THE VENETIANS    by William Warmus

 

 Detail of murrine vessel by Carlo Scarpa (Photo: George Erml)

This essay first appeared in the book The Venetians: Modern Glass in 1989

 

Upon hearing his report, she silent and pale, staring at me. I told her I knew what she had to say was not good news, but I wanted her to tell me exactly what she had been told. This is how she explained what the grand master said: "For weeks you have stood over us like a bird. We have worked for centuries to create a perfect symmetry in glass. Now you bring your ideas, which have no symmetry, to insult us. You don't speak our language, either in Italian or in glass. Go away!"

 

Thomas Stearns, the first American to design for Venini, did not go away. As his reflections on his time in Venice reveal, he persisted with a vision of what glass can be, won and lost a gold medal at the Venice Biennial, and finally gained the hearts of the glassworkers at Venini.

 

The history of Venetian glass in the twentieth century is many things: a story of recalcitrance in the face of innovation, fabulous skills wasted on baubles for tourists, a flirtation with dark melancholy in the aftermath of World War II. The story of Venetian glass in our century is equally a tale of pioneering individuals: the designer-artists Paolo Venini, Napoleone Martinuzzi, Ercole Barovier, Carlo Scarpa, Fulvio Bianconi, Thomas Stearns, and Dale Chihuly, and the grand master glassmakers Arturo Biasiutto ("Boboli"), "Checco" Ongaro, Lino Tagliapietra. The brilliance of their collaboration is evident in the fabulous objects they produced, some of perfect symmetry, others (like Thomas Stearns') achieved through symmetry denied.

 

The story of the Venetians begins around 1921, with simply shaped vases and urns inspired by depictions of blown glass in the Renaissance paintings of Titian, Veronese and others, and made by Vetri Soffiati Muranesi Cappellin-Venini & Compagnia, a four year alliance between the young attorney Paolo Venini (1895-1959) and the antiques dealer Giacomo Cappellin (1887-1968), with Vittorio Zecchin (1878-1947) as artistic director. (1) This brief period now seems like an intermezzo, a pause for breath between the excesses of previous Italian historical revivals --dragonstem goblets tinted in garish colors and destined for the tourist trade-- and a new, refreshed, exuberant modernism.

 

In 1925 the alliance split into Cappellin and Venini, each company profoundly influenced by the presence of a new breed of designer-artists: architect Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978) at Cappellin until its shutdown in 1931 and at Venini from 1932 through 1947 (2), and at Venini architects Tommaso Buzzi and Gio Ponti together with sculptor Napoleone Martinuzzi (1892-1977).

 

Scarpa was to emerge in postwar Italy as a major architect, designer of the Brion Tomb, and was instrumental in establishing the curiously contradictory flavor and ambitions of Muranese glass--Murano is the island in the Venetian lagoon that became the setting during the Renaissance for the Venetian glass industry. Scarpa was at once a procrastinator, a gazer endowed with the gardener's sense of time and priorities, and an architect-designer, required by trade to work with others and adhere to complex schedules. This duality manifested itself as "a perverse dialectic between celebration of form and the scattering of its parts, between the will to represent and the evanescence of the represented, between the research of certainties and the awareness of their relativity..."(3). The tug of war is effortlessly resolved in Scarpa's glasswork, most emphatically in the murrine plates made for Venini (plate 32) that fuse fragments everlastingly into a whole, a whole that carries forever within itself, because of the precious fragility of glass, the possibility of  further fragmentation.

 

By 1925 the work of Venini had become more daring, more experimental in character. If Scarpa's work is characterized by extraordinary refinement of sensibility and a crystalline awareness of the contradictions that drive contemporary culture, then Napoleone Martinuzzi's work at Venini from 1925 to 1932 represents the equally Venetian tendency toward exuberance of form and masterly playfulness--in Ruskin's words from The Stones of Venice: "such fantastic and fickle grace as the mind of the workman can conceive and execute on the instant. The more wild, extravagant, and grotesque in their gracefulness the forms are, the better." We need only witness his potted plants  and animal figures to confirm that this is not tourist glass. Here is hot glass manipulated with sure skill and effortless finesse into living, almost surreal forms.

 

Ercole Barovier (1889-1974) of Artisti Barovier, later Barovier and Toso, was the other major force in Italian glassmaking between the world wars. Vases such as the one I call the Atomic Vase  are both daring-- heavy glass was at the time something new in Murano--and exhibit a love of unforced, fluid form; one design won a prize at the Paris International Exhibition in 1937. Barovier's unusual murrine vases  reveal him as an innovator: individual rods of glass have been sliced, arranged like a mosaic, and blown out into a bubble while in a molten state. The cross-sections of rod, shimmering with a dusting of aventurine, compose a grid that dissects the hollow space within the vase and maps the expansion of the air bubble as it presses outward.

