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Muranese Art Glass

Creative Foundations and Self-Image

by Helmut Ricke
 
Every creative achievement derives sustenance not only from the individual talent of its author, but also from two important sources: the artistic and artisanal tradition of its place of origin, and a response to the mood and spirit of its time. After its revival in the nineteenth century, Muranese glass was consistently governed by its links with a tradition of very long standing and was influenced relatively little by current trends. Therein lay its strength, but also a weakness.
Only the very finest Muranese glass production was progressive and cosmopolitan in its best years; it tended in general to be conservative and backward-looking. This is not to be wondered at in a city more dependent on its past than any other one whose appeal to millions of visitors has its roots in this all-determining presence of history and former greatness. The persistent desire of tourists to acquire mementos of their visit to the city objects that reflect its age and beauty continues to this day to sustain a culture of craftsanship found nowhere else in the world. Here, historicizing glassware has always played a central role.
Within the scale of values that prevails in the glassmaking island’s little world, the Muranese master glassblowers’ justified pride in their skill resulted in a dominance of consunimate craftsmanship over creative innovation. In former times and even, to sorne extent, today,the greatest esteem was bestowed on the maestro who had an outstanding command of the ancient techniques and could make the most intricate Venetian winged glass, the most elaborate chandelier, or the most lifelike rearing horse. The glassblower’s dexterity was regarded as a supreme asset to be passed on in the time-honored manner, by way of tuition and apprenticeship, and special techniques and recipes for melting glass were generally handed down inside the family. The keeping of trade secrets is an ineradicable tradition dating back to the very origins of Muranese glassmaking, and any maestro who demonstrates his art in the United States is branded a traitor by many of its present-day exponents.
Thanks to its insular situation, Murano still preserves much of the structure of the craftsmen’s districts typical of a medieval city, which formed clearly defined communities governed by fixed rules. To the Muranese, their island was, and still is, the hub of ihe glassmaking world. They resisted outside influences on principle, whether in order to tend of undesirable competition or, the main reason, because of their unshakable belief that they were better at their trade than anyone else. Thus the strong and intact medieval craft structure of Muranese glassmaking always proved to be a retarding factor.
 
Opposed to Innovation.
Ali who aspired to fundamental change had first to overcome the sometimes tenacious resistance of the island’s much respected maestri and its universally conservative attitude. Factors that we take for granted, such as the concepts of originality and inviolable artistic integrity, did not carry much weight. Artistic glassmaking in Murano was manifestly dominated by the spirit of craftsmanship, and execulion was long accounted more important than design.
Outsiders are forever surprised by the blithe way in which the island has always borrowed from others. Such modern notions as copyright or patent found littie favor there. If a neighbour produced things that sold well, it was considered only natural that one should follow suit and endeavor to produce sirnilar wares. This was not plagiarism, but an acknowledgment of the other’s superiority. Both large and small glassworks observed this practice, success being the sole criterion.
This attitude has its origins not only in the medieval tradition of craftsmanship, but also in the revival of Muranese glassblowing during the latter halt’ of the nineteenth century, which was founded on the inlitation of ancient models.
On the whole, however, novelty did have a chance. The requirements were suffiicient capital and an eye for art that transcended the narrow boundaries of the island community. Possession of both those assets tended as a rule to be confined to outsiders, such as Antonio Salviati in the nineteenth century and Paolo Venini in the 1920s. They were successful because they managed to convince the Muranese maestri that they respected the latter’s achievements and expertise and took a serious view of the medium and the rules that governed it. The result was a collaboration that benefited both parties and, on occasion, leed to momentous developments in the history of glassmaking.
In previous centuries, Muranese glassware was the fruit of collaboration between the owners of glassworks and their master glassblowers. From the 1920s onward, this simple structure was radicaily transformed by the introduction of qualified artist-designers. Each of the participants, who thus now numbered three, could substantially influence production, depending on his ability, powers of persuasion, and interests. The management of a glassworks could concentrate on the cornmercial or technical aspect and leave design to its artistic director or designers, but it could also take a personal hand in design work and, in addition, lay down overall guidelines for the appearance of its products. Typical of the latter policy is that of Venini, which clearly defined its artistic compass from the outset and has continued, changes of ownership notwithstanding, to pursue its founder’s line.
The range of alternatives was wide. Ercole Barovier combined the functions of glasstechnician and designer, whereas Archimede Seguso and Alfredo Barbini were owners, designers, and master craftsmen all in one.
There were also Venice’s two major glass publishing houses, which were on a par with artisticaily ambitious glass— works owners: Saiviati and Pauly, of which only the latter still exists. These flrms chose and conimissioned designers to develop models for their wealthy clientele and had them either in their own glassworks or by selected rnaestri in Muranese factones. These firms’ products ranged from historicizing showpieces to daring avant-garde models. The quality of design and execution was equally high in both instances.
In some glassworks - for example, Seguso Vetri d’Arte and Aureliano Toso - the management left artistic questions largely to their respective designers, who thus became figures of key importance. This was most marked in the case of Dino Martens, who are often mentioned by name in contemporary publications - by no means a matter of course. Indeed, Poli is mentioned more often than Seguso Vetri d’Arte, the firm he worked for. The orientation of each glassworks dictated which designers it employed, be they architects, painters, or other artistically qualified persons. Even glassworks with fulltime artistic directors enlisted freelance designers to carry out special comrnissions. The system varied widely from firm to firm.
Major impulses were often transmitted by free lance artists who commissioned glassworks to execute their designs but handled their own marketing. Fulvio Bianconi is the most prominent of these designer-employers, but Vinicio Vianello and others operated on the same basis. Their activities, as well as the momentum imparted by Egidio Costantini’s Fucina degli angeli to the glassworks it employed, often had a fructifing effect, though they sometimes gave risk to a certain amount of confusion in the work ofthe maestri concerned.
 
