15.03.2011

"Robar coi oci". Stealing eyes.

thoughts on a conversation with Antonio Caprotti

Recently, I had the chance to visit (obviously not by chance), in the beautiful city of Monza, Antonio Caprotti’s extraordinary and splendid lighting "atelier" - probably the oldest in Italy -.

Meetings with Antonio Caprotti are in general short and sweet, normal for your typical native of Monza and Brianza, he knows how to value time, he doesn’t waste it and - God bless him! – he doesn’t make you waste it either.

This time it was really rather nice to spend a little more time together than normal and discuss certain aspects of the Murano glassmaking industry, he was not only curious and interested but also impressed, and prompted me to write them down.

I took up his suggestion, with immense pleasure, because I realise aspects of Murano life are either unknown or simply considered as anecdotes which a touch of "island" legendary.

It all started with a question he asked me about how the Murano glassmaking industry was coping, knowing that the current economic crisis and credit crunch has not spared the island’s enterprises. He continued by asking me if Murano would ride it out or would this ancient trade and tradition, so entwined with the history of Venice, disappear. A tradition which rightly and truly represents the crafting excellence of Made in Italy.

He continued by asking about the master glassmakers and questions if the younger generations want to take up such a difficult career and to one day run the “Piazza”.* Despite widespread unemployment and recent job losses, I surprised him by saying that Murano would never close its factories and that I was sure that the local economy after the crisis would be much stronger than before.

And to support this theory of mine I reminded him of the crisis that struck the island’s trade in the first half of the 19th century and which led nearly all the glassmaking businesses to close in Murano. After 1814, (Vienna Congress) the Austrian Empire (after 1867 known as the Austria-Hungary Empire) “sovereign” of Venice tried, unceasingly using all possible means, to hinder Murano’s glass production to the advantage of promoting Bohemian glass. With this precise objective in mind, all Venetian glass was subject to an export tax, and an import tax was placed on the wood imported from Dalamazia used for firing the furnaces. This tax was extended to raw materials in general and to other products used for producing glass.

It was a dramatic period and nearly all the factories closed and the few that remained opened lost their specialists and experts. The inhabitants and natives of Murano began to lose interest in the glassmaking industry which was sure to disappear.

* Murano glassmakers are divided into Piazze – squares – which are groups of 3 or 4 workers master glassmaker known as a gaffer, assistant, labourer and boy helper.

It was only when Venice joined the Kingdom of Italy that aid was given to the glassmaking industry. Around the mid 1800’s there were signs of growing interest in Murano glass, and more specifically, the trend towards the Bohemian and English ornate heavy crystal was now moving back to a taste for the more elegant Murano blown glass, this was thanks to collectors who collected glass works dating back to the previous century.

When the glass museum opened in 1861, founded by the abbot Vincenzo Zanetti, a glass historian, the interest in artistic glass grew "saving" it, thanks to the number of artistic works displayed in the museum, but above all to all the old master glassmakers who could still hand down to the younger generations their skills, knowledge and passion returning life and prosperity to Venetian glass.

And this is history, probably unknown to many, but it is all filed away in the archives.

The economical and manufacturing crises suffered by the Murano industry have been numerous and each time this trade has overcome the difficulties and returned rejuvenated as if immortal, despite the events and attempts by man to destroy it.

If we go back even further in time and look at the crisis that hit this industry in the 18th century, not as well known as the pre-Risorgimento crisis but certainly was no less dramatic.

To be correct rather than crisis we should talk about decadence, a factor which penetrated Venice during the second half of the 1700's. Decadence above all in taste, which had suddenly shifted towards English glass. It seemed that Venetian nobility was “bored” with local glass and was looking for more ornamental “amusement” - something different to what was produced in Murano.

Once again it was the capacity and intelligence of a glassmaker, Giuseppe Briati, who managed to attract interest back to Venetian glass. He did this by developing a brilliant and sparkling sodium-potassium glass which could compete with the glass imported from Bohemia and England.

