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The man who gives glass class

The man who gives glass class
Shanghai Daily News
March 30, 2005

The glory of the restoration of the historic building of Bund 18 is in the way the glassmaker’s art has been applied throughout the renovation.
Zhao Feifei talks with the architect responsible for the transformation.
From the moment you step into the entrance of Bund 18 — an iconic building of the Shanghai jazz scene back in the 1930s — the first thing to catch the eye is the beautiful three-meter-high red chandelier in the foyer. This extravagant fixture was created by the building’s restorer, Filippo Gabbiani, in his workshop back in Venice.
“It took several glassmaking artisans to blow it into shape,” says Gabbiani proudly. He’s the chief architect of Kokaistudios who renovated Bund 18 and also a descendant of the Gabbiani family of glassmaking craftsmen. “The amazing thing is that it weighs only 100 kilograms. Venetian people have a special way to make glass light and transparent.” And his skills are not only on the ground floor of Bund 18 — the decor of Bar Rouge on the 7th floor features 22 small red chandeliers and they blend in a romantic way into the ambience of the top floor of the historic building. To display his own fascination and pride in Venetian glassmaking, Gabbiani has opened a posh boutique on the second floor. Gabbiani glass carries on the age-old special technique of earlier centuries.

Each piece is painstakingly handmade by masters in Murano, an island near Venice, incorporating a variety of styles ranging from reproductions of 18th- and 19th-century Venetian pieces to modern and original designs. Meticulously crafted vases and vessels, decanters and goblets, paperweights, lamps and even jewelry are displayed.

Many of them are limited-edition pieces. The price of a vase can vary from 4,000 yuan (US$480) to 20,000 yuan. “Not everybody understands glass, so I show it as if it were jewelry or a painting,” says the 36-year-old designer. “I like my customers to appreciate glass the way they would if visiting a museum or an art gallery.” The store is Gabbiani’s first in Asia. His showroom in Italy is near the 15th-century Palazzo Bragadin, which is the ancient location of the home of the legendary merchant Marco Polo’s family. “At the age of seven, I read a book of Marco Polo’s travels in China. From then on, I started dreaming about this ancient country,” he says.

In 1991, Gabbiani arrived in China. He rode on bicycle, horseback, went by boat across the desert in Inner Mongolia, the mountains of Tibet and the rivers of Yunnan Province. This trip reinforced Gabbiani’s dream and desire to live and work in China. He quit several projects back home and moved to China. His first job was in southern China’s Guangdong Province, on an architectural planning project for a lifestyle building complex owned by a Hong Kong developer. After that, he landed the job to restore Bund 18 to its former glory. The Gabbiani family history covers generations of artists, painters, sculptors and art dealers over several centuries. The family operates art galleries in Paris, London and New York. “My mother started to make glass 30 years ago and my grandfather, who is a famous watercolor painter, also made glass,” says Gabbiani.

Now in Murano, Gabbiani family has a team of about 50 glassmaking artisans working for the company. “Venice still harbors ancient glassmaking secrets,” says Gabbiani. “Glassmaking traditions pass from father to son, from master to apprentice. Competition is fierce. The industry is of such importance that, in the past, a traitorous glassblower who revealed his secrets would be punished by exile or even death.” Italian glass craftsmanship is famous worldwide. Venice is crammed with glass shops and it’s estimated that there are at least 1,000 in San Marco alone. Murano has always been a secretive island and although it’s only a five-minute vaporetto ride from the center of Venice, it’s mysterious even to Venetians. A major glass center throughout the centuries, Murano has more than 250 glass furnaces, many of them operated by two to five artisans. Fewer than 20 furnaces have more than 50 employees. Today, the process remains much the same except that the furnaces are heated by natural gas, not wood, and the ingredients come from different localities. The tools themselves have been unchanged for centuries, dating back to the Middle Ages.

Glassblowing in Murano is usually more expensive than Chinese, Czech or Indian. It’s partly because the Venetians were the first to produce clear glass and the Venetians, being master traders, sold the glass around the world from the days of Marco Polo. The style and artistry of Venetian glass has continued to maintain its value and reputation throughout the world. “In 1291, fear of fire moved Venetian glassmaking to this island, where many of the factories remain today,” says Gabbiani. During the era of the Venetian Republic, the Doge of Venice granted special privileges to the Muranesi. They had their own “Golden Book” which listed the most important families, creating a local hierarchy which still exists — unofficially — today. Keeping the glassmakers cloistered on an island, swearing them to secrecy and showering them with riches and titles of nobility practically guaranteed the Venetians control of the marketplace.

