Glass objects of the series "Rigati“ (1938) and "Tessuti“ (1940), photo © Ettore Bellini
Vitreous spheres of knowledge
by Annette Tietenberg
Sep 7, 2012

Only a stone’s throw away from the Arsenale and the pavilions in the Giardini, where at David Chipperfield’s behest the search is on for one form or another of common ground, a veritable mega-event got underway, albeit unnoticed by most visitors to the Architecture Biennale. On the eve of the exhibition’s premiere the who’s-who of northern Italy’s upper classes willingly flocked to the Isola di San Giorgio. In August of all times, the prime holiday month! The table in the marina offering prosecco and water looked to be a good 30 meters long. In elegant attire and in the best of spirits the inhabitants of the Serenissima had gathered to celebrate a 20th-century Venice architect who set aesthetic and political standards: Carlo Scarpa.

Having completed his architectural degree at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice, Carlo Scarpa chose not to offer his services to Mussolini and bow down to the wishes of a client who ruled over a Fascist state; instead he elected to bring his artistic imagination to bear in the glass workshops in Murano rather than in the urban space. Having had the opportunity to gain primary hands-on experience at Cappellin he joined the Venini manufactory in 1932, where he was promoted to the position of artistic director in 1934. Together with Paolo Venini, for 15 years he evolved countless refined shapes, shades and manufacturing techniques, which still form the backbone of Venetian glass production today.

Scarpa’s deep affinity with the local crafts tradition, coupled with his willingness to embrace and experiment with the properties of a variety of materials, gave rise to 300 breathtakingly beautiful glass vessels and bowls that are now sparkling in the light of the lagoon. Curator Marino Barovier has brought them together from private collections and museums and thanks to the congenially reticent exhibition display masterminded by Selldorf Architects has succeeded in creating an absolutely dazzling show in the west wing of the erstwhile convent on Isola di San Giorgio. A superb prelude to the upcoming joint activities of the Giorgio Cini und Pentagram foundations who have made it their mission to support the research and presentation of Venetian glass production, initiate conferences and publications, and organize a series of monographic exhibitions in an effort to compile a complete catalog raisonné of Venini’s vitreous creations. An unexpected stroke of luck came when in the course of the research work documents thought to have fallen victim to a fire on the company premises in 1972 were uncovered in the archives of Venini. What emerged into view were photographs, design drawings and notes that have been used in the show but even more spectacularly in the catalog to provide an insight into the work of the architect.

The exhibition presents Scarpa’s vitreous universe in display cases, structured in chronological order and according to manufacturing techniques. The natural ease, indeed the apparent effortlessness with which Scarpa ably employed a knowledge of Classical Antiquity while staying abreast with the spirit of the times and in fact anticipating Postmodernism’s ironic connotations is indeed remarkable. Whether imitating white china (lattimo), mother-of-pearl (iridati) or varnish (laccati), referencing of archaeological excavations of antique glass (corrosi), creating patterns through mosaic-style panes of glass (murrine romane), structures through air bubbles (a bollicine), thin strips (mezza filigrana), white spirals (a spirali) or colored dots (apuntini) – Scarpa mastered it all to perfection. And there was more. He too invented new methods of layering and admixing pigments and powdered gold (sommerso) that enabled brush strokes in the glass. Many of his spectacular creations, among them the opaque Murrine bowls anticipating the Memphis style and his black-and-red vases featuring a textured varnish won acclaim among the experts as contributions to the Venice art biennials and illustrations in “domus” magazine.

Each object of glass is at once a precious one-off and part of a series. Which is precisely what makes the republican-spirited “common ground” à la Venezia so intriguing: glamorous individuals who excel amidst a communal fabric. Being from Venice, the architect Carlo Scarpa thus did not need inspiration from an Architecture Biennale to contemplate sustainability, appreciation of traditional values and the importance of craftsmanship. Far from wishing to subordinate the urban space to egocentric thinking, he refrained from building for building’s sake and instead focused on the interior, on what was inside. Still today his vitreous spheres of knowledge en miniature are welcomed to into the enclosures of our homes where they inspire their inhabitants to dream of fire and passion, the transformation of matter, the mysterious alchemist practices of Murano’s glassblowers and the precious beauty of the world. That it is indeed possible to make money from a desire for uniqueness and elegance has always been a well-accepted part of life in Venice. Accordingly there was a murmur of appreciation echoing through the “Stanze del Vetro”: Che bello!

Carlo Scarpa. Venini 1932-1947
through November 29, 2012
Skira has published a catalog (Italian and English edition) to accompany the exhibition.

"Murrine Romane” bowl with a sketch, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
The patterning “Murrine Romane”, caused by the tessellated use of glass panes (1936), photo © Fondazione Giorgio Cini-
Carlo Scarpa at the end of seventies, photo © Fondazione Giorgio Cini
Sketch by Carlo Scarpa, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
View into the exhibition, photo © Ettore Bellini
The “Corrosi” objects refer to excavations of ancient glasses, photo © Ettore Bellini
Vase of the "Corrosi“ series (1936-38), photo © Fondazione Giorgio Cini
Autumn colours characterize the “Variegati“ glasses, photo © Fondazione Giorgio Cini
The newly designed exhibition space "Le Stanze del Vetro“, photo © Ettore Bellini
The glasses “A bollicine” are one of the first designs of Carlo Scarpa for Venini, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
“A bollicine” sculpture, photo © Fondazione Giorgio Cini
“Incisi” vase from 1940, photo © Fondazione Giorgio Cini
Satined surfaces stand for the "Incisi“ series, photo © Ettore Bellini
Small air bubbles inside the glass build the structure of the "A bollicine“ objects, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Vase of the “A bollicine” series, photo © Fondazione Giorgio Cini
"Murrine opache“ bowl from the forties, photo © Fondazione Giorgio Cini
Black-red objects of the "Murrine“ set, photo © Ettore Bellini
The exhibition shows the work of Carlo Scarpa for Venini from 1932 to 1947, photo © Ettore Bellini
The "Sommersi“ objects result from new methods of layering and adding of pigments and gold dust, photo © Fondazione Giorgio Cini
Queuing in front of the exhibition’s entrance, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
The vernissage audience at the marina of Isola di San Giorgio, photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark