Venetian Cool Fire


By William Warmus


This essay first appeared in Glass Magazine in 1997


“The room was long and narrow, just like the coach house; like the coach house full of edible things: grapefruit, oranges, tangerines, and especially of lattimi, lined up in rows like books on the shelves of the great black cases, austere and churchly, high as the ceiling: because the lattimi were not at all objects of glass, as she, Micol, had tried to make me believe, but on the contrary, just as I had supposed, cheeses, small dripping forms of a whitish cheese, bottle-shaped.”


Giorgio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Contini’s [1]  


Glass appeals to the cool instincts of librarians, curators and collectors. The hermetic  display case that seals in the objects, the glossy exhibition catalog, the exclusive conference: all conspire to elevate, conserve and purify the objects. Glass also appeals to hot, rough and intense personalities, to artists who sweat before the furnace, to collectors and writers who love argument and intrigue and cutting deals. The way an individual handles glass is telling: using both hands, tense under white gloves, and with infinite care; or lifting the object with one outstretched hand in order to freely encourage a visitor to touch and explore. One attitude lives in and for the past, the other in the now. One is the straight man for the human comedy.


Italian glass from 1930 to 1970 is the subject of a recent exhibition (and book) curated by Helmut Ricke and Eva Schmitt. Premiered in Dusseldorf in 1996, it travels to The Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York from April 19 through October 26, 1997 and includes 271 objects representing approximately 15 factories and many designers. The exhibition gathers together significant evidence supporting the contention that Venetian design is an amalgam of icy cool and fire hot.


Every exhibition, every collection, is strong and weak: enriched by certain works that were available on the market, impoverished because others were not. Key artworks may be locked up in private collections or unavailable as loans from museums. And every collector and curator assembles a collection that represents his or her tastes and attitudes. Italian Glass 1930-1970: Masterpieces of Design from Murano and Milan does not cover the formative 1920s, when Venini was founded and Vittorio Zecchin designed his austerely beautiful “Veronese” vase as a reaction to the excesses of historical revivalism and overwrought tourist glasses. You will have to go elsewhere to see the fantastic creations of Napoleone Martinuzzi from the late 1920s and early 1930s, including what I believe are the most extraordinary animals and vegetable forms ever created in glass. Missing also are the humanely elegant creations of Tomaso Buzzi (who succeeded Martinuzzi as artistic director at Venini in 1932), for example his bowl held aloft and proffered by a pair of hands (c.1932). The Carlo Scarpa whose acquaintance you will make in this exhibition seems at once “cooler” and heavier handed than the Carlo Scarpa who produced the fabulous, over-the-top sculptures of faculty symbols for the University of Padua (c.1943) [2] , or the supremely delicate  blown forms that have seldom been exceeded in their aura of “unbearable lightness.” The extreme rarity of Thomas Stearns’ key masterpieces, the Facades of Venice and the Sentinels of Venice, probably made individual examples unattainable. [3]  

I outline these omissions not as a critique of the exhibition, but as a way of sketching in briefly the background against which several remarkable strengths in the collection should be discussed, most notably the works of Fulvio Bianconi and Gino Cenedese from the post World War II era [4] .


Bianconi’s “Commedia dell’Arte” figurines designed for Venini (catalog number 62), shown at the Venice Biennale in 1948, populate and animate the post war recovery of Venetian glassmaking. At once a spoof  and gloss on the ubiquitous and supremely tasteless tourist figurines that overwhelm the casual tourist visiting Murano, they are a counterpoint to Bianconi’s barbaric “attack” glasses (catalog 54-57)  and “wounded” glasses, such as the curious handkerchief vase (catalog number 58) that is soiled at the edges and drenched in red, or his elegantly severed lattimo hand, “gilt” like a reliquary (catalog 60). All these objects show allegiance to designs by Martinuzzi, Scarpa and others, but at heart bear witness to the stressed, brooding, whistling in the dark  character of the immediate post-war era. By 1959 a Bianconi vessel, possibly for Mazzega (catalog 101), is a moldering cheese pressed up close to the nose of Venetian elegance and about as far away as possible in aesthetics from Venini-Zecchin’s spare “Veronese” vases of the 1920s. Such tough, hot, sweaty works transform the aesthetics of glass and prepare us for the creations of Gino Cenedese (catalog 190-202), that anticipate the American studio glass movement. Cenedese “Macchia” forms (193,194) curiously fuse the aesthetics of Marvin Lipofsky and Dale Chihuly (perhaps this is not such an odd union, as the work of Chihuly and Lipofsky showed a fascinating synchronicity in the 1980s) while the corroded vessels with applied animal forms (catalog 202) are ancestors of the Canopic vessels of William Morris. [5]


