From Sand, Soda, and Fire: A Trip to Murano & Cappellin Glass

Sue Slick, Collection Information Specialist

The common thread throughout our work at FWMoA is the celebration of the work of the human hand. A recent gift weaves together two stories of handcrafted work and the benefits of possessing the knowledge and skills to make it. In 1921 two aspiring Italians, a Milanese lawyer and a Venetian antiquities dealer, dreamed up a company that would produce modern, functional, and accessible Murano glass at a level of innovation not seen since well before World War I.  

A Brief Little History: Venice started producing glass in the Middle Ages, and the Romans had blown glass since 50 BC (at least!), but the ebb and flow of the production of Venetian glass is as dynamic as the tides in the Venetian Lagoon. The rise and fall of empires, shifts in trade routes, war, isolation, access to other cultures, and the simple fickleness of human nature and fashion all impacted the Venetian glass story. Murano, the island community of glassmaking prowess since the 13th century, is at the center of that history.   

Imagining exciting, modern Murano glass for a wide audience of Italians and beyond, the Milanese lawyer, Paolo Venini, and the Venetian antiquarian, Giacomo Cappellin, arranged to adapt industrialist Andrea Rioda’s Murano furnace to the new company’s program. Andrea Rioda, native of Murano, was an expert in the complex chemistry, history, and nature of the unique soda lime glass of the Veneto who had fallen on hard times during the decline in the glass trade of the WWI era. Rioda, who held a reputation for high production standards, was especially skilled in creating light, thin walled yet strong, delicately colored transparent vessels of elegant and simple lines inspired by ancient glass designs. Tragically Rioda, who was planning to oversee the entire spectrum of glass production for the new firm, died just a few months before the company was launched. His heart gave out one August day in 1921 while he was at his Murano furnace. Despite his tragic death the firm was launched, setting in motion a transformation in the design and production of Murano glass. 

When Vetri Soffiati Cappellin Venini & C. did come to life that December, Rioda’s glaring absence resulted in the installation of one of his maestros, Giovanni Seguso, as technical director of the operation and Venetian artist Vittorio Zecchin as artistic director. The successes of the company in executing Zecchin’s designs, initially based on Rioda’s elegant examples, were realized thanks to the glassblowing maestros who worked for Rioda: Diego Barovier, Raffaele Ferro, Atilio Moratto and Malvino Pavanello. These skilled men who joined the new company were descendants of generations of Murano glassmakers and essential to the accomplishments of the new company.   

Maestri Vetrai Muranesi (M.V.M.) Cappellin, hand-blown soda lime glass, ca. 1925. Gift of Mary La Rocque. Image courtesy of FWMoA. 

The Cappellin-Venini venture produced masses of tableware, barware, decorative vases, candlesticks, and candelabra along with exposition pieces that showed off the extreme skill and innovation of the furnace and its designers. Glass vessels portrayed in Italian Renaissance paintings were inspirations to both Rioda and those who continued his vision. One of the best known examples is the vase seen in Paolo Veronese’s The Annunciation, 1578. The Cappellin-Venini piece, a modern version of the vase designed by Vittorio Zecchin, became the symbol of the new company at a time when the world was ready for an updated look in blown glass. 

The Cappellin-Venini-Zecchin trifecta was a perfect storm for the re-launch of Murano glass artistry. The reasons for Murano’s innovation pause were complex. After all, Murano was one of the world’s glass innovation centers going back to 1200. Perhaps its protective isolation slowed its creativity for a time as Venice’s glass trade secrets were very strictly enforced; regardless, their artistic inertia was too long mired in heavily decorated 19th century styles and a glut of over-produced souvenir glass objects created for the tourist trade. A culture of competition between glassblowing virtuosos resulted in an era of heavily decorated glassware adorned with an entire pantheon of incredible creatures, including magnificent dolphins and exotic dragons and serpents, so ornate that they were often not functional.   

Enter Vittorio Zecchin whose avant-garde art interests were fueled by exposure to exhibits at the rebellious Ca’ Pesaro in the early 1900s. Zecchin did not break the molds of the past in his role as artistic director, but he did put a new modern spin on them. The young lawyer, Paolo Venini, who was a transplant from Milan, held a passion for Murano glass and an entrepreneurial spirit and enthusiasm for fresh and innovative glasswork. His business partner, Giacomo Cappellin, a Murano-born antiques dealer with connections to his hometown industry, aligned the company with his retail network and marketing knowledge.  These three generated a profound impact on Murano and its centuries-old industry. This was certainly a dynamic trio that lit a fire under the glassmaking industry, so to speak; and though the fire ignited changes in the Murano glass culture, it may have burned too brightly for the business partners. 