The Importance of the “Maestri”
Master glassblowers, too, continued tolay a major role in this complex system - one that usually far transcended that of the executant craftsman. Many were “soci,” or partners, in the firms for which they worked, and the most talented of them sooner or later set up on their own. Much in demand, they were highly paid specialists whose wishes and suggestions could not be simply overridden. Although they did not intervene in the actual process of design, their share in the end result of the designers’ ideas should not be underestimated. Thanks to his precise knowledge of what was technically feasible and his command of certain practical procedures, a maestro often exerted a decisive influence on the final appearance of a new model. Good designers worked hand in hand with the maestri who put their ideas into effect.
Many maestri, often at the express invitation of their management, produced pieces oftheir own devising in addition to working from designs. Lack of artistic training condemned many of these efforis to the no-man’s-land between art, dexterity, and craftsmanship. Although excellent results were obtained in isolated cases, few maestri made the transition to really great work. Little has changed in this respect.
In many of the glassworks traditionally working for the tourist market, output was largely determined by the particular skills of their maestri, who were engaged on the strength of their specific expertise and could cope, if need be, with a wide range of special requirements. One or two virtuosi on the Muranese scene were so highly qualified that they had complete freedom to choose the work they did, and some could even work on their own account for part of their contractual period. The output of many a smaller glassworks was determined wholly by its maestro’s particular specialty, to which he naturally adhered when changing his place of work, so the attribution of Muranese glassware to specific glassworks can often be extremely difficult.
This not only applies to the largely anonymous pieces produced for the souvenir market, but sometimes may also affect the art glass sector as well. The master glassblower Angeio Seguso, who had for years crafted Flavio Poii’s finest models at Seguso Vetri d’Arte, took Poli’s ideas with him when he moved to Archimede Seguso. Thereafter, models in Poli’s style formed part of Archimede Seguso’s production program but took on a different character. Certain “murrine” patterns or forms of decoration, too, could change glassworks in this way and undergo transformation to varying degrees.
These relationships became especially apparent when a master glassblower set up on his own. On the one hand, the models he had revolved remained in the possession of his former employer and might be reproduced by another hand; on the other, the maestro continued to work in his accustomed way for his own firrn. This is clearly discernible in the models blown by Ermanno Nason for Cenedese during the l960s, which cannot always be distinguished — even by himself — from pieces he produced in the glassworks he founded in 1972. These pecularities must always be taken into account when appraising and attributing Muranese glassware.
The art glass of the 1950s owes its importance not least to the fact that it proved possible for a few years to harness the crafsmanship and creative ambition of established maestri to the decade’s avantgarde ideas of form and decoration, and to reconcile the island’s mature traditions with the spirit of “Forme Nuove.”
 
