Feb 212011

A Letter from Italy,

by Natalia Sarkissian

With Jo

Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti-Santo Stefano entrance

My friend Jo’s husband, Francesco Allegretto, has done the photography in the exhibition catalog for a show in Venice, Lino Tagliapietra: Da Murano allo Studio Glass. Opere 1954- 2011. (Showing from February 19-May 22.)


They invite me to the opening. Since I’m not usually invited to show openings in Venice by insiders—Jo and Francesco live in Venice and are part of the art scene—I hop on the early morning express train from Milan and go, Numero Cinq press tags clicking around my neck.

Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti, Canal Grande facade

Four hours later, after a train ride, a vaporetto ride and a jaunt through town (I quit the ferry at the wrong stop), when I get to the Cavalli-Franchetti palace where Mr. Tagliapietra’s glass is exhibited, I point to my credentials. Nevertheless, the receptionist looks skeptical. I call Jo; Jo leads me into the luxurious rooms of the fifteenth-century palazzo that has been refurbished and renovated in the intervening centuries, stopping here and there, showing me the beautiful pieces she loves.

Near a sumptuous blue piece she stops. “There he is,” she says, pointing.

Lino Tagliapietra, a short, round man with sparkling eyes and white hair, stands in one sunny corner of a damask-coated room near quatrefoil five-light tracery windows that overlook  the Grand Canal.

“I would like to write a story about you for an American publication,” I say after sidling up, waiting for a break in conversation (he is with some important collectors of his work), shaking his hand. I speak English because Lino—although born and bred and trained in Venice—has lived in Seattle for the past thirty-odd years.

“Ah,” he smiles. “Molto bene.”

I warm up by asking him how it feels to be home and to have his first show in the city. He says it’s wonderful. Although, as one of the world’s great glass artists, his pieces are in the Victoria & Albert Museum and at the Met in New York, he has never had a one-man show in Venice.

Not that he regrets leaving Venice, professionally speaking.

While he’s glad to be home, he realizes that he wouldn’t have been able to achieve the same results had he stayed on in Murano. In the US he can work without fearing that someone will steal and copy his innovative designs (as has happened in the past in Venice). And while Venice has welcomed him back and given him this lovely tribute, the idea for the show came from Sandro Pezzoli, a Milanese collector and gallery owner (who curated the show together with Rosa Barovier Mentasti).

Lino has many favorites in the work on display; from the ruby chalice he gave to his girlfriend (who later became his wife), to the golden flutes that inside wind around like the innards of a conch, to the glittering gondolas that fly suspended through the midday air, to the seagulls that swarm in a corner, to the ample, feminine curves of a sexy red vase, to large black and terracotta jars reminiscent of Grecian amphorae.

“Glass is a living thing,” the press releases quote him as saying. “Surprises result. Even when cool, glass still moves. Glass is borne of water and fire, elements that are never static.”

While Lino and I are talking, Silvano Rubino, an artist who works in glass and resin and the show’s installation designer, draws up. I wonder what difficulties were posed by the fact that the show is housed in a palace and not in a museum setting.

“The lighting was difficult,” Silvano says.

“I love how the vases sit on steel tables with no glass cases around them,” I say. “But isn’t that a risk?”

Earlier Jo had pointed out how the floor shook when people walked across it, causing the glass on view to vibrate. “Won’t the vases end up slipping off the tables?”

Silvano laughs. “They’re glued down,” he confesses. “Resin.”

I snap a few pictures, including one of Lino with both Silvano and Francesco. It’s embarrassing to photograph the photographer—whose work in the catalog (and on his website) is breathtaking—with my point-and-shoot Fuji, but what the hell.

Here the three of them are:

(from left to right, Silvano, Lino, Francesco)

After the show, Francesco, Jo and I head for the San Polo district where Jo knows of a great restaurant. We find the alleys and streets rapidly filling with masked revelers.

“It’s the beginning of Carnevale,” Francesco says. “This evening in Piazza San Marco the official kickoff begins with some sort of free wine. And then tomorrow, the selection of the twelve ladies-in-waiting for the Festa delle Marie takes place.”

Apparently twelve of the most beautiful young Venetian girls are chosen to represent the Venetian damsels of the 10th century who were abducted by pirates and later freed by the Doge.

But next weekend (February 26-27), with the Flight of the Angel in Piazza San Marco (a young woman is lowered by wires from the Campanile) and the Festa delle Marie (who are carried through the streets of Venice), revelry will reach a feverish pitch and continue through until March 8th.

“Piazza San Marco is pretty much off limits, then,” Jo says. “I stick to this section of the city.” Jo teaches English at the Universita’ di Venezia, Ca’ Foscari, on the Dorsoduro (across the canal from the mayhem) and since it’s somewhat off the beaten path she can avoid the crush when tens (hundreds?) of thousands of costumed tourists descend on the city.

Francesco’s phone rings. It’s Flavia who wants to know what’s for lunch. “Put some water on to boil,” says her father. “I’m coming.” He shrugs at Jo and me. He’ll go home and eat with the girls while Jo and I go out.

“You could make sardine-and-lemon sauce to go with it,” Jo says. “It’s fast and easy.”

