Murano Today

First published 2012 in the newsletter of the Glass Art Society

The home of Alfredo Barbini on Fondamenta Venier has been turned into an informal family museum. One of the few surviving grand palazzi (originally built on Murano as summer homes by Venetian merchants), its Pellegrini frescos are still intact and form the backdrop for an astounding private collection of Barbini’s personal best. Alfredo Barbini was one of the seminal figures of 20th C. Venetian glass, working at his furnace for over 70 years with a restless and expansive creativity. He pioneered the technique of sculpting in vetro massiccio and was the first person to use wet, folded newspaper as a tool; he was Pino Signoretto’s maestro. The upstairs collection contains work that was exhibited at the Venice Biennale throughout the 60s, and work that was shown in the two Aperto Vetro exhibitions in the 90s. But his daughter, genteel and soft-spoken, will first show you through the Muranese equivalent of a yard sale—scraps from the last years of their production, all priced to sell—and explain to you that without a son willing to take on the operation of the furnace, they had to shut it down.

For the past several months there has been a certain level of apocalyptic chatter in the international studio glass community about the demise of the ancient industry on Murano. This speculation can be viewed as a continuation of the glum gossip that has surrounded Murano glass since at least 1975, but it also reflects the widespread pessimism that accompanies the current global recession--a pessimism that has been deepened by factory closures and the rumored closure of the island’s Scuola del Vetro Abate Zanetti. I recently had the opportunity to spend ten days on Murano and decided to try and gather as many opinions as I could on the current crisis and on the future of Murano from the residents of that insular, individualistic, somewhat xenophobic community that has given so much to the contemporary studio glass movement.

It is difficult to overstate the complexity of the causes of the current situation on Murano. Many strands are intertwined and are impossible to tease apart; some act as feedback loops, and some are more obvious cause-and-effect situations. The unique mentality of a small and closed society that has been so secretive for so long has been impacted by national, regional and global trends in politics, economics and culture. My stated intention of writing about Murano after a brief, ten-day visit was rightly scoffed at by members of the community: many of the residents that I talked to expressed their own difficulty in fully understanding the current problems. 

The roots of the current crisis can be traced to the end of the last period of sustained success of the glass industry on Murano, the so-called nuove Muran of 1950-1975. New technologies made subtle but essential changes to the industry; labor reforms and the rise of unions in the 60s substantially changed the sociology of the workplace. Perhaps most significant is the slow but steady reduction in the scale of the industry. In 1960 the number of people employed in the glass industry on Murano was approximately 5,000; today it is estimated to be around 400. 

One recurrent concern that surfaced was the relative lack of young glass workers entering the workforce and hence the lack of young, accomplished masters. (The extent of this concern varied from a conviction that there were no young masters at all, to one that they had become a rarity). In 1999, an article from Vetro magazine identified (correctly) the next generation of Muranese masters, including Andrea Zilio, Fabio Fornasier and Cesare Toffolo, all of whom are now in their 40s. But there doesn’t seem to be a corresponding generation of skilled, versatile glassblowers coming up behind them, implying that the essential chain of transmission of technical and cultural knowledge has been broken in the last several years. “We miss the young people,” an elderly man told me sadly.

The reason behind these phenomena—the disappearance of the next generation of glass industry workers, and the disappearance of acknowledged young maestri—lies in the profound social and cultural changes, on a local and national level, that have overtaken Murano since the late 70s. Whereas it was the norm for boys of Lino’s generation to curtail their formal education as early as nine or eleven (a practice that was carried on less universally in the next generation but still persisted), a more standardized educational system ensures that children today remain in school until the age of 16. Upon graduation, they have more occupational choices and more social mobility than previous generations could have dreamed of. This in turn has eroded the traditional class structure that placed the educated padroni  (bosses) in a position of relative power over the less-educated workers.

Changes in education policy, innovations in transportation, communication and mass media, and the growing affluence of postwar Europe in general, have altered the culture of Murano to such a degree that any attempt to revive the older society would be doomed. Murano is less isolated now—both physically, as the transportation links to Venice and the mainland become faster and more convenient; and psychologically, as TV and the internet both displace old patterns of social interaction and bring the outside world into the island community. The effects of this should not be underestimated: daily conversations about work that took place in bars and cafes were essential transmitters of information, history and culture amongst the Muranese.