Sales Promotion and Presentation
Muranese glassworks have never been mere arts and crafts production centers; they are, first and foremost, commercially oriented concerns that have to secure their own and their employees’ survival by paying regard to the market and their turnover. Although modern art glass plays only a minor role in terms of output, its great importance to Murano’s international image has always been recognized. The few glassworks that continued themselves to a modern product line of high quality soon became prestigious concerns whose growing reputation was readily enlisted to promote the Muranese glass industry as a whole.
Progressive manufacturers were strongly supported in their work by government institutions, notably the Ente Nazionale per I’Artigianato e le Piccole Industrie, which sometimes exerted a powerful infiuence on developments in Murano, its aims and activities between the wars and during the 1950s being similar to those of the Deutscher Werkbund or the Svenska Slöjdföreningen. Exhibitions at home and abroad, and the dissemination and promotion of Muranese product lines considered to be exemplary, were also encouraged by the Compagnia Nazionale Artigiana (CNA), the Istituto Nazionale per il Commercio Estero, the Veneto’s chamber ofindustry and commerce, and the variously named Muranese manufacturers’ associations.
Overriding importance attached to the recurrent exhibitions heid on the occasion of the Milan Triennale and the Venice Biennale. The Triennali served Italian Rrms as an export showcase and presented a welcome opportunity to assess their international standing. The Biennali, by contrast, became a creative point of exchange directed more toward comparison with competitors in Murano itself. It is impossible to overestimate the incentive that stemmed from the firms’ compulsion to exhibit new modeis every two years and, wherever possible, to put their competitors in the shade. Here, they showed — often as a form of trial balloon the novelties that were subsequentiy exhibited to an international public at the Triennali. At the same time, the Biennali’s wide range of contemporary art served Muranese designer
as a source of inspiration and kept them abreast of recent developments. This is one undoubted reason why the glass of the l950s in particular, which still had no qualms about defining itself as a branch of arts and crafts, seems so closely related to the fine art of those years.
 
Model Policy and Design
Paolo Venini’s clearly defined program made him something of an exception among Muranese producers of art glass. Few of his fellow manufacturers relied solely on modern products of the highest quality; they used these as evidence of their technical proficiency and for display purposes at major exhibitions, but the bulk of their output was geared to demand and the requirements of the market. A glance at the pattern books of the Seguso Vetri d’Arte factory wili show that, even in the case of an artist such as Flavio Poli, oniy a very small proportion of his time was devoted to designs for the clean lined vases and bowls or stylized sheets for which he is renowned. Most of it was reserved for objects and vessels essential to the survival of the glassworks: decorative pieces of which many were based quite pragmaticaily on successful models produced by other leading manufacturers, such as Venini or Barovier. The same applies to such firms as Fratelti Toso, Archimede Seguso, and Cenedese.
Generlly speaking, manufacturers took very considerable liberties with the efforts of the designers they engaged. Basic formal and decorative designs served the firms’ drafts - men as a basis for modifications and variations that changed their relative proportions, combined them with different, unenvisioned forms of decoration, or altered their coiors. Even when models remained unchanged, they often — through no fault ofthe glassblower - underwent a process of transformation that betrays their later date of origin.
The continuous development of earlier models is typical of Murano. If perceived to contain creative elements susceptible to modernization, designs from a glassworks’ stock are happily brought up to date a process that can either occur by degrees or be initiated after an interval of decades.
This “rilettura” or “riproposta,” the reinterpretation or reformulation of an earlier idea, is exemplified by a vase with largescale “murrine” designed by Carlo Scarpa and probably executed only as a prototype. In 1959-60 his son, Tobia transformed this into a new model by giving it the “occhi murrine” of the time, a more angular outline, and a different neck, though his procedure left Cario Scarpa’s basic idea largely intact. Nis son’s version proved very successful, so the firm’s next step was to apply Tobia Scarpa’s newly developed, niore fashionable variant to Cario’s “tessuto” decoration. Tobia did not, however, have recourse to the originai version of this 1940 filigreeglass design, but to a version that divides the decoration into two haives, hght and dark, and may itself have been a “rilettura” developed for the Milan Triennale of 1951. Although seemingly extreme, this is not a rare example. It demonstrates an economical approach to design also observable among other rnanufacturers.
 
