Norberto and I have been trying and trying to coordinate our schedules so that I could to go out with him to the Murano fornace when they produced his work. First, the factories were closed for August, then I was gone, then he was in Tunisia, then the right colors weren’t available…I was beginning to think it would never happen. We finally managed it one morning last week, and although I’m fairly familiar with Murano and glassmaking, it’s always a fascinating to witness this process, and watch the pros at work.
The factory is Vetreria S. Angelo, a company that originated in 1859 but that has a complicated history involving buyouts and mergers over several decades. Norberto uses different factories for the different types of works he creates, and likes this one for these particular pieces, partly because he’s known everyone there forever (Dario, the manager, is his cousin), but also because he likes the proprietary colors they have available, and understands the expertise of the maestro Walter, his team, and how well they all work together.
It was chilly the morning we took the vaporetto from Fondamenta Nuova over to Murano at 7a, when the glass factory day starts (thank heaven for caffè macchiato, that’s all I can say). We warmed up right away once we entered the factory space, as the numerous ovens do a great job of keeping everything toasty…and then some. I couldn’t help thinking of the heat those furnaces would generate in the summer, and how anyone managed to tolerate it. Norberto says they shorten the hours when the heat gets to be too much. (He recounts the time when he was a teenager in the 60s, and there were four to five thousand glass workers on Murano. At noon, he says, workers would pour out of the factories onto the fondamente, rushing hither and yon to make the most of the one hour before they had to get back to work. Sometimes in mid summer when it was really hot, he recalls with a big grin, somebody at one end of a canal would call out, issue a shrieking whistle, and throw himself into the lagoon, and subito, like popcorn on a grill, 4,000 other men followed suit. That scene’s going in the movie, I thought.)
These ovens run constantly, by the way; they’re shut down only once a year, in August, when everyone goes on vacation. When a furnace is shut down, the glass that remains inside shatters, and must be cleaned out completely; it then takes an entire week to get them cranked up once again so they’re ready for use. It’s simply not worth the effort for a time period of less than a month.
Norberto had a list of the pieces they would create that day, along with the color combinations, etc. They were similar to some they’d created in the past, so the team already had a bit of a roadmap. They took a little time to first review the game plan, and then launched right in.
(I won’t waste blog space doing any sort of dissertation on glass-making âˆ’ as if I could âˆ’ and please excuse the wild variations in color-temp in these photos, as my poor point-and-shoot had no idea how to white balance between the tungsten, halogen and daylight swirling around the space.)
I must say, they certainly make it look easy. It was quite evident that as they worked, the two men assisting Walter seemed almost able to read his mind as they took turns hoisting the heavy glass from the fire to the work bench, positioning it so he could open and shape the molten mass, reversing, turning, re-heating, flattening, blowing, re-shaping, burnishing, and surface heating the vase-to-be with a blow torch, until it reached just the right size, shape and color composition. Once it met everybody’s approval, the piece is perched on a rotator inside another oven, where it cools slowly to ambiente temperature. It’s then cut according to design, and the edges smoothed, and sent back to Norberto’s studio, where he decorates them by hand if necessary.
Below is the final result of the above work. There’s also onyx, an amethyst and amber blend, a deep green and amber, and aubergine. Some will be decorated with gold leaf. Stunning, aren’t they?
If you’d like to stop by his studio, Norberto’s on the Fondamenta de la Misericordia 2612, just beyond the trattoria La Fondamenta (great pizza, btw) at the Ponte dei Servi.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I do rep Norberto for U.S. sales…but you can see why!