A New Flourish For Venice’s 1,000-Year-Old Glass Tradition

By Rebecca Ann Hughes, Contributor
Master glassmaker Simone Cenedese in his workshop on Murano The Venice Glass Week

Last year, Covid-19 threatened Venice’s ancient glass industry with closure. This September, the Venice Glass Week festival is demonstrating that while the material may be fragile, those who work with it are not. The fifth edition of the event, running until September 12, has brought artists from across the world to the northern Italian city in a bid to exhibit the diversity, modernity and versatility of glass. 

As Casadorofungher, the festival’s press office, explains, the Venice Glass Week is a moment to unite glass artists and bring their energy and creativity together into one celebration. Amid coronavirus travel restrictions, that is quite a feat this year. A couple of missing exhibits and the absence of a few artists hints at the obstacles the organizers have had to overcome to bring works from all over the globe to Venice. 

As well as being international, the works on display aim to demonstrate the versatility of a material often categorized as decorative or merely functional. In this edition of the glass festival, the material becomes whimsical, structural, conceptual, illusory, and political in equal measure. What follows are some highlights. 

Deconstructed Chandeliers

Leslie Ann Genninger's "Re-cultivating/Ricoltivare" The Venice Glass Week

In a darkened room in Palazzo Loredan, currently housing the Venice Glass Week HUB, a light illuminates a small island sprouting plant-like tentacles. It is the work of Leslie Ann Genninger, an American artist based in Venice and a regular contributor to the festival. For Re-cultivating/Ricoltivare, Genninger took elements of vintage Murano chandeliers and reimagined them as botanical elements in an “elegant disruption of this iconic and ubiquitous arts object,” writes curator Doreen Schmid. The formal, structured design of the chandelier has been reenvisaged as untamable nature. Pale green, gold, light blue and pastel pink curls of glass blossom from an organically shaped form reminiscent of a tiny landmass in the lagoon. As Genninger explains, it thus reflects the fragility of Venice’s watery surroundings and the disappearing barene or mudflats that once teemed with flora and fauna.  

Masked Glass

Felekşan Onar’s installation #GetmePPE The Venice Glass Week

In the same exhibition, Felekşan Onar’s installation #GetmePPE uses the qualities of glass to comment on the effect of single-use coronavirus protection on the environment. Masks in white, black and yellow glass overflow from a bin and litter the floor, reminding us of our common responsibility towards the environment. Glass is both fragile and durable, thus making a simultaneous reference to the vulnerability of the environment and to the indestructible nature of the waste we are polluting it with. The glass facemasks become like “detritus from a remote past, almost in the manner of an archaeological artifact,” reads the description. 

A Conceptual Chair

Christopher Kerr-Ayer’s "Industrial Stool" at the Venice Glass Week Brady Connelly

Also located in Palazzo Loredan is the HUB Under35, a space dedicated to young artists to aid those just beginning their careers in the sector. One exhibit is Christopher Kerr-Ayer’s Industrial Stool, in which glass becomes disconcertingly structural. Four delicate legs and the screw element for regulating the height of the seat are constructed in glass, demonstrating its versatility to imitate other materials. At the same time, the piece has a post-modern playfulness stemming from the use of fragile glass as the structural support, rendering the stool unusable and therefore more conceptual than functional.  

A Breakable Chain

Edgardo Osorio’s "Not All Chains Deter" Leonardo Duggento for Fondazione Berengo

Over on the island of Murano, the center of Venice’s glass industry, Fondazione Berengo’s exhibition Glass to Glass explores the material in the realm of contemporary design. The show celebrates the “endless creative possibilities of progressive art and design in glass after a highly challenging eighteen months.” In collaboration with Murano glass producer WonderGlass, the exhibition presents everything from a chaise longue to a rocking chair. In many pieces, the glass seems to mimic other materials, shaking off its reputation as delicate or decorative. Edgardo Osorio’s Not All Chains Deter is another conceptual reframing of glass. The snaking chain in vivid turquoise glass is exaggerated in scale, focusing attention on the form of the links and the incongruous use of such a fragile material. As such, the chain comes to represent connection and resilience rather than restriction and imprisonment. 

Forgotten Flora 

Alessia Fuga's Bric-à-Brac collection Punta Conterie

Also on the island of Murano, Punta Conterie — a creative hub, exhibition space and restaurant — is showing the Bric-à-Brac collection by glass artist Alessia Fuga. Her delicate glass plants and flowers are exhibited in the hub’s florists. The plants Fuga has chosen to represent grow spontaneously in nature and are, in contrast to those sold in the shop, rarely considered of decorative value. They sprout from ceramic pots and vintage trinket boxes, whose lids seem to have been prised open by the overgrowing vegetation. Fuga describes the plants as “able to find a way to express their life force despite the environment that is unsuitable and unwelcoming.”

Turkish Delight 

A necklace from The Venist Collection: Loukoum - Cintemani by Zabou Zabou

Back on the mainland at the Edmond à Venise concept store, one collection highlights the global history of Venice’s glass that once connected east and west. Jewelry artist Zabou collaborated with Murano glass artists of the Cathedral workshop and bead artist Muriel Balensi to create The Venist Collection: Loukoum - Cintemani. Zabou describes the jewelry as “ludique and playful”, combining elements evocative of Venice’s historic relationship with Istanbul such as byzantine glass, silk tassels, Ottoman pendants, and pearls. Loukoum, or turkish delight, are “Istanbul's favorite gelly candies of all colours confectioned since 18th century in small cubes dusted with icing sugar.” Several necklaces feature opaque cube beads in pastel colours representing rose, lemon and pistachio loukoums. Cintemani, instead, is a signature Ottoman design composed of the three dots and two waves thought to have originated in China. In Zabour’s collection, it becomes a striking pendant for necklaces.

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