Murano has always had a symbiotic relationship with Venice, but it retained its identity as a manufacturing center long after the economy of Venice had lapsed into surviving solely by tourism. Tourism of one sort or another has been a feature of life on Murano for hundreds of years, but has come to increasingly dominate the Fondamenta Vetrai and its retail activity (keeping in mind that the bulk of the low-end souvenirs are now imported directly from China). You can easily spot the tourists, not only by the obvious signifiers of dangling cameras and tightly gripped guidebooks, but also that sense of purposelessness as they walk through the town from shop to shop. They constitute much of the congestion on the main canal-side paths, but also appear in ones or two in more remote neighborhoods. Is there is a feedback loop of orienting your production towards tourists, and the expectations that comes to create?  As the large factories yield sales revenues to overseas competition, is there a danger that Murano will become as Venice, surviving only by selling its own mystique to itinerant tourists? 

One recent development that points in this direction is the current construction of up-market luxury hotels on Murano, an unprecedented move that promises to bring a number of changes to daily life in its wake. Currently there are only a couple of small hotels and a few B&B accommodations on Murano; most tourists come for the day, shop, eat lunch and leave by 5 pm. With the advent of large hotel complexes—one 100m Euro project with 155 rooms, another 45 room hostel accommodation—as comparatively less expensive alternatives to staying in Venice, surely other businesses oriented to the tourism industry, as opposed to the glass industry, will follow.

The economics of manufacturing glass—whether on the scale of a large industrial facility or an artisanal studio—have always been daunting, but recently the challenges of doing so on Murano have grown greater. Several studio owners spoke about higher start-up and operating costs—rising property rents, stricter environmental regulations, EU-conforming labor regulations, as well as the usual increased energy costs—as effective barriers to young entrepreneurs. For the larger factory, competition from China, India and Eastern Europe in low-end manufacturing has grown; high-end marketing, which has been aimed largely at Americans, has flagged in the current recession. Even the small production studios in the US have been blamed for eroding the Muranese grip on high-end craft objects, as well as for making the once rarely seen process of glassblowing more common and less novel.

As the market for studio art glass—the product of an individual artist/maker’s sensibility—took off in the 80s, Murano was slow to take notice. It doesn’t seem to be until Lino Tagliapietra’s successes in the global marketplace, particularly in America, in the 90s that people on Murano began to consider this a suitable opportunity for their talents—and, in true Muranese fashion, imitations of his work began to appear around 2000. Today there are several glassblowers who have repositioned themselves as artists, although usually running a production line parallel to their output of unique pieces.  You could say that Lino, and other Muranese masters who have traveled abroad to teach, have brought home a different model for making glass that has less to do with a factory and more to do with a studio—and shown the way forward for Murano. 

The riddle of what happened to the Scuola del Vetro Abate Zanetti is difficult for an outsider to unravel, but there seemed to be a consensus from everybody that it has failed in its mission to broaden the cultural life of the community. Funded by three distinct streams of public monies, the school seems to have been fraught with political infighting, a top-heavy administration, and a lack of students from its inception. The native Muranese do not seem to have taken advantages of its programming (although initially supported by respected maestri and some powerful business executives). Neither were they successful in marketing the school to foreigners, although there is some debate as to whether or not those attempts were sincere. With the withdrawal of two of the three major funding sources, its financial future is now uncertain—it seems to exist in a state of suspended animation at present, while rumors about private funding and repurposing abound. 

Murano has weathered many crises in a history that spans over 900 years, and so far they have always been successful at creating a new process or product, or developing new markets, that was their salvation. There is an acknowledgement born of their long history that good fortune is cyclical, but there is also a real fear that this bust may not be followed by another boom for quite some time. Some despair, others are hopeful; typically, there is no consensus. 

The question seems to be whether or not Murano can maintain its distinctive identity in the face of circumstances that seem bound to change its unique culture. Will there be continuity with past generations, who defined themselves by a thorough and skillful involvement in all aspects of glasswork?  A white-haired gentleman, one of eight brothers who had entered the factories when they were children, admitted he was, “L’ultimo,” (“The last one.”). On the other hand, both Cesare Toffolo and Davide Salvadore, two of the more active proponents of contemporary Murano, have recently brought their adult children into their workshops to ensure a generational transition.

The cemetery on Murano is carefully and regularly tended by the women of the island, with crypts and vaults adorned by enameled portraits of the deceased and improbably colorful artificial bouquets.  As you walk around, you soon come to notice that there are only a handful of names--names familiar to students of Murano glass—and they appear over and over: Fuga, Zanetti, Zecchin, Toso, Ongaro, Nason. This realization underscores the insularity that Murano has maintained during its long history; the tight bonds of blood that strengthen its identity as a distinct community but also undermine its ability to become a more open and diverse one.

I would like to thank the following people for offering their unvarnished opinions on topics that I proposed, and for their generosity in helping me prepare this article: Davide Salvadore, Domenico Cavallero, Adrianna and Elio Quarisa, Cesare Toffolo, Lino and Lina Tagliapietra, Guido Barbini, Guido Ferro, Roberto Dona, Lucio Bubacco, Vittorio and Graziela Costantini.