Rebecca Swirsky: Writer

London-based short story writer and critic

Venetian glassware

by rebeccaswirsky

A family affair

NO ARTIFICIAL light is used at the first British show by Laura de Santillana and Alessandro Diaz de Santillana, Venice-based siblings from the great Venini glassware dynasty. Instead, spring sunshine scribes and inhabits the sculptural glass shapes they have installed in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s 18th-century chapel. Whereas Paulo Venini, the glassware maestro, was lauded for designs that tether form to function, his grandchildren translate the medium’s possibilities into objects ambiguously located between mirror and painting, sculpture and book.

Glass—like the de Santillanas’ family—has a rich history. In 2,000BC Egyptian glass beads were considered as valuable as gold and semi-precious gems, and were traded widely. The Venetians were making glass by the eighth century, but the flourishing of the craft was linked to the arrival of Byzantine glassworkers fleeing Constantinople’s occupation by the Crusaders in 1204 and by the Ottomans in 1453. The city-state’s glass trade grew accordingly, aided by its strategic trading position between East and West.

In 1291 the industry was ordered to move to the island of Murano to safeguard Venice’s mainly wooden buildings against fires caused by glass furnaces. This isolation also made the glassmakers easier to control. They were both supervised and respected, and a law was passed in 1295 forbidding them to migrate, lest they take their knowledge with them. To encourage successive generations to stay in the trade, the Venetian government granted artisans higher social status and permission for their daughters to marry into premier Venetian families. The manoeuvre worked. Bequeathed from father to son, glass recipes or partite became wreathed in secrecy, fostering an insularity that persisted even beyond the Republic’s collapse in 1808.

Into this smouldering atmosphere of heritage and tradition came Paulo Venini (1895-1959), a fresh-faced Milanese law graduate, in 1921, bringing more modernist visions with him. Formidable in promotion, taste and, later, his own designs, Venini employed Carlo Scarpa, a renowned architect, and Fulvio Bianconi, an illustrator, as artistic designers. His company exhibited at the Venice Biennale and the Milan Triennale, and soon many others were copying its avant-garde style.

Fast-forward several years and the de Santillanas, who developed their skills working at Venini, have developed separate visual languages as artists, although they share a dynamic, fluid approach. Nudging the medium into the fine art world, they have created pieces in America, Italy, Venice, France and the Czech Republic, forging international artistic–rather than artisanal—reputations.

Mr Diaz de Santillana’s series of painterly mirrored works of blown glass and silver patina usher the atmosphere of Venice’s laguna into the chapel. They appear as undulating slabs of murky water, their ruffled surfaces like liquid indented by breeze—the Corinthians quote comes to mind, “For now we see through a glass, darkly”. His site-specific work “HS-YSP” (2011-15) arranges 13 pieces of glass on a wall, in a large, loose curve reminiscent of an ammonite.

Ms de Santillana says the pair often start from the same idea, before diverging into different processes. Indeed, if Mr Diaz de Santillana reflects the light in his work, Ms de Santillana draws it inward. Among the highlights of her exhibition is “Blue Octavo” (2014), referencing Kafka’s octavo-size notebooks, which the writer kept from 1917 to 1919. Resonating with the work of Edmund de Waal, a ceramicist, in its careful simplicity, “Blue Octavo” is composed of a white vitrine or “bookshelf” holding eight rectangular “glass books”, each made from blown compressed glass, and each containing a sealed interior space. Before the mouths of the books were sealed, white opal powder was poured in, settling into formations inside and making the chromatic properties of each unique. In direct reference to Kafka’s notebooks, seven of Laura’s books are an inky blue. Ms de Santillana explains that the “dark blue looks black, like clouds turning black in the twilight”.

The chapel’s contemplative, light-saturated space is a fitting environment for the works of these 21st-century glass maestros. Skilled in the sculptural syntax of glass and touched by Venini stardust, Ms de Santillana and her brother share new visions for this age-old material.

This article was first published in The Economist’s online blog Prospero

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