Published: October 7, 2003
Brilliant color and the stunning and fashionable line of contemporary Venetian glass sparkle in “Murano Glass from the Olnick Spanu Collection” at the Chrysler Museum of Art through April 25, 2004. The traveling exhibition, which makes Norfolk its first stop on a national tour, showcases a remarkable collection of glass made in Murano, Italy, in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries.
Over the ages Murano glass would seldom have been described as subtle. But in the Twentieth Century, glass artists produced exuberant pieces, bold in line and color with a tactile appeal that renders them compelling to the eye. These are the examples that New Yorkers Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu collected and that are on view. All are vessels of some variety; most are vases, the form Olnick and Spanu favor.
The earliest piece in the show is the 77/8-inch floral blown glass vase, “Floreale a murrine,” designed by Benvenuto Barovier in about 1913 for his family company, Artisti Barovier. The vase is brilliantly colored, ablaze with lively abstract flowers made from tessarae, tiny slices of glass rods arranged like a mosaic and blown into a bubble. The masterful combination of clear and opaque glass gives the piece a vibrant, painterly quality.
Glass is decidedly a family business in Venice. It was an earlier Barovier, Angelo, who in 1480 began to make lead crystal, resulting in colorless blown glass.
In 1291, Venetian authorities shut down the glassblowers’ furnaces in the city and relocated the glass trade to the islands of Murano, just to the north. They cited the danger of fire from the furnaces as the reason for the move, but control of the glass trade and its secrets, techniques and talent was more easily achieved by keeping it isolated on Murano. The islands remained the center of glassmaking until 1797 when Napoleon took Venice, which he ceded to the Austrian Hapsburgs in 1814. The Austrians regulated Murano nearly out of existence, favoring its own glass centers in Bohemia.
Reinvigoration eluded Murano for nearly a century until the early part of the Twentieth Century ushered in much change in the art of glass in general and Venetian glass in particular. New technology, new aesthetics and experimentation in form and color moved Venetian glass away from the traditional forms of elaborate ornamentation and pastel coloration toward the bold and lively.
The story of Venetian glass in the Twentieth Century is one of extraordinarily talented and multifaceted artists: the designers and the maestri, the glass masters themselves. The partnership of artistry and craftsmanship resulted in soaring and fanciful creations and put Murano back firmly in the international spotlight.
Many glassworks existed and produced fine work; a few are known today for the landmark art objects designed and produced by the artists of the day.
The contribution of such figures as Paolo Venini was instrumental. Venini, a Milanese lawyer by training but with glassmaking in his blood, founded the glassworks Cappellin Venini and Company with Venetian antiques dealer Giacomo Cappellin in 1921. They appointed painter Vittorio Zecchin as art director and the firm quickly became known for simple forms in clear of transparent colors.
The company split a few years later and Venini and Co. and Cappellin & Co. evolved. Zecchin became art director at the new Cappellin & Co. Glassworks have come and gone and reconfigured themselves in Venice over the centuries with many of the same family names. In the Twentieth Century, Venini, Toso, Cappelin and Barovier are some of the names that appeared and reappeared in various permutations.
Venini made a major impact on Twentieth Century glass through his collaboration with major artists and glass masters of the day. Olnick and Spanu collected works by those artists, such as Gio Ponti, Carlo Scarpa, Fulvio Bianconi, Napoleon Martinuzzi and Ettore Sottsass, and examples of their work comprise the exhibit.
Venini’s own designs, which are scarce as few were made, are highly prized. A blue and green clessidre (a vase in hourglass form) that Venini designed in 1955 launched Spanu and Olnick’s exceptional Murano glass collection when they first saw it at Sotheby’s. That clessidre and several others in the same singular form are on view.
Prominent architect Carlo Scarpa, born in Venice in 1906, was retained to restore the building that housed the Cappellin Glassworks in Murano. It was there that he became fascinated with glass design and glassblowing. He later served as design director at Venini and was much in demand as an artist himself. As a true Venetian, he was mindful of the play of water across a surface and that fluidity characterized his buildings, his glass and the other products he designed. Technically gifted, he devised such glass surfaces as battutu (hammered), molato (smooth), inciso (incised) and corroso (corroded). He was skillful in the use of tessuto (lined and ribboned), pennelate (brushstroke) and sommerso a bollicine (imbedded bubbles).
Collector Olnick treasures Scarpa’s “Lattimi” series of vases that embody the melding of ancient forms with modern forms and technology. The one on view is simple and elegant with a small graceful base and almost whimsical handles.
Bianconi created vases with fused color blocks that he called “Pezzato” (for their patchwork effect). His 1951 or 1952 Pezzati is on view along with the 1951 Pezzato, a single vase in a patchwork style made using what we view today as typically 1950s shapes and colors. His collaboration with Venini & Co. was fruitful on both sides. He succeeded Scarpa as design director. Bianconi was an immensely talented glass artist, a painter, cartoonist and a graphic designer who created stylized Commedia dell’ Arte and Carnivale figures that were admired for their high aesthetic and surrealistic qualities, the latter perhaps the product of the puckish cartoonist’s eye.
Another architect, Ponti, was a multitalented Milanese, born there in 1891, whose hand endowed everything he touched with style and elegance. Founder of “Domus” and founder of Stile magazines and design director at Richard Ginori, Ponti typified the Renaissance Man. Designer of the Pirelli Tower in Milan, residences, furniture, a coffeemaker, lamps, table accessories, textiles, ceramics, linoleum, bathroom appliances and doorknobs, his ten or so glass pieces are well favored.
His blown glass striped decanters, bottiglie morandine, that he designed for Venini & Co. between 1946 and 1950 have great appeal to collectors lucky enough to find them. The ones on view are made of highly colored red and blue canes alternating with clear glass.
“Incaminciato,” designed in 1933 by Napoleone Martinuzzi for Venini & Co., is solid, a vase with a cinched waist in playful and lively form and color. “Incaminciato” refers to the achievement of opaque color by superimposing a layer of transparent colored glass over opaque white glass. Martinuzzi, son of a Murano glassblower, is known also for textured finishes and tiny bubbles that create a nearly opaque appearance.
As the Chrysler Museum of Art has its own highly regarded glass collection, it is fitting that the nearly 300-piece exhibit makes Norfolk its first stop on its national tour. The show will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Museum of Glass at Tacoma, Wash.; the Detroit Institute of Arts; and the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, Tenn.
The exhibit catalog is itself a collectible. Murano: Glass from the Olnick Spanu Collection by Venetian glass historian Marino Barovier and designed by Massimo and Leila Vignelli, with photography by Luca Vignelli, is available in softcover for $49; hardcover is $59.
Barovier and Vignelli are old Murano names, making this very much a Murano production.
The Chrysler Museum of Art is at 245 West Olney Road at Mowbray Arch. Hours are Thursday through Saturday, 10 am-5 pm; Wednesday, 10 am-9 pm (admission by voluntary contribution); Sunday, 1-5 pm. For information, 757-664-6200 or www.chrysler.org.
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