This story will take us to Venice. A Venice of many years ago where, although it was already very crowded in the central tourist areas around San Marco you could still find a local population and ordinary life. A Venice which has almost disappeared under the relentless pressure of the hordes who come to admire her – a grande dame who was literally being loved to death. Who knows what the aftermath of our current situation will bring to the city? We shall just have to wait and see.
I appreciate that my tour groups have partly contributed to the problem of overcrowding but this story happened in less problematic times when it was still possible to reconcile the benefits that visitors brought to Venice with the inevitable disruption.
By the way, I hope you are sitting comfortably because this is going to be long one!
Something I always enjoyed was the glass blowing demonstration, one of those rituals designed to help tourists understand an ancient craft and appreciate the genuine article at its true value. Of course there was a certain amount of staginess and exaggeration, this was Italy after all, and over the years I noticed that the commentary gained more and more embellishments. Glass blowing is a traditional family trade in which sons are apprenticed to their father, and we were told that it took 10 .. 12 … 15 …. then 20 years to qualify as a master glass blower. “You imagine, to work with your papa for all those years!” with a roll of the eyes. (And yes, like the gondolieri it is an exclusively male preserve, the girls are only there to sell the glass jewellery).
Whatever; I never tired of watching a blob of glass being blown into a fragile water jug before my eyes and the nonchalant fashion with which the master would toss off a prancing Ferrari horse as an encore. I believe this is in fact one of the first pieces an apprentice will attempt, but it never fails to charm me and to draw gasps of admiration from the group as it is thrown back into the furnace at the end of the demonstration and we are led into the showroom for more explanations.
Ah the showroom! Like an Aladdin’s cave, glittering with Murano glass objects set on mirrored shelves. Chandeliers dripping from the ceiling, leaping glass dolphins, mirrors, swags of glass beads, wine jugs, goblets and vases in jewel colours. Whilst the guide explained the different oxides which are used to colour the molten glass and the two, or three-step process of creating the object, then applying the gold and enamel décor, my eyes would wander over the display, toying with the fantasy that one day I would own a delicate aquamarine glass vase, fretted with gold. Sanity always prevailed however. It is abundantly obvious that I do not possess the right property or life-style for that type of purchase!
But I do love those hanging lamps of glass blown through a wire cage.
At that time we were still at the concrete and electric wiring stage of renovating les Sarziers, so this was not an urgently necessary item to acquire, but still . . .
One day in the 1980’s, having released my group to explore Venice at will, I was wandering the back streets in that delightful fashion which is only really possible in Venice. A map is of no use and is in fact something of a hindrance, since it encourages you to put a corset on la Serenissima and try to force her into something which goes against her very nature.
It is wonderful to twist left and right, stumbling on tiny silent courtyards with a bit of washing hanging out, finding yourself at a dead end, doubling back, crossing a couple of zig-zag bridges … no traffic, no noise, just a cat whisking round a corner tempting you to follow it down a dark, aromatic sotto portico which spits you out onto a bustling commercial street of hardware stores, pasticcerie, newsagents and toy shops for the locals.
Let’s pause and look at Markus’s wonderful photos.
I was somewhere between these two extremes when I spotted a small, dark establishment housing a business-like clutter of miscellaneous blown glass ware. Everything was made of plain glass and very dusty. A good deal of it was disassembled and there were piles of welded metal frameworks alongside semi utilitarian items, albeit hand blown on the island of Murano. I pushed through the door and discovered the elderly shopkeeper reading a newspaper with some difficulty in the dim recesses at the back. I am always very intimidated by this sort of situation, I’m not the confident browser and bargainer, as will be seen in another story; on the contrary I feel like an intruder and tend to adopt a wimpy and apologetic air.
However, after the customary “buon giorno, prego, si accomodi . . .” the owner returned to his reading; I felt free to nose around and very soon found the object of my desire. I asked the price, which was very reasonable, and the old man then looked cannily at me. “Of course if you did not require la ricevuta, I could do better than that” he said, “but we should be careful”. The deal was done, a fistful of lire changed hands and he wrapped up my prize. Then, asking me to stay in the shop, he went to the door and peered cautiously both ways along the alley. All clear, and with an “arrivederci, grazie” off I trotted.