The spiritual endpoint of this exhibition is the work of Thomas Stearns (156-9), who forms the crucial pivot linking late abstract expressionism and the emerging studio glass movement of the 1960s. In 1989, Stearn’s wrote a moving recollection of his days at Venini, [6] where his introduction to the mysteries of glassmaking was tempered by the ostracism of the master glass blowers. Eventually, he gained acceptance as a member of the team, the workers concluding “that I enjoyed a sense of humor, and by the second year I was nicknamed “Tommaso Sternini.” This later jokingly evolved into my being dubbed “Sternini di Venini.” I was included in their after work gatherings at the local bar for wine, bread and “sea snacks,” and bonds of true friendship developed amongst several of us.” He writes about the “sense of anticipation” the workers felt in attempting to make his new designs, a “welcome break in the tedium of their routine jobs.”


Of course, Stearn’s experience is now the stuff of myth and legend as later  artists experienced similar rights of initiation and developed related strategies for working through teams to create artworks in glass: Chihuly, Richard Marquis, Lipofsky and Raoul Goldoni to name a few. In the 1980s, the process was extended and amplified, as the Italian Maestro Lino Tagliapietra became a traveling initiator, training a new generation of “Venetians” on American soil, and as he himself was initiated into the arcane rights of American studio glass. Through Tagliapietra and the artists who visited Venini in the 1960s and 1970s, Italian glass of the 20th Century has become the predominant influence for glassmakers in the 1990s, especially those working around Seattle. The latest trend in studio glass, the  studio as Utopian factory, is a direct offshoot of these forces.


Dale Chihuly tells the story of his departure for Italy in September, 1968 aboard the S.S. Michelangelo, and the advice given him by a friend: “So Hendrickson was looking at me and he says, “Let me give you some advice. First, when you get to Venice, shave that beard off.” And then he said “Go out and buy yourself a brand new suit. Then get yourself a pair of wraparound shades and don’t look back. [7] “ Common to the experience of the designers and glassmakers  who, from the 1920s on,  inevitably adapted, transformed and extended the overwhelming traditions of Italian glass was a rite of passage through the hot confines of the factory, an obeisance to the rule of the maestro and his team, an immersion in the intricate history of Venetian glass followed by a subsequent escape into the now. Vladimir Nabokov describes this crucial way of looking and experiencing in his novel, Transparent Things:  “When we concentrate on a material object, whatever its situation, the very act of attention may lead to our involuntarily sinking into the history of that object. Novices must learn to skim over matter if they want matter to stay at the exact level of the moment. Transparent things, through which the past shines!...A thin veneer of immediate reality is spread over natural and artificial matter, and whoever wishes to remain in the now, with the now, on the now, should please not break its tension film. Otherwise the inexperienced miracle-worker will find himself no longer walking on water but descending upright among staring fish.” [8]


What is extraordinary about the legacy of Italian glass, now passed along to America, is that the best designers have been able to walk on water without sinking into historicism.  They never looked back. They made, and continue to make it, now. [9]


William Warmus

Ithaca, New York



[1] Giorgio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. p.90

[2] Such as a fish diving through a gear representing engineering. See Marina Barovier, Carlo Scarpa: I Vetri di Murano. Venice: il Cardo, 1991. pp.29-36.

[3]   For  illustrations of works by Martinuzzi, Buzzi, Stearns etc. see Franco DeBoni, Le Verre Venini.Torino: Allemandi, 1989 and William Warmus, The Venetians: Modern Glass 1919-1990. New York: Karasik Gallery, 1989.

[4] Space does not allow me to devote attention to many significant individuals and factories explored in this exhibition, for instance the important role played by Ludovico de Santillana after Venini's death or the exquisite "merletto" vases of Archimede Seguso.

[5]   For a more closely related Cenedese, see catalog number 53 in Venini and the Murano Renaissance. New York: Fifty/50, 1984.

[6] Thomas Stearns, The Facades of Venice: Recollections of My Residency in Venice. In The Venetians: Modern Glass, op cit.

[7] Interview conducted by the author with Chihuly on I-5 near Seattle, February, 1997.

[8]   Vladimir Nabokov, Transparent Things (1972) in Novels 1969-1974. New York: The Library of America, 1996. p.489

[9] Mircea Eliade, in his book The Forge and the Crucible, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962, was perhaps the first to stress the "presence" of the crafts in the now, exploring their  time conquering aspects in his chapter on Alchemy and Temporality (p.169): "that which would have required millennia or aeons to 'ripen' in the depths of the earth, the metallurgist and alchemist claim to be able to achieve in a few weeks."  




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