 

Detail of murrine vase by Barovier, c.1930 (Photo: George Erml)

Venetian glass of the late twenties and thirties must today be seen through the dark clouds of World War II. Within this context, Scarpa's little lattimo (milky glass) bottles seem inspired, almost prescient, their surfaces clotted with "infinitely luminous and hazy mists." Like Micol's antique lattimi in Bassani's Garden of the Finzi-Contini's, they are harbingers of the future, places where "she could let her gaze wander among the luminous mists of her beloved lattimi: and then sleep, imperceptibly, like a Venetian high tide, would return slowly to submerge and annihilate her. (4)

 

World War II failed to annihilate the functionalist style that predominated in the decorative arts in the twenties and thirties. Nevertheless, that great upheaval profoundly changed the rules of society and culture. Postwar Europe was left to brood over its excesses; no longer the central arena for political action, it was free to work out what a post-political society might look like. Italy reveled in this unexpected freedom, release, and open-endedness, and the fifties and sixties became something of a high-water mark for Venetian glass. The duality represented by Scarpa and Martinuzzi was reworked, yielding to a "clear-obscure" state that emerges in the engraved glasswork of Venini as well as Thomas Stearns' The Facades of Venice . Such a state was not incompatible with, indeed favored the development of, Fulvio Bianconi's (1915- ) singular creations in a sometimes darkly humorous, Pop art style. Handkerchief vases became at once the badge of Muranese elegance and a caricature of past glories.

 

Venetian glass of the postwar period was built upon ancient techniques, and much of its vitality came from adapting these processes to contemporary ends. It is difficult to believe now, but as late as the 1960s major factories on Murano were still operating with wood-fired furnaces, laboriously stoked by apprentice glassmakers who had to keep the temperature exactly right or risk ruining the glass and filling the blowing room with acrid smoke. While oil and gas furnaces slowly replaced the wood fired ones, the basic steps in glassworking have remained essentially unchanged since the time of the Roman empire. Molten glass is still extracted from the furnace on the end of a hollow metal rod, the blowpipe. Anyone who has ever removed honey from a jar with a wooden stick will be familiar with this process, although he will lack an appreciation of the intense heat that pervades the glass factory. The blowpipe is continually rotated to keep the gather of glass centered--as with our glob of honey.

 

Eventually, the gaffer or master breathes air into the pipe, forming a bubble within the molten mass of glass at the opposite end. By shaping this bubble on a metal table, the marver, and with simple wooden or metal tools at the glassmaker's bench, the gaffer and his team of assistants can coax an amorphous mass of glass into an infinity of shapes and sizes. Once the glass becomes something--a vase, for example--a solid metal pontil rod is fused to its base and the blowpipe is removed from the opposite end. The gaffer is then able to open up the bubble and form the neck. If handles, a foot, or some form of three dimensional decoration is required, an assistant can bring a specially shaped solid bit of hot glass to the gaffer at the bench, where it is fused to the object being made and cut off with scissors. One gains an appreciation for the short working range of glass as a leftover portion of the bit, red hot and soft enough to cut like butter, solidifies in mid-air and crashes into fragments upon hitting the factory floor.

 

To prevent the vase from crashing apart, the gaffer will often hand his blowpipe to an assistant who takes it to a furnace for reheating, where the rapidly cooling glass is softened and made ready for reworking. When the entire process is judged complete, the finished vase is cracked off from its pontil and goes into another kind of furnace, the annealer, where gentle high heat slowly gives way, over a period of hours or days, to room temperature, and the stresses that have built up in the glass from all the reworking are relieved and diminished.

 

A majority of the pieces in this catalog were made following these ancient processes, but with astonishingly different results. Compare Carlo Scarpa's corroded relief vases with Dale Chihuly's Venetian vases and the work of Abimo, Bianconi and Barovier. In Scarpa's 1936 work, hot bits of applied glass meld into and become part of the structure of the simply blown vase: the old unity-amid-diversity theme. The handles of the 1950s Corbusier vase by Abimo and Bianconi's vase for Venini are blown hollow, connecting effortlessly into the body of the vase itself and confusing the handle with the handled; in Barovier's single hole Barbarico vase, handle and vase are one, the hollow blown space that is usually within the vase turned inside out in a maneuver worthy of a topologist. By 1989, Chihuly's exuberant solid bits become overwhelming handles that threaten to replace the hollow vessel they adorn.

