The Experimentalists of Murano Glass:
Ercole Barovier, Carlo Scarpa, and Fulvio Bianconi
by Carl Liggett,
Specialist, Modern Design
Senior Specialist, Modern Design
With multiple record-breaking results achieved at auction in recent years, the strength and depth of the current market for important 20th-century Italian glass is hard to deny. Yet for many interested in glass from Murano, the genre can seem a discouragingly exclusive and elusive field. Who are the important Italian glass designers and producers? For which styles and techniques are they known? How can one recognize the best works and find fine original examples? For us and many others naturally attracted to the beauty of Italian glass, the enjoyment of the field only increases with more knowledge of the techniques, innovations, and history of Murano.
In our Modern Design + Post-War & Contemporary Art auction on Thursday, February 25, 2021, Toomey & Co. Auctioneers is pleased to offer an impressive collection of important and also accessible Italian glass. For those who are new to this material as well as longtime collectors, we are providing an overview of a few of the preeminent innovators of Murano glass alongside some relevant examples of their works available on February 25.
Ercole Barovier (1889-1974)
As with many art and design movements, the Murano glass industry was about to achieve its own revolution of modernization around the turn of the 20th century.
Centuries before Venetian glass had reached its historical peak of influence and market dominance, but by the end of the 1800s, many glassmakers were largely still looking to the past by creating works with conventional techniques in an outmoded style.
Ercole Barovier’s ancestors were initially no exception, but with their Coppe e Spiral (“Spiraling Goblets”) presented at the 1895 exhibition at the Venice Glass Museum, they became among the first glassmakers of Murano to react to the emerging Art Nouveau style.
In the early 1900s, the Baroviers continued to flirt with further innovation and, in 1919, Ercole Barovier joined the company, then called Vetreria Artistica Barovier (today Barovier & Toso). Ercole would quickly take his family’s growing fascination with emerging styles and long history of glass mastery into the modern era with a heightened creativity and relentless sense of experimentation that would become the hallmark of his near 50-year career in glass.
Remarking on how Murano glass artisans carefully produced his now heralded designs, Barovier explained the lofty aesthetic mission and painstaking perfectionism that led to his glass advancements over several decades:
“… the main source of inspiration is the furnace: the artist must stand side by side with the glass-maker, whose task is to carry out a faithful reproduction and interpretation not just of the sketch, but of the designer’s very soul […] The designer must be in spiritual communication with the glass-maker and follow with care his execution of the object, correcting him if necessary […] At times, the object produced is set aside, thrown away, because one feels that it is imperfect. If the desired result is not achieved through one path, then another must be undertaken […] At long last the art glass piece is accomplished […] How many models of new glass objects have I produced in my forty years of activity? The answer astonishes even me: thousands, each of which bears the traces of a part of my life and soul.” — from Art of the Barovier: Glassmakers in Murano 1866-1972 by Marina Barovier (Arsenale Editrice, 2007, pp. 22-23)
Glasswork by Ercole Barovier from Toomey & Co. Auctioneers
Some of Ercole Barovier’s earliest work at Vetreria Artistica Barovier, such as his famous Mosaico vases from around 1924, largely built upon his family’s formidable technical expertise, in this case, its prior work with murrina, a glassmaking process in which colored designs are rendered by cutting the glass cane, or rods of specific colors, into small cross sections and then assembling them to create a striking mosaic. During the Art & Design auction on March 8, 2020, Toomey & Co. Auctioneers sold a Barovier Mosaico vase (Lot 416) showcasing this brilliant technique for $19,500. The estimate was set at only $1,000-2,000 for this remarkable example due to a minor, stable crack; without this, the vase would have no doubt achieved an even higher price.
In 1929, Barovier’s curious nature was rewarded even further with the incredibly well-received Primavera series of works in an Art Deco style. This line was itself an accident of experimentation, and despite numerous efforts to recreate the process in which it was created, the characteristic pale white craquele lactescent glass was never successfully reproduced after the initial run. The reception of this line only solidified Barovier’s innovative mindset and the value he found in experimentation. Thus, two primary fields of innovation emerged and persisted throughout his career: mosaic experiments with murrina and experiments in ‘coloring without melting.’
The first offering in the Italian glass section of the sale on February 25 is a heavy and thick-walled A Mugnoni vase (Lot 122) by Ercole Barovier from 1938. As this work is composed entirely of clear glass, it may be surprising to learn that it was in large part a result of Barovier’s prior experiments in ‘coloring without melting.’ Some no-melt inclusions necessitated the use of thick and heavy blown glass, such as Barovier’s famous Crepuscolo series with iron wool inclusions.
The resulting popularity of this thick blown glass became an innovation of its own, and in turn led to increased demand for the A Mugnoni series and similar lines. Through this experimentation, Barovier transformed thick blown glass from something unheard of in Murano into a new characteristic style for which the Venetian island’s makers would become inextricably linked and world-renowned.
Barovier’s Barbarico vases (Lots 123 & 124) also represent highly successful results of his experiments in ‘coloring without melting.’ In these works, the technique is again transformed to create a highly textured and ‘unmelted’ surface characteristic, resembling but quite different from the corroso surface technique; whereas with the Aborigeni vase (Lot 140), Barovier also utilizes ‘coloring without melting,’ but in this case in an internally decorated manner.
Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978)
Another well-represented Italian glass designer in the auction on February 25 is Carlo Scarpa, who is equally lauded for his refined modern architecture and furniture design and the understated yet elegant intricacy of his glasswork.
