In the green courtyard of his Venetian house, Marcantonio Brandolini d’Adda shows me one of his glass sculptures. “It was specifically designed for the space,” the 31-year-old says of the large suspended form surrounded by a canopy of jasmine. As the dappled light captures the textured green glass, it illuminates the technique that Brandolini d’Adda began experimenting with in 2016: coating blown glass with cotissi – fragments left over from previous firings. Earlier this year, London gallery Paterson Zevi presented a series of these great cotissi ships. “To make the technique work, we had to design a new tool: a large iron table that heats the pieces of glass so that they stick together,” says Brandolini d’Adda.
It is this fusion of tradition and innovation that makes Brandolini d’Adda something of a poster child for an art form that is high on the cultural agenda. This year is the United Nations International Year of Glass, with a program of events and projects to celebrate its “essential role” in society. This coincides with a re-appreciation of glass as a work of art. There are exhibitions from the material’s leading lights – including Larry Bell’s explorations of light and space at Dia Beacon, New York (and an edition with Avant Arte), and Dale Chihuly’s vibrant installations at Schantz Galleries in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. There are big name collaborations such as James Turrell’s limited edition with Lalique (launch October), while events like the British Glass Biennale (August 26-October 1) and Venice Glass Week (17-25 September) will have a #iyog2022 sparkle.
Brandolini d’Adda’s pieces are made in Murano, where the city’s glassblowing production has been centered since the late 13th century. In addition to creating his own art, he is the creative director of Laguna~B – the Murano-made homeware brand founded by his mother, Marie, who died in 2013. “Murano is looking to find a new identity,” he says. . “What changes is how you value [glass]how you position it, how you tell the story of the craft.
Dana Arbib, a Tel Aviv-born, New York-based fashion designer, began working with Venetian glassblowers in 2020. Her creations inhabit the space between design, craftsmanship and fine art; oversized vessels play with surface flourishes – from globules to handle-like flourishes. “They are inspired by Italian glassmakers like Venini and Barovier & Toso,” she says. “The aesthetic I want to hit is something that feels old but modern.” It was not an easy balance to strike, working with an oven that Arbib describes as “very old-school; full of gruff, sweaty, chain-smoking Italians… But I wanted to work with the masters. It took me about a year and a half to push gently, sometimes a little harder, to get them to do what I wanted to do.
“It’s not an easy world to enter, especially for a woman,” admits Alice Diaz de Santillana, 34. She started working on Murano four years ago and currently has an exhibition at Palazzo Barbaro in Venice. “I also bring a last name that has some weight, which created a bit of weirdness.” Diaz de Santillana is a descendant of the Venini dynasty of glassmakers: her great-grandfather founded the brand which was then passed on to her grandfather, Ludovico Diaz de Santillana, while her father and aunt – Alessandro Diaz de Santillana and Laura de Santillana – both worked as glass artists.
“My dream is to make an exhibition of the four generations”, continues Diaz de Santillana, a former fashion designer whose first glass experiments were based on the idea of a pocket. “I’ve been playing around with colors and patterns, but recently my work has become more raw.” Some of his new table pieces are sprinkled with colored glass powders, others have a “bubble situation” or are hand carved. A series of larger floor pieces, inspired by Roman archaeological columns, double as stools and side tables. “I can’t tell you how much the glassblowers hated me when I did that,” she grimaced. “They weigh around 20kg each and are blown freehand… It’s really hard work.”
The person most often credited with bringing contemporary artists to Murano is Adriano Berengo, who opened a kiln and studio there in 1989. Glassmaker, his exhibition at the Fondazione Berengo Art Space in Murano, includes works by Rose Wylie, Laure Prouvost, Sean Scully and Judy Chicago. Meanwhile, Ai Weiwei’s monumental glass work The human comedy – the largest suspended sculpture ever made of Murano glass, made up of more than 2,000 bone-shaped components – will be presented on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore from August 27. “Our drive and desire is to show people that great and unexpected things can be done with this material,” adds Berengo.
Right now, the Venice Biennale is upping the ante on the “glass as art” debate. In the central pavilion of the Biennale, curator Cecilia Alemani has included the candy-colored cast glass sculptures of Andra Ursuța, born in Romania and based in New York, in her Milk of Dreams exhibition (before Ursuța’s solo exhibition at David Zwirner in London next month). And at Chiesa di Santa Maria della Visitazione, an ornately painted Renaissance church, Czech artist Rony Plesl created the site-specific installation Trees grow from the skyin which glass sculptures are cast from tree trunks, rising over 2m high and refracting light through textured, opaque surfaces.
Plesl’s pieces were created in the glass town of Bělá pod Bezdězem in the Czech Republic, using the new Vitrum Vivum glass molding technology, a process pioneered by Czech master glassmaker Jiří Šín. “It’s like a revolution in glass; it allows you to cast it like you would bronze,” says Plesl, who has been working with glass for more than four decades but has recently taken a more conceptual approach to fine art. “We are buying a property in the Czech countryside which will house a 5m long kiln and we have big plans to invite international artists to collaborate.”
In Lalique’s century-old factory in Alsace, a collaboration with Damien Hirst led the artist to commission a crystal version of his complex The severed head of Medusa sculpture. And the factory itself is changing with the times: the new oven installed 12 years ago is powered by electricity instead of gas.
Earlier this year, soaring gas prices caused Murano kilns to shut down production. But in some cases, it turns out to be a catalyst for change towards more sustainable production methods. “Small workshops, very small production, small electric ovens – this is the future of Murano,” says Brandolini d’Adda. And at iDogi, significant changes are underway: “We are working on creating one of the first hybrid ovens powered by hydrogen and gas in Venice,” says President Domenico Caminiti. Murano maker is responsible for some of the world’s most extravagant chandeliers, as well as the modern exterior tree of light facility that can be seen by those traveling from the airport by boat. During Venice Glass Week, it will be fully illuminated – a beacon of the new Murano.