This was the time when the police really did check whether a purchaser had obtained a receipt and one could be fined, along with the merchant, if it could not be produced within a certain distance of the shop in question. (Like the years of apprenticeship, the distance varied widely in popular imagination). It is for this reason of course that Italians are still obsessed with lo scontrino, whether they are paying for a 90-centesimo espresso or a ballgown.
However, back to my story. It was at this point that it dawned on me that I was midway into a three-week trip. Rome, Naples, Florence, Lucerne, Munich, the Black Forest, Paris and London still awaited me; how on earth was I going to manage all that with a delicate piece of blown glass in my luggage?
Well I did manage somehow without mishap as far as Munich where, as chance would have it, Markus was just finishing a trip, heading home the following day. I met up with him and his group at their Beer Hall Dinner and, rather to his surprise, thrust the bulky parcel into his hands: “It’s fragile, please be careful”. Game for anything he valiantly assured me he would get it home and I sped back to my group and their Beer Hall Dinner.
Finally my lamp found its place hanging in the kitchen – once we could plausibly say that we had a kitchen – and I loved it. I loved it so much in fact that I was always acutely anxious when we took it apart for cleaning, fearing it might crash down and shatter to smithereens on the terra cotta tiles. I would dance about in an agony of suspense, issuing instructions to Markus whilst he patiently undid the screws and put up with me, always taking the utmost care. It was therefore inevitable that it was I who eventually failed to notice that the top section was not attached to the chain when I was cleaning – it duly crashed down and shattered to smithereens on the terra cotta tiles!
Time, I think, for another little pause!
Mortified, I told the story to a friend in Paris who adores Venice and spends a couple of months every year in the artisan quarter of Cannaregio, from where the factory boats leave for Murano. He gave me the name of a blacksmith who makes the framework. “Go and see him with your metalwork and he’ll send it over to Murano to have a new piece blown to fit it for you” my friend said.
This was around 2005 and the character of Venice had already changed immeasurably. But whilst overall the resident population of the city declines by thousands every year Cannaregio is still an unspoilt area, housing a third of the remaining inhabitants. The alleys and side streets are full of small stores, simple bars and the artisans’ workshops. On my next visit to Venice I had a few hours off in the afternoon and found the place – a no nonsense smithy and welding workshop – where I explained my errand. “Non c’è problema” the sweating workman told me “I’ll send it over to Murano with my next consignment of frames. It may take a while, they’re a lazy bunch over there! Give me a call from time to time and I’ll let you know when it’s ready”. I didn’t go into the details of my itinerant lifestyle; I knew from my schedule of tours that I would be back four or five times over the summer and hoped things would coincide.
They didn’t of course. Either I was there on a giorno festivo and the workshop was shut, or they had forgotten to send it, or it was August, when nothing gets done. Then I had a stroke of luck – well what the Germans call Glück im Unglück. The Unglück was that, to return home after my last assigment of the season I had inadvertently booked a flight from Venice on the wrong date, a month too late. I had to buy a new ticket for that but since it seemed a pity to waste the other one I found a cheap crack-of-dawn flight from Lyon which meant that I could do a day return to Venice! It was a slightly surreal experience leaving Arlebosc for the airport at 4 am and arriving in Cannaregio in time for the morning espresso! I trekked to the workshop; my friend was there. He recognised me and scratched his head. “Oh darn” he said, “I don’t remember which piece was yours, did it look like this?” He showed me an assortment of items, none of which would fit my lamp.
Then his face brightened and he told me to follow him. We set off down a very narrow alley towards a dead end (‘is this altogether wise?’ a small voice inside my head enquired). He pushed open a heavy metal door and we entered a cavernous space full of assorted metalwork. There were bits of boat, mooring equipment and half finished trailers; angle iron and tangles of wire littered the benches. He showed me an assortment of pieces but it was so long since I had seen mine that I was not sure which, if any, would do. “Fa niente” he said, holding out three examples, “take them all, I hope one of them will fit”. He would not accept any payment, saying that I had waited long enough and he wished me a buona giornata.
He can have had no idea how far I had come that day nor where I would be by midnight.