The art of glassmaking is nearly as old as the Pyramids of Egypt dating back about 3,500 years. The art of blowing glass is more recent and began some 2,000 years ago. Over the centuries, the secrets of glassmaking — what ingredients to mix together and in what quantities — have been lost and rediscovered. Venice’s best-known glass has a distinctive swirl pattern in several colors. “There are mainly two types of glass in the world: crystal, which is heavy and very difficult to give color, and Venetian glass, which is light and transparent. Red glass is the most expensive. That’s because when you make it, a lot of glass has to be thrown away,” explains Gabbiani.

Article © English.Eastday.com

History of Murano

The history of Murano glass is interesting in the fact that it is the longest lasting center for glass making in history. It spans from the 9th century to today, and is full of beautiful and innovative artwork, success, failure and thankfully, a remarkable resiliency in the face of adversity. Because Murano does have such a long history, one can easily see the reflection of important events, including the Renaissance and Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, and how they affected a small island of glassmakers in the Adriatic Sea. First for readers uncertain of where Murano lies, it is a small island North West of the city of Venice, Italy – not much larger than a few square miles.

It is believed the origins of Murano Glass dates back to 9th century Rome, with significant Asian and Muslim influences, as Venice was a major trading port. Multihued perle (beads) were used in trading with Asian, African and Muslim neighbors.

Venice, The Rialto- J.M.W. Turner, 1820 -1821

The first known historical document describes Domenico, a maestro (glass blowing master) who created fiole (bottles). Other equally rare documents describe Pietro Fiolario working with glass in 1083 and Giovanni Fiolario as a maestro making bottles in 1158.

The 13th Century brought an abundance of historical records on the growing trade of glassblowing in Venice. The craft grew so rapidly, that in the 1260′s a trade association, the Arte, was formed. In an attempt to create and formalize a body of broad rules on how glass shops were to be operated and the duties and responsibilities of both maestri and discipuli (disciples), the Capitolare was created. The earliest known version of the Capitolare dates to 1271, and was updated regularly for over 500 years until 1776. Over time, the Capitolare addressed quality control, raw material agreements and trade protection from foreign competitors. Although few glass pieces survive from the 13th century, documents from that period describe a range of utilitarian products from glasses and vases to beads and other less widely recognized objects including enameled glass, imitation jewels and richly colored window panes.

Murano: A quieter center for masterful Italian glass

Murano: A quieter center for masterful Italian glass

By DON MELVIN FOR COX NEWS SERVICE
Atlanta Journal Constitution 9/16/04

Murano, Italy — Indoors, the master glassmakers practice their art before ovens heated to 1,000 degrees Celsius — 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit — deftly turning globs of molten glass into everything from small ornamental birds to museum-quality works of art. Outside, shops line the quiet canals that Murano uses for roadways. Boats bob beside the piers, water buses nose into docks to pick up passengers amid a sense of serenity and tradition. Many travelers are familiar with the charms of Venice, where buildings of spectacular and historic architecture rise out of the water to form one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But fewer know the allure of Murano, a peaceful, canal-laced city where the glassmakers’ art has flourished for centuries.

Murano lies just 40 minutes from central Venice by water bus — half that by water taxi. If it is less spectacular than Venice, it feels somehow more genuine. People actually live here. And it is free of the multinational gaggles of tourists bristling with cameras and clustering around tour guides that clog the walkways of its more famous neighbor. Tourists do not stumble on Murano by accident. But it is well worth taking the boat ride with the wind in your face and Venice at your back. Murano glass is justly famous.

The showrooms are stunning, stocked with glass peacocks, vases artfully swirled with color, faces, sculptures and even crystal chandeliers adorned with glass leaves and flowers that cost $50,000 or more. “That’s the Rolls-Royce or Ferrari of chandeliers,” Rossi said proudly. The comparison is apt. The key ingredient of Murano glass is not the silica sand, the soda ash or the red lead that are melted together to make it. Nor is the secret of its quality in the process, in which the materials are heated to 1,400 degrees Celsius (2,552 Fahrenheit) before being cooled to the 1,000 degrees that makes the molten glass pasty enough to be gathered in red-hot blobs on the glassmakers’ tools. It is in what happens next, in the artistry, the craftsmanship and the tradition. Most of the masters come from families of masters that stretch back five or six generations.

