Speaking to Apollo as part of our preview of this year’s Venice Biennale, the glass impresario Adriano Berengo decries the city’s lack of support for Murano glassmaking. He worries that the industry has become complacent, and calls for innovative ways to ensure the future of glass production. ‘To allow Murano glass to die is like allowing the Colosseum to collapse,’ he says.
It is not the first time that a crisis has been declared for this great Venetian industry. Before the revival of glassmaking on Murano in the mid 19th century, stimulated in part through the enthusiasms of the Victorian tastemaker Charles Lock Eastlake for historical glass forms and techniques, the island had ceded its position to Bohemia and even England as Europe’s leading producer of glassware. Even as Murano was revitalised in the 1850s, John Ruskin seemed to sense an inevitable decline lingering among the signs of its rejuvenation: ‘The most discordant feature in the whole scene is the cloud which hovers above the glass furnaces of Murano,’ he wrote, ‘but this we may not regret, as it is one of the last signs left of human exertion among the ruinous villages which surround us.’
The current slump, Berengo suggests, has not simply been occasioned by the influx of Chinese copies in recent decades; it is also due to the fact that many of the surviving glass factories have pandered to the demand of tourists for objects that represent a historical idea of Murano. Where the forms of the past galvanised the 19th-century glass revival, in other words, now they might be said to hold back contemporary work by clinging to an opportune market for pastiche.
Berengo has looked to counter this by introducing international artists to the properties and practicalities of glass, pushing them to experiment with this uniquely ductile, transparent material. The extraordinary Murano marionettes that feature in the final film of Wael Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades trilogy were developed at the Berengo Studio; artists taking part in this year’s ‘Glasstress’ exhibition, which Berengo has mounted at Palazzo Franchetti every two years since 2009, include Ai Weiwei, Thomas Schütte, and Laure Prouvost.
It is heartening to see contemporary artists exploring a traditional material that requires so much patience and care, and for which chance as much as conceptual precision plays such a role. Something comparable – and equally welcome – is perhaps happening in the growing prominence of contemporary ceramic art at leading international museums and galleries. Also to be praised are those dealers, such as Adrian Sassoon, who have worked so hard to promote the place of historical materials in the production of contemporary pieces.
The future of Murano also requires sustained attention to its past. That means well-curated museum displays and exhibitions to illuminate the skill of historical glassmakers and the variety of their working methods, as well as the originality of 20th-century designers. It requires the clean presentation of individual objects (or groups of objects), ensuring that they are no more relegated to crowded cabinets with poor lighting (although there is of course value in looking at glass in the context of other types of object).
In Venice, thankfully, the Stanze del Vetro on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore has now been creating this kind of exhibition for several years. Since its inauguration in 2012, the gallery’s displays of modern and contemporary glass have offered a lucid reminder of the recent strength of glassmaking in Venice – and as such, as a rejoinder to those who would give up on Murano altogether. This summer, it has an exhibition dedicated to glass designed by Ettore Sottsass, many of the pieces created in collaboration with the glass masters of Murano (until 30 July).
And then there is the Museo del Vetro in Palazzo Giustinian on Murano, which reopened in 2015 with refurbished and expanded exhibition spaces that feature a chronological display focusing on the island’s production. Though the museum has been in its current location since 1861, it now has a greater responsibility than ever: inspiring visitors to Venice to value Murano glass correctly, while encouraging the maestri to innovate afresh.
From the May 2017 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.