 

If the glassblower takes time in preparing a bit of molten glass, it is possible to stretch that bit out like taffy to many times its length so that it reaches from one end of the factory to another. The result is a slender thread, rod, or cane of glass that may be cut up into short segments. If canes of different colors and shapes are bundled together, reheated, and the stretching process repeated, the resulting cane will reveal an intricate cross section when sliced into thin tablets or murrina. Murrine vessels  result from the fusion of many such murrina. The Facades of Venice of Thomas Stearns, and certain details of The Sentinel of Venice, likewise result from an arrangement of lengths of glass rod that is fused to the molten glass bubble as it is pressed into the rods and rotated. Filigree bottles and bowls are the result of an intricate multi-layer pick-up process, working with extremely slim threads or rods of glass. Thus this one process, exquisite in its simplicity, maddening in the difficulty of its execution, has offered generations of artists the basis for highly personalized interpretations. It could even be argued that the lovely Venini inciso (engraved) vases, with surfaces the texture of old phonograph records, were inspired by filigree vases, the hollowed out grooves but a memory of the colorful and intricate threads of glass.

 Engraved vessels by Venini, 1950s (Photo: George Erml)

 Space does not allow a full exploration of the variety and endless combinations of techniques employed by the Muranese masters. Their creativity inevitably led them to introduce parallel tendencies in the fine arts, for example abstract painting, to the glassmaker's stylistic vocabulary--Thomas Stearn's brooding cylinder vases and certain highly colorful Venini vases come to mind.

 

Stearns forms the crucial pivot linking late abstract expressionism to the emerging craft movements of the 1960s. It is a testimony to the continuing power of these postwar works that many anticipate the styles of glassmakers working today: one 1950s bubbly glass urn might be mistaken for a spun glass bowl by Toots Zynsky if not for its conventional shape; the best of the inciso vases have a subtlety that might not go unappreciated in the work of the Czech glassmaker Frantisek Vizner; Handkerchief vases surely share a kindred spirit with Dale Chihuly's baskets and seaforms of the late seventies and eighties, and the murrine dishes of Venini might have inspired the work of Klaus Moje. Indeed, many artists have worked in Murano and been influenced by what they experienced, including Chihuly, Marquis, Zynsky, Marvin Lipofsky, Robert Willson, and Raoul Goldoni.

 

The democratization of objects that was at the heart of functionalism--the idea that anyone might own something beautiful--was expanded from the 1950s onwards: Venini under the direction of Ludovico de Santillana opened its doors to foreign artists while pioneers like Harvey Littleton in America devised ways to recreate small factory furnaces suitable for artists' studios; and a mass audience, long attuned to such common craft activities as cooking or gardening, began to make "craft-art" at home. Craft, since the industrial revolutions more a product of the technologically advanced factory than the studio, now also appeared in the art school and shopping mall craft fair.

 

As the democratic horizons of functionalism expanded in the 60s and 70s, the utilitarian functions inherent in the style were increasingly subverted. Craft became, or rather its practitioners wanted it to become, art. The Stars and Stripes Cup  with four letter word murrine by Richard Marquis is a poignant reminder that the democratic right to free speech was at last at large in the craft world.

 

By the 1970s Murano was faced with a decline in skilled glassblowers (office workers made more money more easily) and the rise of a new historical revivalism: the post-modern. Excesses of the postmodern form the background noise from which the best Venetian-style, although frequently not Murano-made, glass of the period must be isolated: the works of Chihuly, Dailey, Marquis and Tagliapietra, made sometimes in America, sometimes in Venice, always owing allegiance to the best Venetian traditions and ideals: Integrity of craftwork coupled with the comradery of teamwork redeems these objects. Their work stands in relation to the postmodern as the work of Cappellin and Venini stood in relation to the excesses of Salviati's ornate goblets.

 

Emerson writes about the inscriptions on the gates of Busyrane: "Be bold". On the second gate: "Be bold, be bold, and ever more bold". On the final gate: "Be not too bold." That in essence is the artistic legacy of the Venetians, now passed along to America: achieve symmetry, fear symmetry. Deny craft, never stray far from the love of craft. Delight in balancing the pungent with the pure.

 

Endnotes:

 

1. Ada Polak. Modern Glass. London: Faber and Faber, 1962. Pages 54-69.

 

2. Francesco Dal Co and Giuseppe Mazzariol. Carlo Scarpa: The Complete Works. New York: Rizzoli, 1985. Page 183.

 

3. Fumihiko Maki in Carlo Scarpa. Tokyo: a + u Publishing Company, 1985. Page 207.

 

 4. Giorgio Bassani. The Garden of the Finzi-Contini's. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. Page 86.