Problems of Dating
In art gilass as in other areas of production, ali the gassworks in Murano, Venini inciuded, still operate on the same principle: they sell for as long as demand holds out. Restricted batches or limited and numbered editions have begun to play a role only in very recent years. The saine apphes to singie pieces. Although they have atways been produced as prototypes, for special occasions, or to order, they were never a stable ingredient of manufacturing policy, as they have been at Leerdam or Orrefors. The primary and invariable aim was the creation ofseries that would remain in production for as long as possible. The result has been, at least in Venini’s case, that certain models have been continuously or intermittently manufactured for over five decades. This has created a group of “modern classics”
that pose certain probiems. Collectors interested in the aura of “old” pieces have a hard time with long-established Muranese models. They must decide how much importance they attach to a piece’s actual date of origin. A further difficulty is that the early pieces are not necessarily the best, and that it was often some years before really good examples were made. Again, interesting pieces often forfeit their tension if the glassblower becomes too versed in their manufacture or too much time has elapsed since the original design was conceived. This is especially true of the “hits” of the 1950s and 1960s, which such firms as Venini, Barovier Toso, and Satviati reissued in the early 1980s, when the art market had developed an interest in the period. Although these reproductions are clearly identified by engraved signatures not used in the first phase of manufacture, these can be removed with relative ease.
It is hard to obtain information about the production periods of specific models. Well kept firms’ records tend to be the exception, and the problem has been compounded by frequent changes of ownership. One can sometimes, given a minimum of luck, rely on designers’ drawings, but these are generally undated. If so, model numbers constitute the only reliabie guide, provided their sequence has been consistentiy maintained over the years. This, however, is true of very few glassworks. Others, such as Archimede Seguso and Venini, have reused model numbers, inserted separate series for particular exhibitions in the middle of the overall sequence, or replaced old numbers by a new sequence at a particular point in time. A knowledge of the model number is of very limited value in such cases.
Although most firms have issued printed sales material since the 1970s, much of this consists simply of undated leaflets or brochures. One helpful item is the catalogue published by Venini in 1969, which contains the models then still in production. For the years between the wars and after 1945, we are largely dependent on exhibition catalogues and on articles in specialist periodicals; firms’ publications are usually connected to undated photographs.
Even that great exception, Venini’s famous “Catalogo Blu,” should be treated with caution. This catalogue, the only such publication to give design dates, can easily give risc to misinterpretation. The first thing to bear in mind is that it hosts only models in production at the time of publication. This means that, of the models dating from the 1920s and 1930s, the only ones illustrated are those considered to be still salable shortly after the end of World War II.
 
Furthermore, the sheets are not reliably dated in every case. As a rough guide, it may be assumed that with the exception of the animais and cacti the models numbered up to about 3000 originated before 1925 and were thus designed by Vittorio Zecchin. The sarne applies to models numbered below 3000 on the sheets dated 1926-30, as is proven by, a,ong other things, the illustration ofthe “Libeflula” model, no. 1432A, on plate 12, which bears the dates 1926-30 even though the model was definitely produced in 1921.
In other respects, Venini’s model numbers are an aid to dating only in the early years. Their chronological sequence was later abandoned; the familyowned copy of thc firm’s pattern book permits no other conclusion.
One recent problem arises from imitations of leading firms’ models by small, usually anonymous workshops whose substantial output of pieces has been disconcerting collectors and dealers since the mid-1980s. Primarily affected arc models by Venini, Barovier Togo, and Fratelli Toso. These copies of, and variations on, predetermined subjects were at first simply following the Muranese tradition of catering for an existing market without worrying overmuch about copyright. Such pieces were sold quite openly or crafted to order. Fraudulent finagling by outside dealers rendered the common practice of copying earlier models suspect, however, because they adorned these imitations with signatures and thereby turned them into fakes. Fortunately, the craftsmanship of such pieces tends to be so poor that they seldom manage to deceive. It is also helpful to know that inscriptions applied with a dental drill have never been employed by Muranese glassworks. Pieces produced by Muranese firms in the 1950s and 1960s were signed only in rare instances and on special occasions, Venini’s etched signatures being the sole exceptions. Some imitations of Venini glassware can present problems because they have been signed with stolen stamps. The only aids to the appraisal of such pieces are a detailed knowledge of manufacturing techniques and an experienced, welltrained eye.”
 
Helmut Ricke
The Collection of Steinberg Foundation
Prestel New York 1970
 

 
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