For the Love of Venice
Aah, there’s something about Venice. I have often wondered what that might actually be. Is it that you walk into an unreal fantasy world frozen in time? Imagine a city in modern day life where there are no streets for wheels, only canals for boats and alleys for feet. It is a bustling tourist mecca with everything one would expect from a charismatic Italian town and then some! It is simply bustling with food markets, lively gondoliers singing Italian opera on the waters, pizza, pasta and gelato galore and tiny espresso bar everywhere. And to top this list off, even Casanova called this town home before he made his legendary rooftop escape from the prison at the Doge’s Palace - no bridge of last sighs for him!
History oozes out of every crevice and when you walk here, happily completely lost in the dense network of narrow alleys, even being lost becomes an adventurous time of wonder crossing over countless pretty bridges and staring at the reflections of antique architecture in the water. There would be so many stories if the buildings here could speak!
Venice also goes the extra mile to inspire those of us with artistic souls. From the golden mosaics in the San Marco basilica, the sounds of the Four Seasons in Vivaldi’s church and the countless sculptures and precious artworks in museums and old palazzos. And then… just when you thought this beautiful place could not get more romantic, there’s glass and lots and lots of it, everywhere!
My first trip to Venice was as a solo backpacking student in the early 90’s. My lodgi ngs were a ramshackle mouldy building with only icy cold water in the shower, but there was a red carpet going up the staircase which amused me tremendously! Not all palazzos are created equal! I remember a dinner is a little restaurant where my seafood stew was served in a tinfoil gondola and there was an old piano in the corner with a sign that said ’If this is your pleasure, then enjoy!’ I fell in love with their hearty enthusiasm for life as opposed to the ‘do not touch’ attitude of the society I grew up in. Venice was my first taste of Italy as I arrived from France and travelled further from here to Florence and Rome, but little did I know that one day, the cost of travelling here would become a very convenient business expense.
I had to wait 20 years to return to Venice. This time I was no longer a student of architecture, but a fully fledged full-time glass artist. My student memories of trying to navigate my way home from the Rialto bridge were now replaced by indulging in the wonder of glass shop upon glass shop upon glass shop. Having shop-fitted my own shop just the year before this was a treasure trove market research and not being allowed to take photos in most shops, the only way to take the information was by drawing them! I found myself making plenty of little sketches in my sketchbook each time I left a shop and they are so precious to me now.
As I remember the suffocating crowds in Venice from my first trip, I decided not to stay on the main island the second time, but, as befitting for a glass artist, I opted for a little guest house on the island of Murano itself. I’ve always been so fascinated by the glass tradition of Venice. Few people are aware of the fact that today, there are no longer any glass blowing allowed on the island of Venice, but as Venice is comprised of a group of islands, due to the risk of fire the glassblowing industry as a whole was relocated by law to the island of Murano in the late 13th century! No small wonder it is so part of the very heartbeat of the Venice we know today.
A beautiful synchronicity played out while I was there. Before I came to Murano I did some research at home as one does before a trip. I was armed with a little to-do list and one of them was to find the new gallery of Lino Tagliapietra, Murano’s most famous maestro of glasswork, now living in Seattle. I could not find the address of the gallery on his website and thought I would ask around once in Murano. If ever there was a celebrity of glass, it is Lino and I was sure I would find my way to see some of his magnificent works on the island where he hails from. So when I arrived at my pretty little guesthouse and checked in the lady of the house asked if I had any questions. Of course my one and only question was where to find Lino’s gallery. Her answer was very unexpected - ‘Oh, Lino is a dear friend of ours and will be here for lunch tomorrow. Why don’t you come and meet him?’ I was totally stunned and with jittery excitement that is exactly what I did the next day. What a beautiful soul and such a humble, almost shy man. He offered to open the exclusive gallery for me and also show me his private studio and collection of works, not open to the public. We arranged to meet the next day at his villa overlooking the Veneto waters with the main Venice island beyond. I could not quite believe my good fortune, the two hours I spent with him was such a precious gift for me, a small-fry South African glass artist on a pilgrimage to Murano!
During this same trip I also went to the factory that produces the raw materials I work with for the first time. My materials are very precious to me and I waste nothing. Imagine me crawling on the floor looking for a small 2mm piece of glass that accidentally dropped. So now, in Murano I walk into a warehouse with rows of shelves filled with glass. It’s a wonder world of potential and my glass heart sings! Over the years I’ve come to really enjoy my visits here as I have the opportunity to select exactly what I need and better still, discover new special production glass that are not in the catalogue. I have also lost another part of my heart at the tiny micro mosaic shop that is one of my favourite stops. I bought my special tweezer here that I use for my own millefiori creations. Each time I have a bit more of Venice in my studio - new bits of glass, a glass object I could not resist, more photos and of course an abundance of memories of the best pizza ever and walking in the deserted alleys late at night.
It is true that Venice certainly has a darker side, an alternative history clouded in the mists of time and hidden from the millions of tourists. Just like the masquerades so famous during their Carnival, Venice itself is wearing a glamorous golden mask hiding its real undercurrent and influence. As a glassworker and keeper of coloured Light, I like to believe that the amount of fellow glassworkers in Venice today, are also keeping the light and wining a battle that has lasted for centuries. Maybe that is the secret of Venice that captivates us so, that ‘something about Venice’. Perhaps it the simply the wonder and magic of all the glass. I think it is probably a combination of all of the above, and then some extra fairy dust…
Photos: Helga Stassen
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