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Shopping: Venice, Italy : Glass Act : For centuries artists have transformed sand into timeless objects

November 12, 1995|RICH RUBAN | Rubin is a New York-based free-lance writer

VENICE, Italy — As I stand in Creazioni Artigianali Veneziane, one of two stores in Venice devoted to the work of artist Lucio Bubacco, I'm surrounded by a scene of joyful abandon. A couple dances naked except for their masks. A lavender man holds a rose in one hand and a goblet in the other. A dark purple woman proffers a tiny bird on her outstretched fingers.

What makes these sensual, exuberant figures all the more astounding is that they're made of glass.

But, then, everything is possible in the hands of Lucio Bubacco, a rising star in the world of Venetian glass. This past spring I was drawn to the shop on Ruga Rialto, near the famous Rialto Bridge, by a window display featuring not only his animated figures but the inventive jewelry of his partner Leslie Genninger, a transplanted American who designs hand-blown beads of all shapes and sizes. They include wondrous rainbow-colored spheres ranging from tiny black glass painted with gold leaf to stunning orbs elaborately filigreed with blue, gold, green and lavender filaments.

Before my stay in Venice was over I had bought a pair of Genninger's earrings (at $20 the perfect gift for my housesitter), as well as a small piece by Bubacco that set me back $200 but occupies a place of honor in my living room. It's a tiny, anatomically perfect satyr, with a muscular torso fashioned from marbled mauve glass. He holds a miniature red rose in perfectly formed fingers.

The human form is central to Bubacco's work, unusual in glass art. "I have great respect for anatomy," said Bubacco, who spent two years studying the subject and was even commissioned to sculpt a glass spinal column for a medical convention. "Also, I love the carnival figures, dancing, drinking, joking, full of the joy of life."

If Bubacco's work is singularly, even eccentrically modern, it grows out of the great tradition of glassmaking that has flourished in Venice for centuries. No one is sure when the area first became known for glassmaking, but archeological digs in the Venetian Lagoon have uncovered a workshop and fragments of blown glass from the 7th Century. Historians theorize that Venice, a major seaport, attracted medieval artisans from such glass centers as Egypt, Syria and Byzantium. Documents from AD 960 mention a Venetian glassmaker (the first written record) and an 11th-Century text pictures a local glassworks. By the early 13th Century, the industry was established enough for a glassmakers' guild to be formed--such unions being common among craftsmen of the time.

Production continues on the island of Murano--a 10-minute boat ride from Venice--as it has since 1291, when Venice's rulers banished the industry from the city due to fire hazards from the artisans' furnaces and a desire to maintain tight control over manufacturing secrets.

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A visit to Murano provides a unique art education, as well as many shopping possibilities, even though the work displayed may actually have been made somewhere other than in Venice. (This is why it's important to shop carefully and patronize reputable dealers.) Here you can visit the glass furnaces and see demonstrations in which long canes of molten glass are shaped into art. The canes are the rudimentary elements and are formed by the melting together of raw materials--silica, soda and limestone--with various metal oxides used for coloring. The resulting mixture is then stretched between two blowpipes to form a colored cane that is later re-melted and blown or handworked into the desired shape.

In Murano, the streets are crammed with examples of the art, ranging from stalls full of unattractive tchotchkes to elegant multicolored chandeliers. Among the myriad stores that line the Fondamenta dei Vetrai (Embankment of the Glassmakers), my favorite is Domus, both for the quality of its selections and the expertise of its staff.

"All of the great masters are represented here," said the salesman who led me on a tour of their collection: "Lino Tagliapietra, Archimede Seguso, Alfredo Barbini, Carlo Moretti . . . " casually tossing off the names of these titans of the art. Walking through Domus is a crash course in Venetian glass. There are lesser known (and lower priced) artists represented as well, most of them working in the same traditional techniques as the masters.

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