After the meteoric rise of the company, Cappellin and Venini split in 1925. Their divide was on display to the world when they exhibited separately at that year’s Paris Expo. Both quickly formed new companies that rode the wave of their early shared successes, earning new awards, praise, and prizes that generated sales in Italy and beyond. In fact, both companies continued to produce the same wares they had made while still partners, only putting their own new company marks on them, while also delving into new and unique design ventures.   

Cappellin’s new company, Maestri Vetrai Muranesi (M.V.M.) Cappellin, continued production until 1931. The 1929 American stock market crash probably had an impact on the economic health of this company as it did on so many. Some speculate that the prohibition of alcohol sales in America from 1920 to 1933 also hit Cappellin hard; barware and elegant stemmed wine glasses were among their popular inventory. Venini’s company, after transformations and mergers, still exists today as an innovator and producer of high-quality decorative glass goods and lighting. Though the Cappellin-Venini partnership was brief, it reinvigorated Murano as a center of glass artistry that persisted long after the Cappellin-Venini split.   

Maestri Vetrai Muranesi (M.V.M.) Cappellin, hand-blown soda lime glass, ca. 1925. Gift of Mary La Rocque. Image courtesy of FWMoA. 

The international appeal of this new, modern Murano glass is the thread, or filament in “glass-speak”, that connects to the generous donation of a collection of Maestri Vetrai Muranesi (M.V.M.) Cappellin to FWMoA this spring. 

Before M.V.M. Cappellin closed we know that an American, who also valued the fine work of the human hand, visited the company and purchased thousands of pieces for the American market – primarily for sale in and around Boston. Skilled trades and handwork again come into the story. 

Maestri Vetrai Muranesi (M.V.M.) Cappellin, hand-blown soda lime glass, ca. 1925. Gift of Mary La Rocque. Image courtesy of FWMoA. 

In the late 1880s in Boston an unusual school was beginning to form— one of the first American industrial trade schools, the North Bennett Street School grew out of a charitable home that offered services to the mostly Italian immigrants in the neighborhood and to others that needed a boost, either because of disability, lack of skills, or language barriers. The early form of the institution provided a sewing room, a nursery, lending library, laundry, printing shop, kitchen garden, and cooking school. It later paired with the local school district to offer vocational training, including pottery and woodworking. In 1909, a young potter from Ohio with a degree in industrial ceramics began teaching at the school. George Courtright Greener came from a background that particularly suited him to this special institution – both of his parents were deaf and were educators at the Ohio School for the Deaf. Greener grew up in the school’s environment of hard work, education, and skilled trades training. His own father was a product of the school and endured a difficult youth before graduating and joining as a faculty member. 

Before long Greener was assistant director of Boston’s North Bennet Street School, then director until 1954. Never married and an avid traveler and collector, Greener explored the arts centers and decorative arts producers across Europe, collecting objects for his students to study and purchasing goods for the shop whose sales helped to support the school. Later, Greener opened a shop of his own, Courtright House, on Newbury Street in Boston, as an outlet for his decorating business. When Greener passed in 1962, he left his collection of Cappellin glass to his family, which eventually arrived in Fort Wayne in the home of his great niece, Mary La Rocque. Greener, with no children of his own, was a doting uncle who gave lots of gifts to the children of his siblings, even helping put them through college. Mary recalls the glass adorning his table when she visited him as a child. Many stories of Uncle George come with this glass gift – travels across Europe by motorcycle, his attendance at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth, friendships with members of high society, and always a love for beautiful things.  

Maestri Vetrai Muranesi (M.V.M.) Cappellin, hand-blown soda lime glass, ca. 1925. Gift of Mary La Rocque. Image courtesy of FWMoA. 

This spring, Mary offered the Cappellin glass to FWMoA knowing it would support our growing glass collection and provide a link to many of our modern studio glass pieces. Direct ties to the Murano glass legacy are found in the works of Dale Chihuly, Benjamin Moore, Lino Tagliapietra, Gianni Tosso, Lucio Bubacco, Laura de Santillana, Angelo Seguso, Livio Seguso, Yoichi Ohira, and so many others. It’s a wonderful thing to see – the magic of the ancient handwork of glass on display today. A delicate wineglass created a century ago in Murano may hold more than a fine Italian wine, like the tale of the maestro who created it from sand, soda, and fire. 

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