Most began at an early age and have committed themselves to the work all their lives. Some, like Guilano Tosi, have their creations on display in places like the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y. “The real Murano glass is very high quality,” said Maurizio Toso, Tosi’s cousin, who works with him on the island. The quality of the glass, he said, reflects “the quality of the makers.” A good quality of life is evident here, too. The pace is slow. People pass the time in cafes and sandwich nooks. The stores and showrooms are pressure free — not, Rossi noted, like shoe stores, where salesmen swarm over customers offering “help.”

Much of the business is done these days by mail or over the Internet anyway, but the beauty of Murano is not to be missed. Like Venice, which lies about a mile away across the water, Murano is composed of a cluster of small islands. About 7,000 people live here. It became the center of the glassmaking industry in 1291, supplanting Venice itself. Many of Venice’s buildings at that time were made of wood, and the risk of fire from the glassmakers’ ovens was deemed too great. Murano glass has been famous around the world since the 14th century. The masters became known for their bead-making skills and for the glass used in mirrors. The Murano Glass Museum offers a pleasant and informative way to while away an afternoon. Glass pieces in the museum, which was founded in 1861, date from as long ago as the first century A.D. On display are vases from the 15th century — some enameled, some with embedded designs — that are works of art. It is that tradition that today’s glassmakers sweating in front of their ovens strive to maintain.

Venetian glass: exquisite link to Pilchuck School

Venetian glass: exquisite link to Pilchuck School
By Matthew Kangas. Special to The Seattle Times (9/17/04)

Although “Murano: Glass from the Olnick Spanu Collection” is touring to three more museums after it leaves the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, nowhere will it have as much resonance as in the Pacific Northwest. Finally, visitors get to see the missing link in the Pilchuck Glass School story: Venetian glass in all its glory and influence. Without the famous Italian glassblowers whom Dale Chihuly and Benjamin Moore brought to Pilchuck from 1978 on, Pilchuck and American studio glass in general never would have reached the heights it has. Conversely, if the Murano masters had never come to Pilchuck to see the muscular, can-do young Americans at work, Venetian glass would still be in the doldrums. For that and many other reasons, “Murano” is a must-see. For one thing, it is possibly the most beautifully designed glass exhibition I have ever seen. With ingenious, backlit Plexiglas-covered cases by the giant of modern design, Massimo Vignelli, each of the 200 pieces gets its due. Arranged chronologically, the evolution of artistic styles, techniques and shapes from 1914 on is clearly laid out. Don’t expect a comprehensive history of Venetian glass (made on Murano Island in the Venice Lagoon since 1291) but a highly selective survey assembled by a New York couple, Giorgio Spanu and Nancy Olnick. We get their connoisseurs’ point of view rather than that of an art historian. Despite the ample treasures by 20th-century design giants like Carlo Scarpa, Giò Ponti and Vignelli, there are glaring omissions that keep the survey from being more than a cross-section of the Spanus’ taste. There is no Chihuly, no Robert Willson, no solid-glass sculpture at all, nothing from the famous Forge of the Angels Gallery where Picasso, Cocteau and others had work made, and nothing from S.A.L.I.R., the center of Murano engraving. Olnick and Spanu concentrate on the 1924-45 period which, interestingly, includes the Mussolini-era glass that inspired Chihuly’s famous “Venetians” series (1988-2004). he severe shapes, solid colors and allusions to the “machine age” of the 1930s are beautiful, if cold, but they mark a radical break from all the traditional frou-frous — filigree, engraving, lavish color — that characterize the prior 700 years of Venetian glass.

Once the island opened itself up to architects and others who admired glass but did not know how to make it, the rigid, blue-collar technicians were jump-started into executing the many facets of modern design. After art-nouveau, there are examples of art-deco influences, along with Chinese and Japanese art. After World War II, Scandinavian design, abstract expressionism, op art and the postmodern Memphis style were also felt. This exhibit is also a wonderful way to educate oneself up-close and personal about the somewhat complicated glassblowing processes used. Though everything begins on the blowpipe, a million things can happen before a piece reaches the showroom. Little colored canes or thinner filigree strands are added. Clear layers can be set over inner, colored ones, and walls can be changed with the introduction of tiny air bubbles. After cooling down in the annealing oven for a few days, the outer walls can be engraved, bathed in acid, or even chipped with a tool for special effects. Now, if only there were a couple like Spanu and Olnick in the Northwest so that our museums could also own and display the Italian glass that has been the hidden key to understanding the Pilchuck revolution.

Article © The Seattle Times 2004

Women in Murano

BBC Radio recently interviewed a few female glass artists and the challenges that they have faced in a traditionally male dominated field. 8 Minute audio clip.

Women in Murano