Murano’s Ancient Glass Industry Has Been Hit Particularly Hard by the COVID-19 Crisis
Giberto Arrivabene can’t remember the last time all of the glassmakers’ furnaces in Murano went out. “Probably, I would guess, the Second World War,” ponders the glass designer, a native Venetian whose family has been based on the island city for generations. The furnaces, roaring fire-filled, gas-fueled kilns in which artisans fire their delicately blown wares, hum along day in and day out at over 1,000 degrees Celsius and are only ever taken out of commission for repairs. Standing in the vicinity of one, blasted by its aura of intense, dry heat, feels like orbiting a small sun.
In March, for the first time in generations, the furnaces went cold. As part of the lockdown measures in response to COVID-19, Murano’s glass factories, like all nonessential production in Italy, were forced to shutter. For almost two months they lay dormant, waiting for the greenlight from the Italian government to restart the work that has defined the small island for nearly a millennium. The go-ahead eventually came on the fourth of May, provided social distancing measures be observed, but the problems facing the Murano glass industry are far from solved.
“Murano has been in crisis for 10 years,” laments Arrivabene, referencing the laundry list of issues the small industry has had to face. Among them, an influx of cheap knock-offs masquerading as legitimate Murano glass arriving from abroad and sold in local souvenir shops; the exorbitant cost of the fuel and materials it takes to produce real Murano glass; the aging cohort of glass masters and the disinterest of a younger generation in spending the requisite 20 years needed to perfect the craft; and, last but certainly not least, the acqua alta fiasco last November that submerged much of the island, causing untold damage to their precious equipment and slashing the number of tourists coming to Murano.
But the COVID-19 crisis has been another beast entirely.
Maurizio Mussati, CEO of Wonderglass, the London- and Venice-based company that specializes in lighting and bespoke interior installations in cast and blown glass, describes the new safety measures as “extremely difficult.” What was once a well-choreographed dance between master and assistants is stilted by the new restrictions. The long iron pipes used for blowing the intricately rendered chandeliers, vases, glasses, and sculptures have been newly fitted with awkward removable plastic mouthpieces and all workers must wear masks and remain at least one meter apart at all times. According to Mussati, a number of the family-owned furnaces are able to skirt these rules—members of nuclear families are not required to social distance—but among the larger workshops productivity has been significantly hindered.
“In the morning, they lose 40 minutes to an hour cleaning all of their instruments, and at the end of the day they spend another 20 minutes cleaning them again,” says Arrivabene of the already physically strenuous eight-hour workday, which often begins as early as 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. to take advantage of cooler hours. In addition to the time devoted to equipment sterilization and the buffer of social distancing necessary to keep the glassblowers safe, he estimates production volume is reduced roughly 20%.
“Most of the workshops are closed at the moment not only because there is a safety problem, but also the consumption of the oven, which is exorbitantly expensive if you don’t have enough work,” Mussati adds. “I’m not certain all of the companies will reopen at the end of this.”
Martina Semenzato, a board member of Salviati, the 150-year-old glass manufacturer known for collaborations with designers like Thomas Heatherwick, Ingo Maurer, and Nigel Coates, tells AD PRO the extinguishing and reigniting of the kilns has a “huge impact on the company from an organizational, economic, and time-consuming point of view.”
She describes the process as an expensive and multiday affair: “The first step consists of turning off and securing the kilns, followed by a cooling-down period. Once the kilns are completely cold, it is possible to proceed with the maintenance: the replacement of the crucibles and the refurbishing of the inner chamber. Once they have been renovated, the kilns must be turned on, gradually reaching the production temperature of 1100°C, which takes about one week. When the temperature is finally reached, it is possible to start production. So the cost is double: on one side the costs of raw materials and maintenance staff. On the other side, the costs linked to the interruption of production.”
Arrivabene estimates the price tag of reigniting an oven in the area of 100,000 to 200,000 euros—a significant financial blow considering the major fairs in which Venetian glass collections are launched and sold, including Milan’s Salone del Mobile, have been canceled or postponed. For a large swath of companies, this means orders have dried up.
As of June 22, only 70% of workshops had restarted operations, according to a survey by the Consorzio Promovetro Murano, an organization promoting Murano’s glass industry. “Many of the companies are waiting to see how the situation evolves,” says Luciano Gambaro, co-owner of Gambaro & Tagliapietra glass studio and president of the Consorzio. “If they don’t receive any orders, they won’t reopen.”
While the Italian economy is projected to contract nearly 10% due to the COVID-19 crisis, the disappearance of Murano’s glass industry would deal much more than an economic blow. The ancient industry has been based on the idyllic island in the Venetian lagoon since as early as the 13th century, and its highly skilled artisans hold an untold wealth of craft knowledge. Even a reduction of operating furnaces would be an incalculable loss to Italy’s storied craft tradition.
Despite the tribulations ahead, the consensus is that this is a resilient industry. “I believe and hope in my heart that Murano also overcomes this difficulty,” says Gambaro. “Throughout the history of this island and the history of Murano glass, we have had moments of great splendor and success, but also moments of deep crisis. This is nothing but one of the moments of difficulty we can overcome together.”
One of the solutions Gambaro has proposed is strengthening the copyright of Venetian glass to differentiate it from inferior copies, which he says will “serve to protect the product from counterfeiting,” a major issue that has been channelling profits away from the island for years. “Copyright serves to safeguard and to protect Murano manufacturers and ensures the end customer knows clearly that that product is made in Murano. This is one of the basic things that needs to be done,” he says.
Semenzato adds that “a reduction of fiscal pressure [for example, taxes], real financing opportunities to develop the internationalization processes, and discounted prices to participate at fairs and exhibitions” would all be welcome respites from the economic squeeze the COVID-19 crisis has caused.
The artisans of Venice are hopeful that, by September, conditions will have improved enough to host the fourth edition of Venice Glass Week, where they hope to coax buyers and art-glass devotees back to Murano to make up for the previous months’ losses. Planned for September 5–13, 2020, the event will showcase the island’s recent developments in artistic glass.
“What we need is for people to return to Murano,” proclaims Arrivabene when asked how the design community can help make sure the island’s legacy of is not lost to history. “They need to come here to witness—and commission—these artisans to ensure the future of the craft.”