I am staying at home – this is the slogan going around Italy at the moment, hand in hand with the virus. It was supposed to mean: I stay at home, to avoid spreading the disease.
But it has also started to take on a new meaning: I am staying home cause I do not have a job to go to anymore!
Yes, because with the total lockdown, many businesses had to shut down completely, and, some, for good.
But let’s start from the beginning.
Here in Venice, as many of you know, in November we had an exceptional Acqua Alta, a record one, which practically damaged most of businesses in the city.
The Venetians were up and running after only a few days, but most tourists decided to stay away anyway, scared the Acqua Alta would come back. That meant that practically all bookings were cancelled. The low season then set in and most businesses struggled to pay for the damages.
And then, a few days ago, the total lockdown all over Italy: all non-essential shops and companies had to be closed, with the result that you can imagine: no money coming in to pay for workers, goods, taxes, rents etc.
Photos of a deserted Venice soon started to circle all over the news, worldwide, creating a mix of sadness and awe.
But nobody is talking about Murano, the island of the glass!
What is happening there? I asked the world famous glass master Giancarlo Signoretto, who very kindly gave me an interview a few days ago. We spoke on the phone, since Giancarlo, like everyone else, is stuck at home.
This is what he had to say.
What exactly happened in Murano?
“In Murano something very unusual happened. The island for the first time ever is totally shut down, and not just for a few days. After Murano managed to come out of the damages of the acqua alta, preparing for the new season and the training of a new generation of glass masters, the Corona Virus struck.
Something nobody was expecting.”
What do you mean?
” As a child I grew up with the idea that the glass furnaces worked for 9 months a year, closing only for the winter months (but with the ovens still on or switched off only for a short period for maintenance). We used to have a low season, working more in the summer, when the tourists were here, rather than winter. In the last few years though, thanks also to technology, people has started to travel all year round. So when Venice turned into a city with tourists in all seasons, Murano did too.
This year many Glass furnaces run into financial problems, due to the Acqua Alta of November 12th. Apart for the great flood of 1966, the glass furnaces had never experienced Acqua Alta. When it happens, it usually only goes inside homes and shops, but never in the furnaces, due to the fact that Murano is built a bit like a series of slides: up and down, up and down. On November 12th, though, for the first time since 1966, the Acqua Alta went above the barriers of the furnaces.
I was there when it happened and it was scary. Many ovens had to be shut. But it was only for a few days. “
So why is it different now?
” The problem is that if there are no tourists: if you do not produce and you do not sell, you do not earn.
People do not really understand the costs of a furnace. The costs of the glass masters are not the problem.
A glass furnace is like making bread. First you need the harvest and the people to pick it, then you need someone to transform the grain into flour, then you have the baker who makes the bread. The same story goes for glass: you need the people to build the furnaces, you need those who supply the sand and all the minerals, you need gas, you need the glass masters. A furnace is a 24h running expense. When at 5 o’clock in the evening the workers go home, the furnace carries on cooking. Cooking nothing, only the silence. You cannot turn the ovens off, like a TV. They must stay on 24h a day, to keep the temperature stable.”
So how do furnaces contain costs?
” There is a system by which, to recuperate such high costs of running, you must produce as much as you can. There are two types of productions: very high quality artistic glass and a cheaper option. The first, aimed to a high-end consumer, usually involves research and creativity, but once it is produced, it could be sold straightway or it could sit on the shelf for years.
The second option, more affordable, is aimed to every one else and allows the furnace to sell on a large scale and recuperate costs. They are not inferior products, just different. For an easier distribution.
Both require great skills, both require good quality glass, but they are aimed at different people. “
Why is Murano glass so important?
” The history of Murano started over 1000 years ago from Venice itself, when glass used to be produced there and then was moved to the island to avoid all the fires in the city. Murano was the nearest and biggest island, easy to be reached by rowing. Murano, during the years, created the history of glass by making important changes to the way it was made. The glass masters studied it and eventually created a soft glass, with a very high percentage of soda, making glass transparent. They also created amazing colours, which is the characteristic of Murano glass: the array of brilliant colours.
In the 1950s the gas pipes arrived in Murano and pretty soon all of the furnaces started to use it.
The post-war generation of glass masters, with the arrival of gas, started to collaborate with various designers, creating sculptures of heavy solid glass, bringing Murano Glass to the highest of level. So they enriched a 1000-year-old history. “
What is the role of the glass masters on the island?
” When I was young, when I met a glass master, I used to bow to him for respect. Glass masters were not just talented people, they had authority and run the furnaces.
Now all the great glass masters, those who taught me, have gone.
In theory, me, and another couple of people, are the next generation who should teach the new comers. But after this crisis I do not know how many businesses will survive.
I am scared this virus will wipe out the history of the island, as well as the glass factories. “
What do you think should be done to prevent this?
” In a city like Venice, artisanship should be valued. Every artisanship, not just glass. Made in Italy means handmade.
The solution? First of all, let’s hope it ends soon. Then we need to invent a new way to work with glass. I hope I will be able to carry on being a glass master, even, though my job right now is uncertain, since there are many furnaces in financial difficulties.
I feel Murano is slowly dying though.
I have realized now, at 57, that I am doing the greatest job in the world and I am not ready to give it up: I have been a glass master for over 42 years. I cannot stop, cause I create things which I like and people like. I love my job, nobody forces me to do it. Glass is the main thing in my life: it puts food on my table, but, above all, it gives me great satisfaction.
Now it is the time for the people of Murano to stop and reflect. Now that we are all not working. Maybe it is the time for us to get back to the old values, just like immediately after the war.
With the acqua alta we knew that after a few hours it will go down and we will be back in business. This situation now is full of uncertainty.”
How can the government help?
” For the local government probably the glass issue is not one of the most important right now. For them to come into action, there is the need of a good reason to be put on newspapers. They are like those people who just stand there waiting for the photographer to take a photo while a person needs to be rescued. If the photographer is there, they will give a hand, otherwise they leave the person to drown.
The government must do something, must help the glass factories who are in difficulties, they must talk to the people of the island, to the owners of the furnaces.
This is the moment for the people of Murano to sit down all, around a table, listen and work together.
We will start again, I know that – people want to start again. “
A big thank you to Giancarlo Signoretto
A big thank you for the time Giancarlo gave me during this hard times. I know it was not easy to talk with me about what is happening to him, but he wanted the world to know. For all his fellow glass masters and glass workers, who most probably will loose their job too in the days to come. For Murano and its glass – because as Giancarlo Signoretto says:
This is a teaching for us – it showed us a different reality – from this new reality we must rebuild a new country!