The history of fine Venetian crafts
Venice, Italy, a cluster of over a hundred small isles on the Adriatic Sea, was once the most affluent city in Europe. For centuries, its traders plied overland and sea routes to the far reaches of Arabia, Asia, and Africa, returning with precious gems, perfumes, silks, and spices. These luxurious items were then distributed across Europe.
Venetian maritime and political power has long since waned. Yet this UNESCO World Heritage Center, with its winding byways, artistic and architectural masterpieces, graceful bridges, and water-lapped canals, currently welcomes some 30 million tourists a year. Though many of its shops abound with inexpensive, mass-produced tourist items, Venice is also a vibrant center of contemporary, quality art and crafts.
Though luxurious Italian products, like designer clothing, silks and velvets, leather goods, ceramics, and jewelry, are all readily available, Venice also boasts a selection of handmade arts, crafts, and collectibles all its own. Many are found in tiny artisan shops along its narrow, stony paths and open squares.
Today's fine Venetian crafts
Burano, a Venetian isle reached by a 40-minute ride from central Venice via vaporetto, a water taxi, is famed for its exquisite needle lace. The art of this delicate craft, whose pinholes and contours suggest sea-algae, has passed from mother to daughter through generations. The Martina Vidal Venezia Atelier lies just steps off Burano’s vaporetto stop, tucked among its charming, rainbow-hued houses. In addition to a collection of fine, contemporary lace doilies, earrings, linens, collars, and bridal veils in many styles and prices, this shop also offers needle lace courses and guided tours of its private historical Lace Museum. A local lace maker, tatting with traditional needle, thread, and scissors, is also on the premises. (Details may be found at www.martinavidal.com.)
Murano, another isle reached by vaporetto, is famed for its distinctive, airy glass creations. From the Middle Ages, their priceless production and refining techniques, passed down from father to son, were closely guarded secrets. They still are – though divulging them is no longer punishable by death. This artistic exclusivity, combined with distinctive shapes, shades, and beauty, is what makes contemporary Murano glass so collectible.
Today, the isle hosts hundreds of glass factories, old and new, hand crafting vases, stemware, chandeliers, figurines, as well as freeform glass sculptures. Some, in kiln-side presentations, demonstrate how pieces-to-be are liquidized into glowing globs, gathered on blowpipes, then skillfully worked and reworked until they attain their desired shapes.
In addition, a handful of passionate Murano artists, like Davide Penso, international exhibitor and educator, work in studios of their own. In addition to Seaweed, a decorative line of imaginative, undulating, glass “fronds,” he designs and creates stunning lampworked earrings and necklaces, by melting bits of slender glass rods over small flames.
Penso also specializes in vibrant lampwork beads, suggestive of Murano’s historic glass trade beads. Visitors can try their hands at glass blowing or beadwork at Penso’s Murano Glass Academy or through private lessons. (Further information is found at www.davidepenso.it and davidepenso.com.)
Hand crafted contemporary pieces are also available at select Murano factory showrooms. Choice items by masters like Andrea Tagliopietra and Ivan Compagnol, also reach high-end outlets at glorious San Marco Square on “mainland” Venice. Though imitations abound, genuine pieces feature artist signatures within the glass itself, indications they were hand blown, and/or accompanying certificates of authenticity.
Hand marbled paper
The art of hand crafting marbled-paper, which arrived via Turkey, is a living Venetian tradition. Il Papiro, a lovely shop located near San Marco, offers not only rainbowed stationery, boxes, and journals, but also tooled leather books featuring classic marbled endpapers. In addition, visitors can observe the age-old marbling technique on site. First, subtly colored plant-based or synthetic pigments are placed or spattered, one by one, in a wide, shallow, water-filled tray. As their surface is manipulated with whisks, combs, rakes or styluses, swirling shell, snail, or flared peacock-like patterns emerge. These are then gently transferred to absorbent paper or fabric and set to dry. Each piece is unique, a work of art. (Further information is available at www.ilpapirofirenze.com.)
Artful, hand-made masks
Colorful masks, evoking the Carnival of Venice, a joyous, two-week, city-wide celebration, peer from shops and kiosks all over the city. Their quality varies. On the other hand, Ca’Macana, a shop located beyond the Grand Canal amid splendid churches, palaces, and art galleries, offers papier-mache masks crafted through time-honored techniques – the best of the best. Moreover, their selection, over sixty types ranging from classic to contemporary, is outstanding.
Traditional bauta, bautina, and volto masks, which allow merrymakers to eat, drink, and talk while worn, are faithfully reproduced from authentic paintings and illustrations in single shades. Others are adorned with hand-painted diamonds, gold or silver leaf, and raised, plaster arabesques.
Ca’Macana also carries plain and painted plague doctor masks, worn by 17th century healers who stuffed their bizarre, beak-like noses with “anti-biotic” herbs, and spices as protection from disease. Over time, however, their grim visages became Carnival reminders of death in the midst of life.
Ca’Macana masks that depict stock characters of the Commedia del’Arte, an early form of Italian theater, also vary from simple to sumptuous. Their Colombina, an eye-mask popular for comfort and suitability for men and women alike, however, is their most fanciful of all. Scores feature traditional, cheery diamond or floral patterns embellished with raised stucco swirls and burnished gold trim. Others boast sparkling Swarovski gems and aqua, fuchsia, or hot pink-dyed peacock feathers. More extravagant ones, bloom with actual gilded, hand-folded Florentine tarot, floral, mosaic, or music-themed paper fan “crowns.”
Ca’Macana artisans not only create Carnival masks, but also offer mask-making workshops for interested parties. Participants, while crafting masks of their choice, also learn their history, meaning, and about the Carnival of Venice itself. (Learn more at www.camacana.com.)
In addition to fascinating sights and experiences, Venice offers visitors a kaleidoscope of fine, handmade art and collectibles, large and small. Memories, over time, may fade. Carnival masks, marbled paper, Burano lace, and Murano glass, however, may last a lifetime – if not longer.
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