by Roderick Conway Morris

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Homage to Venice, in Glass

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 28 November 1998
Yoichi Ohira/photo Andrea Morucchio
'Polvere' vase with murrine by Yoichi Ohira, 1997



To reveal the secrets of Venetian glass-making was once a capital crime, and a master who might be tempted to leave the island of Murano to sell his know-how abroad knew that the Republic was prepared to send assassins in pursuit of him.

But more than anything else it was probably the mixture of craft pride, sophisticated workshop organization and the exceptional status and privileges granted to Murano masters that guaranteed Venice's centuries-long monopoly of the production of the finest glass.

Today, Venetian techniques are used all over the world, and ever more so with the rapid rise of glass as a self-consciously artistic rather than a primarily decorative medium - as is expansively demonstrated by the Aperto Vetro (Open Glass) International New Glass exhibitions of Venice's second art glass biennial (which continues until Jan. 16).

The theme this year is 'Homage to Venice' and the nearly 130 artists on display at the Doges' Palace, the Fortuny Museum, the State Institute of Art, the Centro Studio Vetro on Murano and private galleries around town, highlight a global scene in which Venetian glassmaking methods have been to a great extent mastered by practitioners of many nationalities and are being applied to myriad forms of conception and design.

This would not have been possible had not generous-spirited glass masters like Lino Tagliapetra - who are regarded as 'traitors' by a minority of diehards on Murano - been prepared to travel outside Venice to teach the mysteries of the craft. And equally, these precious lessons would have been to little avail had there not been a shift among aspiring young foreign glass artists away from contemporary notions that self-expression was everything and manual skills irrelevant.

American glass artists were among the first to profit from direct contact with the Venetians, but the experience has also produced dramatic results elsewhere. The Glass Workshop started by the German-born Klaus Moje at the Canberra School of Art in Australia as recently as 1982 had been a resounding success, for which the State Institute of Art (in the cloisters by the Carmini Church) this year provides a showcase.

But the constant juxtaposition of Venetian-made and foreign pieces in the exhibitions is proof that the benefits of Murano's emergence from isolation have been mutual, and in some quarters glassmaking in Venice, too, has been undergoing a quiet revolution.

When the Japanese Yoichi Ohira came to the island 25 years ago the doors of many workshops were barred to him because 'he would steal their ideas.' Since then his own original and beautiful pieces combining a refined Japanese sensibility with rigorously Venetian glassblowing practices have become widely (sometimes shamelessly) imitated, something Ohira views philosophically given that he was one of the first to stimulate more open-minded masters to look beyond conventional designs.

Meanwhile, a group of five young Murano artists, who have been making some of the most interesting local work of late (one of them, Fabio Fornasier, won the prize for best young artist two years ago), have launched the Centro Studio Vetro and a bilingual magazine Vetro with the specific aim 'to foster and promote, both in Italy and abroad, an interchange between all those who are involved in the creation, the technology and the appreciation of glass.'

Of the group's exhibits in the current shows, particularly intriguing and witty are Claudio Tiozzo's fused and wheel-carved 'Hidden Surfaces,' which look as light and fragile as paper lanterns, but are in reality solid and extremely heavy, and Cesare Toffolo's improbable gold 'Balloons' hanging in mid-air seemingly tethered to the ground by chains.

Not that the younger generations have an exclusive claim on striking individuality. Mirrors were for long among Murano's most sought-after products and Riccardo Licata, now in his sixties, is showing that a new spin can still be put on them with his colored, inlaid, enameled and engraved designs. Like other Murano glass masters, Vittorio Ferro had to spend a considerable part of his career on the repetitious (albeit demanding) production of certain standard items. He is now retired and able to follow his own fantasies. The result has been a series of charming one-off 'murrine' (mosaic) vases and vessels that marry a kind of naïve freshness, daring use of color and technical aplomb.

The hot working of soda glass (as opposed to the northern traditions of lead glass, which lends itself when cool to embellishment by the engraver's hand) has always been the essence of Venetian techniques. The surge of interest in glass art has inspired new experimentation in the manipulation of the material at high temperatures (and the mixing of radically different techniques as, for example, in the baroque extravaganzas of Lucio Bubacco).

A prominent figure in this field, who came on the scene by an idiosyncratic route, is the Italian Narcissus Quagliata. His enormous 'Gateway to Night' is displayed on the monumental staircase of the Doges' Palace. More than 30 feet long and 12 feet high (10 meters by 4 meters), this ethereal, light-suffused abstract vision of the heavens consists of 108 panels of fused glass whose final firing required four months of round-the-clock furnace work.

His next large project is for a new glass cupola to be placed next year on the rotunda of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rome, the central hall of the Baths of Diocletian remodeled as a church by Michelangelo in the 16th century.

This could be a symbolic landmark for an art form that is now attracting a great deal of genuine creative talent that neither despises the hard work and concentration involved in learning difficult techniques nor is inclined unquestioningly to follow facile trends in post-modern fine art thinking.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023