Murano: Where Innovation and Craft Meet

Murano: Where Innovation and Craft Meet
Collection of glassworks from legendary Venetian island illuminate the Detroit Institute of Arts with exhibition.
By Janet Bellotto
Tandem 12/5/04-12-12/04

The small island of Murano, just a vaporetto ride from Venice, opens up to creations using a magical medium that’s hot, gorgeous and at times very fragile – that’s Murano glass. It is a production place that flourished at the end of the 13th century and has developed with innovation between designers and craftsmen. Red Hot and Very Cool is an exhibition that illuminates the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) with over 200 glass artworks from the Olnick Spanu Collection.
A glassblower – if you’ve ever had the chance to meet one or hang around a glass furnace – are on their off-time moonstruck, but you’d have to be to manipulate a molten liquid at over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet their understanding of gravity and fluid mobility, along with a sense of design, has enamoured the world over for centuries. So it is no surprise that a successful piece relies on the collaboration between designer and master glassworker, and is the common working habit in Murano.

Murano glassmakers have been known for their development and refined technologies such as crystalline glass, enameled glass (smalto) multicolored glass (millefiori), and milk glass (lattimo). As well, in the early years, they were the only people in Europe who knew how to make a mirror.

Cappellin & Company, Venini & Company and Artisti Barovier & Company, are among the companies that helped to create what has become known as Venetian glass.
Paolo Venini was a lawyer from Milan who came to Venice in 1921. He formed a partnership with Giacomo Cappellin, a Venetian antiques dealer, which lasted for four years.

Together they started a glassworks, Cappellin Venini & C. and brought in Vittorio Zecchin as art director – this began the revolution of Venetian glass design. They produced simple shapes in transparent colours, compared to the heavily decorated designs of that time.

Much earlier the Barovier brothers formed Artisti Barovier in 1878, whose family history of glassmakers dates back to the 13th century. Although the company changed names several times, known today as Barovier & Toso, it was strong in its technique development and filing of patents. Going beyond kitschy paperweights and glass beads, the collection that New Yorkers Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu have been pruning has achieved international prominence with more than 500 pieces. It is a collection, primarily consisting of vessels – vases created from 1910 to the present, which was inspired by the purchase of Paolo Venini’s hourglass Clessidra in the early ’90s.

“Over the past two decades, glass has become a focus of collecting in the United States generally, but nowhere more so than in the Detroit area,” said Graham W. J. Beal, director of the DIA. “Presenting such a distinctive collection as Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu’s at the DIA has a particular resonance as is demonstrated by the group of related pieces from local collections.”

Besides boasting some of the artists of the last century – Carlo Scarpa, Thomas Stearns, Paolo Venini – contemporary works by Laura Diaz de Santillana, Lino Tagliapietra and Giorgio Vigna are juxtaposed in the exhibition offering up an evolution of the art of glassmaking in Murano.

Scarpa’s work, for example, favours vivid colours. He preferred to “study” with the master glass workers of Murano and along with friend Paolo Venini created innovative designs. The works in this exhibition are exemplary of this.
“Seduction”, the main factor that inspires the collectors in choosing objects, is apparent in Scarpa’s work Trasparente, 1926-1931 and in Giorgio Vigna’s Fuochi d’acqua, 2002.

Massimo Vignelli, also in charge of exhibition design, is well known for his glassmaking skills and is a featured artist in the exhibition. Fungo and Vetro e argento were created while he worked for Murano’s most prominent glass workshop Venini and Company.

While the glassblower faces the light of the glory hole (the furnace opening) it is the manipulation between molten glass, blowpipe, marver and vision that brings the tune of fluidity to beauties found at the DIA.

Red Hot and Very Cool runs at Detroit Institute of Arts, 200 Woodward Ave, December 10 to February 27, 2005. Visit for more information and a list of coinciding programmes.

© 2004 Tamdem News