“Sounds good,” I say, my mouth watering.

“Perhaps,” says Francesco. His handsome brow wrinkles and I can only guess as to what artistic and delicious marvels he’s thinking of conjuring up instead.

We part ways with Francesco soon after. Jo and I keep winding our way through narrow streets.

“Much longer?” I ask. My feet hurt. And other needs are becoming urgent.

“Just a few more bridges,” Jo says, brightly. She says hello to several people, then she stops briefly to chat.  I’m surprised she runs into so many people she knows. After all, Venice is a city and we’ve been walking for at least thirty minutes.

“No, Venice isn’t really that big,” she says. “If you subtract the tourists, those living on the islands, those living on the Lido, those who come in to work for the day, there are about 20,000 of us living here.”

“Oh,” I say. Venice is a village. Venice has never felt village like before. But perhaps that’s because I never traversed the ‘town’ with a native. Although Jo’s English, she’s lived in Venice for nineteen out of the twenty years she and Francesco have been together.

“Where do you do your shopping?” I ask soon thereafter. I’ve begun to contemplate the fact that Venice isn’t just a mecca for tourists. But I haven’t seen any supermarkets anywhere.

“Three bridges away from my apartment,” she says.

I note how she calculates in terms of bridges. Must be the Venetian way.

“The bags are heavy,” she explains, as if reading my thoughts, “and I never seem to manage to get away with just one or two items. I’ll stop on my way home from the university to pick up a liter of milk and a loaf of bread and the next thing I know, I’ve got three bags full of stuff to lug.”

“You should use a cart,” I say.

“I could, I guess,” she laughs. “But then there are those bridges. What about you? Do you use a cart? Or the car?”

“No car. There’s nowhere to park in Milan. I ride my bike and pile bags in the baskets and drape them from the handlebars.”

“A bicycle.” She sighs.

When we get to Zucca, the restaurant, the owners greet her effusively. She’s known them for years.  They’ve saved us a choice table in a restaurant full of diners with a line out the door. We eat braised artichokes and a Venetian pumpkin-and-eggplant pasticcio that’s delicious followed by Mexican beef.  The owner undercharges us—I think he’s given us a bit of a break because Jo is such an old friend—and then we head out.

She takes me to a shop—I’ve asked her to—that sells masks made by Venetian artisans.  The prices start at 35 Euros. “Here you’ll get a collector’s item,” she says at the door, “not a cheapo 5 Euro knockoff from China in the zillion souvenir shops all over.”

Jo has a translation she’s working on, so we say goodbye at the entrance to the shop. “Thanks for the insider’s glimpse of your city, Jo,” I say, as we hug. “And thank Francesco, too.”

If it hadn’t been for them I wouldn’t have gotten into the opening, met either Lino Tagliapietra or Silvano Rubino, nor would I have had a memorable meal at bargain rates. I’d have had another bad sandwich standing up at some centrally located bar, jostling elbows with others, who like me, hadn’t known where to go.

I enter the shop, examine the beautiful masks, find one I like, try to decide if I can afford to buy it. A crew from a local television station comes in to film and interview the owners—publicity?—and so I leave as the small shop fills up with cameramen, equipment and the curious.

I meander about, heading slowly toward the Santa Lucia train station, taking pictures. More and more people in capes and feathers hurry by, rushing in the opposite direction toward St. Mark’s and the free wine.

I’m not sure how many bridges there are between me and Santa Lucia, but I’ll savor them all—I just have my purse and camera to carry—and then I’ll go home.

–by Natalia Sarkissian

See Alessio Antonini, “Lino Tagliapietra: Il Maestro del vetro piu’ amato dagli Usa,” Corriere di Verona, Sabato, 19 Febbraio, 2011; Press release from Il Logo and for Francesco’s magnificent photographs: www.FrancescoAllegretto.com

  17 Responses to “A Letter from Italy — Natalia Sarkissian”

  1. Art, friends, cuisine – they all come alive in this piece. Love your writing, love you. Thanks for being so prolific this month. Your posts keep me coming back to Numero Cinq.

  2. Belissima, Natalia! Every detail, from the resin gluing down the delicate glass vases to counting distances by bridges, is just perfect. What a glorious, shimmering day you had. Thanks for taking us along.

  3. What BeeBee said, Natalia. Me thinks you are a bridge too far because I’d love to see you.

  4. Lovely, N. Took me back to Venice! Thanks for the writing and the photos.

  5. Another thoroughly enjoyable outing with Natalia. Whether we are having a visit while walking the dog, people watching together on the beach, or going to an art opening, spending time with you is always a pleasure. I look forward to our next jaunt together.

  6. I’m feeling culturally deprived, ns.

    Beautiful glass, beautiful pics. Let us know how the story goes.

  7. Your article has transported me back to Venice. What a fun and beautiful description of the sights and sounds. Thanks Natasha!

  8. Thanks Joby, glad you liked it!

  9. Natalia,
    I love your beautiful writing! Grazie Mille.
    I was also at the exhibit, and you have really captured the spirit of everything. Another wonderful gift from that experience is that now I know about your blog!


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