SHOPPER'S WORLD; Venetian Glass, but Made in Caracas
By ELAINE DANN GOLDSTEIN; ELAINE DANN GOLDSTEIN IS A WRITER BASED IN ROCKVILLE CENTRE, L.I.
Published: September 6, 1987
LEAD: Caracas, Venezuela, lies in a valley about 3,000 feet above sea level in a coastal range on the Caribbean.
Caracas, Venezuela, lies in a valley about 3,000 feet above sea level in a coastal range on the Caribbean.
Residences cling to the hillsides, and small planes scoot like dragonflies between the mountains to land at an airport in the center of the city. The climate is usually springlike, and on one such balmy day we drove along the Via la Mariposa to the mountain suburb of Potrerito for a visit to the Icet Arte Murano glassworks.
This glassworks, whose delicate products have been exhibited in Europe, Canada and the United States, could have been plucked intact from the Venetian Lagoon: the ovens, methods and products are identical.
In the 13th century the Venetian glassworkers were isolated on the island of Murano to protect Venice from the frequent fires caused by the intense heat of the furnaces and to prevent the theft of the secret of making crystal-clear glass. It was the clarity of Venetian glass plus its ability to be blown into any shape that made the secret so highly prized; escaping from Murano was punishable by death. In the 16th century some workers, given permission to travel, established workshops in other countries, but those glassworks have long since disappeared.
Glassworks in the Murano style are still very rare outside of Italy. Jessie McNab, associate curator in the department of European sculpture and decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, says that Icet Arte is the only factory that she's heard of producing this glass in the Western Hemisphere.
Bruno Ava came to Venezuela from Italy 30 years ago, ''looking,'' he says, ''for new horizons.'' He married an Italian woman living in Venezuela and, ''because it is cooler in the mountains,'' built his factory in Potrerito. He started the Icet Arte Murano with a dozen craftsmen, two of whom still work with him, and today he employs 70 to 80 people.
The factory has 15 furnaces in different stages of glass production going at once. These furnaces, surrounded by movable heat-shielding panels, are square, about four feet high, and have a hole in one side for moving materials in and out of the fire. The furnaces are the only part of the glass-making process that has changed over the centuries, becoming more efficient with the introduction of richer fuels.
It is during the ''cooking'' the raw materials in the furnaces that the various colors and types of glass are formed. With the addition of certain minerals a colorless glass is produced. Adding other minerals produces color: copper or cobalt for blue-green, and gold for red, for example. Aventurine, a copper-flecked glass; chalcedony, red with multicolored veins, and latticini, an opaque white glass, are all Murano inventions.
Except for the sand, the raw materials used in Venezuela are imported from Italy. The sand, or silicate, is the vital glass-making agent, and its source is a carefully guarded secret. Since the sand makes up 70 percent of the weight of glass, and importing it from very far would be costly, it is likely that the source is nearby.
The glass is entirely handmade by teams that consist of a master and two to four helpers. A half-dozen teams will be working at one time, making the full range of Venetian-designed glass pieces: figures, blown glass, stemware, chandeliers, beads and museum-quality art glass.
On the day we were there, opaque glass was being worked by several teams. The elephant taking shape at one furnace was of solid glass. The master held a rod with a blob of glass that forms the body. The glass must be at 2,642 degrees Farenheit to be worked and it cools quickly. The helper added more glass from the fire to form the head; this was pulled like taffy into a teardrop shape to make the trunk, then snipped off with shears and formed with pincers. The master did the shaping while the two helpers heated different colors on long rods and applied the glowing glass to the body. The master quickly snipped, pulled and shaped each blob into ears, tusks, tail and legs. The animal took less than 15 minutes to complete. The finished elephant, heavy for its six-inch length at about a pound and a half, had a red head with white tusks and its trunk, body and tail were black.
At a furnace near where the elephant was fashioned, a vase was being made of what was to be ice glass. A helper pulled out a blob of molten clear glass affixed to a long thin pipe, cooled it briefly and handed it to the master. The master blew into the pipe, turning the blob into a bubble, which he elongated by twirling the pipe. Like the solid, the blown glass was cut with shears and shaped with tools for finishing. While the vase was still hot, the helper plunged it into a small sunken pool of water. A mighty hiss, a cloud of steam, and the vase emerged with its surface decoratively covered with cracks.
Adjoining the factory is a shop where all the glassware, including the well-known clowns and jewelry made from the beads, is sold. A black, gold and white glass toucan was about the size of the elephant we saw being made, and costs about $18. A set that includes a glass punch bowl, ladle and six mugs, all made of optic glass, with a subtle distortion of images seen through it, is about $95, while a small optic pitcher is about $20. A lovely fruit bowl could be made with life-size, colored opaque glass apples, oranges, bananas and strawberries, which cost about $6 to $8 each. The art glass pieces run higher; a pair of streamlined doves made of glass that masquerades as stone are about $220. Everything is packed for shipping on the spot, and credit cards are taken.
To further the Italian theme, if you are hungry after your visit, there's a pizzeria, Da Domenico, down the block.
The factory (Via la Mariposa, Caracas; telephone 032 71 02 94) is open to the public from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. daily and the store from 9 A.M. to 6 P.M. daily. You can book a tour through the major hotels or at travel agencies for about $15 to $20 a person. Tours last about three hours and include sightseeing along the way. A taxi from most hotels costs about $8 each way and the ride will take half an hour.