Briati was also the inventor of the “ciocca” the crystal or multicoloured chandelier enriched with superbly and expertly crafted decorative floral detailing (the word “ciocca” comes from the Venetian word for a bunch of flowers). In fact this chandelier was an immediate success enhancing the beautiful and magnificent Venetian palaces along The Grand Canal and the most famous being Ca’ Rezzionico, the name given to this classic chandelier.

If history consoles us showing us that after an economical crisis Murano enjoys a period of wealth and growth, confirming the law of physics where there is an action, there is a reaction, this is probably due to a powerful creative surge that arises in difficult moments and is translated into new ideas with a successful and positive impact on the market. In fact the events of recent years are proving this theory.

World War II had a devastating effect on the Murano glassworks. Master glassmakers enrolled in the army, a market reduced to bones certainly did hot help development and growth enjoyed up until the 30’s a period rich in ideas. Just think about how Murano reinterpreted the liberty style, pieces which represent some of the most important artistic qualities of the entire history of this Venetian island!

The war drained Murano of its life. Important and acknowledged glassworks survived by producing light bulbs, ink-pots, reflectors for bicycles, a few examples amongst many. After a few years of producing these glass articles, it is surprising how quickly Murano came back to life, offering new artistic creations incorporating past traditions and continuity in production, originating from a positive approach in a particular historical context, confirming the unique personality and originality of this island.

The 50's gave life to Italian Design. The war naturally brought a post-war crisis in the following years. There was demand, but no production means and above all no financial resources.
It was possible to see a future potential and businesses invested their modest resources to achieve this objective.

The factories began to repopulate, the younger generation were attracted by the possibility of employment. Unfortunately, salaries were miserable as companies neither had capital nor the revenues to pay decent wages.

The young workers (future glassmakers - gaffers) were eager to learn and were willing to commit themselves and make sacrifices.

First rule: “robar coi oci” which means watch carefully, learn and memorise the steps, processes, times before using “el fero” (the tool in this case the blowpipe).

Those were times when the glassmakers, gaffers, were hard and used methods which today seem totally unacceptable. These “methods" did not create new talents but forged temperament and motivation in the young workers so they would be able to face future challenges.

Wages were very low and it was only the possibility of coming into contact with the glassmaker that permitted you to “robar coi oci”...

This brings to mind a story an elderly glassmaker once told me about when he was a boy, just after the war. His wages were a pot of hot embers that were used in the furnaces for melting the glass.

A lot of his fellow workers received the same wages. These hot embers were used to heat their homes in the cold and very damp winters and for cooking.

During the winter evenings through the dark and island fog you could see lights moving, these lights were the young and not so young workers returning home after a hard day’s work with their precious “bronse” - Venetian for embers. A fascinating image, almost poetic, but at the same time sad, as it expresses the economical difficulties Murano was facing.

The 50’s were the beginning of the economical boom and many of those young workers who had “robar coi oci” by putting their experience into practice became master glassmakers, gaffers, and I have had the enormous pleasure of working with some of them.

Let’s turn to the economical crisis we are living in currently, we are riddled with worry and it seems that everything is coming to an end, Murano, its history, its people.

Sadness is widespread amongst my colleagues, which is worse than the complaints, a sense of defeat seems to loom in the air.

It is important to remember that between 1974 and 1975, not so far back in the past, we had the first big energy crisis (someone still remembers "No car Sundays", they were not known as ecological Sundays back then) which had a negative effect and impact on Murano and we can easily compare that crisis with the current climate.

The reaction was incredible and in a short space of time we saw workers who had been on temporary unemployment benefit working long overtime hours. I think we can still say to the younger generations “robar coi oci”, a way of learning you will never forget, and which sooner or later will repay you, not just in money but in personal satisfaction. “Robar coi oci” is a metaphor which, we today, can translate into the desire and will to learn a trade.

We, who have the privilege of running businesses which are unique, have to accept the fact that we have to combine the business with continuous commitment, challenges and responsibility, not just to survive but to flourish, know how to rethink ourselves maintaining this tradition, an excellence of our Made in Italy.