it took for the Egyptians to get a cow into that tiny piece of glass (it was about 1 inch in diameter).  I am sure they did it the same way, generally, that they do with glass now, which is somewhat similar to the way I work with polymer clay.  The concept is to place rods of colored glass together to form the shape.  These rods are short, but once heated up they can quickly stretch out the cane to make it any size diameter needed.  I've never seen it done, but hope to some day.  There is a great article on How Stuff Works that takes you through the whole process.  

I love to search for more Egyptian millefiore whenever I go to an art museum but it is rarely found.  I did see some at the Metropolitan Musuem of Art, back in 2000, when I was just getting started in polymer clay.   Once you get to Roman times there is a lot more to be found.  They made a lot of half faces that they sliced and put together to make a whole face.  They are pretty creepy looking, really, but you can see that they are based on Greek and Roman theater masks. 

The Romans seemed to have shared the millefiori technique with Europe in the 7th and 8th Century. Then the technique disappeared until the 18th Century, when the glass artists of Murano started to use millefiori on their trading beads, which were traded primarily in Africa.  The technique of millefiori was widely used for African trading beads because they could produce so many of these detailed beads much quicker than any other glass bead technique.  The glass artists of Murano had many secret glass techniques that the Italian government wanted to keep secret. (Check out this history of glass from Britannica.com).  They didn't even allow the glass workers to leave the island!  But the glass artists of Altare (a second great center of glass-making in Italy) were much more free in sharing their knowledge, so gradually techniques including millefiore started to spread.

One of the most amazing glass millefiore artists from the 19th Century was Giacomo Franchini.  I have an amazing book about him and other millefiore artists of his time titled "Miniature Masterpieces: Mosaic Glass 1838-1924" by Giovanni Sarpellon. The detailed portraits that Franchini created were like none other!  Check out this page from the book that shows one of his most famous canes of Giuseppe Garibaldi.  If you ever come across a vase or paperweight at an antique shop or estate sale with tiny faces like these floating around it in it, snatch it up - it could be worth thousands!   A group of three signed pieces (meaning a cane with his initials GBF) were recently sold at auction for $11,875!

 

Millefiori beads from Murano are still some the of the highest quality you will find in the world but of course other companies are always trying to emulate their beauty.  India, China and Indonesia manufacture their own versions that are similar but it is obvious that they do not have the years of continued craftsmanship to compare with work from Murano.  Here is a good article to help you identify the "non-Murano" bead. 

Artists all over the world have been creating some pretty fantastic glass millefiori in recent years.  I am doing some research on these artists and hope to write an upcoming blog about them.  I do so admire the skills of those creating millefiori in glass because it must be much more difficult than in polymer clay.  For one thing, they are working with materials they can't touch, plus they have to deal with glass that hardens and stretches at different rates.  

I often wonder if polymer clay artists would have been able to come up with millefiori without the long history of craftsmen keeping the technique alive over the centuries.  It seems that the technique did come and go over the years, so maybe it could have been invented on it's own.  The concept really is very basic.  For me, I just needed to begin with the idea of starting short and squat and then, later, working longer.  But I certainly could have learned a lot faster if I had a master to teach me some basic tricks- like height-to-width ratios and reduction methods.  I learned mostly by trial and error. Luckily I came up with ways to use my not-so-beautiful mistakes on work that I could sell and therefor buy more clay to try again.  Now artists that are learning have the internet to go to and tutorials galore.  Which is awesome, because it means that the techniques of millefiori in polymer clay will not disappear anytime soon!

 

This is one of my first canes (made in 1997).  My first five years or so of creating canes I made them way too short, so reducing was very hard.  I would end up with about half that wouldn't work out!  This cane did have a lot that did work and was one of my early favorites that kept me hopeful that I would one day figure it out!

This is one of my first canes (made in 1997).  My first five years or so of creating canes I made them way too short, so reducing was very hard.  I would end up with about half that wouldn't work out!  This cane did have a lot that did work and was one of my early favorites that kept me hopeful that I would one day figure it out!

Here is a bead made from my lobster cane.  

Here is a bead made from my lobster cane.