Scarpa was born in 1906 in Venice, where he would continue to live for most of his life and complete much of his notable work. He studied architecture at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia and graduated in 1926 as a Professor of Architectural Drawing, although he never formally sat for his architecture exam.
Instead, Scarpa began his career in glass at M.V.M. Cappellin, replacing Vittorio Zecchin as artistic director, before moving on to Venini, where he also became artistic director under Paolo Venini in 1934.
Although Scarpa produced a very impressive body of work at M.V.M. Cappellin, it was with Venini that his impact and influence on Murano glass would truly be felt.
Similar to Ercole Barovier, Scarpa was keenly interested in glass experimentation and he developed many novel techniques, evident in his reticello, bollicine, mezza filigrana, and murrini opache lines of work.
Glasswork by Carlo Scarpa from Toomey & Co. Auctioneers
Above all, it is the subtlety of Scarpa’s designs, the surface treatment, the minimalism, and the bold yet spare color choices that he utilized, which sets his work apart. This can especially be appreciated in the textured works for which he is well known, including those fashioned from corroso, inciso, and battuto techniques.
In the auction on February 25, we have a striking red Battuto vase (Lot 137), made around 1940, which expresses these subtleties especially well. Whereas, a rare A Fili e a Fasce bowl (Lot 136) from 1942 also shows these nuanced surface and color choices, but in a substantially contrasting palette and form. Although quite different, both works exude the subtle composure that immediately reads as the work of Scarpa.
The Architectural Philosophy and Legacy of Carlo Scarpa
By the time Carlo Scarpa left Venini in 1947, he had spent about 20 years working on glass in Murano before shifting his focus to concentrate almost exclusively on architecture and furniture design.
This seemingly separate practice in fact helps shed light on Scarpa’s stylistic motivations in glass. With both architecture and glasswork, he was noted for his reverence for, not rejection of, formal historical precedents while still creating utterly modern work.
As an architect, Scarpa was a master of not only broad forms, space, and the control of light, but also the smallest details and material characteristics. This approach characterized his glass designs as well. During his time, Scarpa was admired by and garnered comparisons to such greats of modern architecture as Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Kahn.
In a 2016 profile of Scarpa in The New York Times, critic Nancy Hass stated, “His architecture was an antidote to the era’s brazen showiness: subtle and natural instead of flashy and proudly artificial.” We think a similar sentiment could be expressed about Scarpa’s work in glass.
Fulvio Bianconi (1915-1996)
As it turned out, Carlo Scarpa’s departure from Venini to pursue his architecture career in 1947 coincided with another multi-talented artist with an experimental spirit making the acquaintance of Paolo Venini.
Like Scarpa, Fulvio Bianconi was a graduate of the Accademia de Belle Arti in Venice, but instead of architecture he had been pursuing a career as a graphic artist, illustrator, and industrial designer.
Bianconi had already found success in that field, having worked for a number of noteworthy Italian companies, including the publishers Garzanti and Rizzoli, and it was thus on a business trip that he happened to meet Venini.
An experimentalist in his own right, Paolo Venini must have been intrigued by imagining the stylistic innovations Bianconi could bring to the company and quickly offered him the appealing position of artistic director in the wake of Scarpa’s tenure. It is easy to see the graphic and painterly qualities in Bianconi’s work that had attracted Venini.
Considering his prior work, Bianconi was very much in touch with current trends and styles, but he was also a quick study of the historical techniques of Murano. Like Scarpa and also Barovier before him, Bianconi was able to use these techniques in his own way to create some of the most innovative and recognizable works of the era.
Glasswork by Fulvio Bianconi from Toomey & Co. Auctioneers
A new interpretation of conventional techniques can easily be seen in Bianconi’s figural pieces from the late 1940s and early 1950s, which read as especially cartoonish caricatures compared to more typically subdued Murano figurines. Similarly, Bianconi’s iconic Fazzoletto vases (Lots 130–132) created in tandem with Paolo Venini also show this quality of melding old with new.
It was, however, the ground-breaking graphic qualities in works such as his Pezzatti, Fasce Orizzontali, and especially his Macchi vases that seemed truly ahead of their time, demanded attention, and helped elevate Murano works in glass into the realm of modern art. This quality is well expressed in Bianconi’s Spicchi vase (Lot 133) from 1950, which was exhibited at the 25th Biennale of Venice the same year.
Bianconi’s Rettangolare vase (Lot 134) likewise bears traces of his graphic art and industrial design background. The rectangular, light blue glass form is adorned with a horizontally applied “connect-the-dots” style zig-zag. One of the more dramatic pieces on offer by Bianconi is a rare abstract, blown bowl (Lot 135), which he personally executed in 1955. This example features clear glass decorated with red and blue confetti-like dots and squiggles. Playful and slightly challenging, this piece expresses the boundary-pushing spirit of Bianconi’s best work.
Considered together, the Bianconi glass that we have available at auction presents the wide range of expressive and painterly qualities that have made its designer one of the most sought-after Murano glass artists on the market today.
The three ‘experimentalists’ covered above played an integral role in pulling an overly traditional Murano glass industry into an exciting new era during the early-to-mid 20th century. While many other artists and glassmakers contributed to the evolution of this ancient craft, the ingenuity and efforts of Ercole Barovier, Carlo Scarpa, and Fulvio Bianconi were undeniably pivotal. Their design experiments essentially reshaped the creative landscape and not only made the field lucrative, but brought Murano glass fully within the sphere of modern art. Contemporary designers and collectors continue to draw inspiration from the sublime works of this trio of glass luminaries.