“It’s like watching a choreographed ballet,” says Francesco da Mosto, a Venetian architect who also works as a TV presenter. “There is poetry and beauty in the way they work and in their supreme craftsmanship, which has been fine-tuned over the centuries and down through the generations.”
Da Mosto is describing the master glassmakers of Murano, an island in the Venetian lagoon. These workers are heirs to a decorative tradition that goes back to at least the 13th century, and which is now in danger.
Recent months have seen a flurry of protests and initiatives as the recession presents yet another challenge for an industry already under siege.
Since 1990, the size of the workforce has shrunk from about 6,000 to less than 1,000.
In December last year, on the feast day of Saint Nicholas — the patron saint of Murano glassmakers — about 70 percent took part in a half-day strike to demand that their employers make changes. The workers were also calling for a plan to revive the industry. Since then numerous solutions have been proposed.
The CISL trade union federation suggested UNESCO should give the industry protected status. However, that idea was shot down by Venice Mayor Giorgio Orsoni, who noted that the entire lagoon was already a world heritage site.
Diego Ferro, head of the Venetian glass section of the employers’ federation, Confindustria, says the industry could benefit from working with artists — as his own company has. Ferro, whose family has lived on the island since 1200, says some of the traditional designs for Murano glass have become dated.
“There is the potential for a synergy that adds value to our products,” he says.
Two factors are routinely cited as having played a part in the industry’s decline. One is the difficulty of recruiting young Venetians to the trade. The work is physically demanding — and uncomfortable. Glassmakers spend much of their day close to kilns heated to 1,400oC. The other factor is an influx of cheap, imitation products.
Gianni de Checchi of the craftworkers’ federation, Confartigianato, says fake “Murano” from China and eastern Europe takes between 40 percent and 45 percent of total sales.
A trademark was created in 1994 and is used by about 50 companies on the island, and last month, RFID (radio frequency identification) technology was used for the first time on a Murano product to guarantee its authenticity.
However, while the trademark distinguishes between what has been produced on and off the island, it fails to differentiate between products that have been handcrafted and those manufactured industrially, critics say.
“Those chiefly responsible are the muranesi themselves,” writer Michela Scibilia says. “They have never managed to pull together.”
Scibilia, the co-author of a guide to the island, says that while some glassmaking firms on Murano have invested in research and design to produce work of quality, others have taken the easy way out — mixing foreign-manufactured imitations with products they sell to tourists.
The tourists reach the island via a chain of intermediaries that starts at a hotel’s concierge desk. From there they are steered to a selected water taxi and then to the members of a profession formally recognized by the local authority: the so-called intromettitori — literally “meddlers” — who intercept the tourists when they reach Murano and direct them toward a factory.