"The Positions." Ms. Dunant is able to tease an engrossing chain of
events out of the fate of this illicit item. She also takes the story
to Venice's Ghetto, where Bucino goes to do business and where he
feels unexpected kinship for a Jewish pawnbroker. The proximity of the
glass-blowing artists on the island of Murano to a household that is
financed by smuggled rubies gives the author useful building blocks
for a tale of chicanery.
Murano Pursues a Renaissance
Published: June 3, 2011
MURANO, Italy — The quasi-monastic quiet of this lagoon island a short vaporetto ride from Venice has been broken intermittently in recent months by ear-splitting saws and the low grumble of heavy machinery.
Michele Borzoni for The International Herald Tribune
A wing of a late 19th century brick factory built by the Società Veneziana Conterie e Cristallerie, once one of the largest bead and glass factories on the island of Murano, is metamorphosing into a 130-room, deluxe hotel, which is expected to open in the summer of 2012.
At the height of production in the 1920s and early 1930s, when the Conterie’s beads were wildly popular in clothing and design around the world, the factory employed as many as 1,000 people, with another 4,000 working on contract. But it shut its doors in 1992, a victim of changing tastes and a rapidly globalizing economy.
The hotel has claimed one former Conterie structure; another is to become an annex of the island’s glass museum, if funding for the project can be found.
Off a nearby canal, work is under way on another former glass factory destined to join the top-end Kempinski Hotels chain when it opens in 2013 (though construction has been stalled for some time as building permits await approval). The luxury digs — about 150 rooms and suites — are to include a sun terrace, a spa and fitness center and a ballroom, as well as meeting and convention spaces.
Another, smaller hotel in an abandoned glassworks is still on the drawing board.
The new hotels reflect a radical change in the self-image of an island whose history has been inextricably linked with glassmaking since 1291, when Venice moved its glass furnaces to this site, which it considered a safe distance away from the main islands.
Since that time Murano’s core industry has had its highs and lows, and the economic roller coaster of recent decades has dulled some of the luster of Murano artistic glass.
In the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s, boats weighted down with glass products — miniature animal families, glassware and vases, delicate rococo chandeliers constructed of hundreds of pieces — set sail from here to satisfy insatiable foreign markets.
Then, the majority of Murano’s inhabitants, who today number about 4,600, were involved in one aspect of glassmaking or another. Local boys would begin working in the furnaces before they turned 10 and spend a lifetime honing their skills.
Things are different today. Official industry figures for annual revenue from artistic glass do not exist but can be estimated to hover around €150 million, or $217 million, according to Gianni De Checchi, secretary of the Confartigianato di Venezia, a trade group for artisans.
Ten years ago it was €200 million, he said, with profit margins worn away by rising production costs — especially the cost of energy and transportation — as well as labor costs.
“There’s been a massacre of companies,” said Gianluca Vecchi, chairman of Andromeda, a chandelier and lighting factory that he said is facing a bumpy patch. “Too many things have happened in too short a time,” and now “there are no more tears to cry.”
In many ways, the island has mapped its own decline.
Murano’s current situation “is typical of what happened to other industrial districts in Italy in the past 10 years,” said Stefano Micelli, a professor of innovation technology at Ca’Foscari University in Venice and dean of Venice International University.
Comfortable after years of prosperity, many Murano companies did not look beyond their fiery furnaces and failed to evolve toward a more industrial and managerial model, he said.
“Instead of selling vases to tourists, they should have thought of ways to look to the future,” he said.
Now the island is being forced to imagine a future beyond glass. Proximity to Venice had already fueled a fledgling tourism industry, and in a few short years glass shops catering to day-trippers have colonized waterfront palazzo locations, muscling out residents and traditional retail stores.
But Murano is notoriously insular, and previously it has dispensed its hospitality in small doses. It has two hotels and a handful of bed and breakfasts that can accommodate a total of 72 guests. There is not much nightlife. Once the factories shut their doors, so does the island.
The influx of new accommodations will change that, or so investors believe.
“If Murano becomes another base for tourism, as we hope will happen, then the city will live again, it will be revitalized around the clock,” said Francesco Paternostro, managing director of Lagare, the Milan real estate development group behind the hotel in the ex-Conterie.
The group chose to invest in Murano, he said, because demand for accommodations remained high in the lagoon and because it was cheaper than developing in Venice. He is certain that Murano’s characteristic charm holds its own allure. “People will start going to Venice for the day,” and not the other way around, he said.
The prospect that China and other developing countries will send millions of tourists abroad, flush with new wealth, is also pushing the change. Venice is already so packed, “one can barely walk around the streets anymore,” said Guido Ferro, whose company has been dabbling in the hotel business here after centuries spent in glass furnaces. “Murano has to transform itself — within limits, of course.”
Changes are also on the way via a citywide urban development project, the so-called Urban Structure Plan, or PAT in Italian, which is under discussion in City Hall. It is a broad and fairly contentious rezoning plan that will shape Venice in the coming decades.
In Murano, administratively a district of Venice, discussion has centered on the “Sacca San Mattia,” a 7-hectare, or 17-acre, plot of abandoned land that is to be reconverted to industrial and artisanal use. Sacca refers to land that has emerged from the lagoon.
Murano’s municipal officials envision transporting some glass factories from the center to this northwestern spot. In Sacca San Mattia, modern glassworks could be built according to more technologically advanced and environmentally friendly criteria alongside other “lagoon-friendly industries,” like boat building, said Erminio Viero, the president of the Murano Municipality, who noted that ideas were still mostly at an embryonic stage.
In turn, the vacated buildings in the center could be developed for low-cost housing, which is in perennially short supply here. “A lot of young people leave because they can’t afford to live” in Murano, Mr. Viero said.
Local council members hope the changes will bring other investments.
“The idea is that Murano won’t live just off of glass, but that new sources of employment will be found,” said Massimiliano Smerghetto, Murano’s council member for culture, sport and youth activities. “We have to work on various axes; the island’s culture, which is tied to glass, new economic energies, and urban development.”
The citywide plan also calls for the development of new transportation lines, most controversially an underwater subway that would carry travelers arriving by air to Murano and then Venice, making the island a potential pit stop for air passengers, more than nine million of whom arrived in 2010.
Opposition to the subway remains lively, though most Murano residents complain about infrequent and slow transportation to the mainland, which has contributed to the island’s geographical insularity.
“We need rapid transport,” said Lorenzo Giordani, who began courting tourist stomachs four years ago when he opened Alla Vecchia Pescheria, a stylish eatery just off the Fondamenta Dei Vetrai where the décor is as studied as the menu. Mr. Giordani’s family is in the glass business, “but I wanted to launch something new,” he said. The restaurant is open daily for lunch but demand at night is slow, so it’s open two nights a week in winter, four in summer.
While he is looking forward to the traffic the new hotels will bring, Mr. Giordani acknowledged that the island’s sleepy pace had been a significant calling card. “Murano is beautiful because it is what it is,” he said.
Even as some islanders begin to plan for the future, many glass manufacturers are still reeling at how quickly their industry spiraled into crisis mode.
Many point to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States, as the beginning of the end, when foreign orders began to crumble and tourists began to stay away. Recovery has been hampered by the financial crisis of the past two years.
In little less than a decade, about a third of Murano’s glassmakers — many of whom boast lineages dating back centuries — have shut down or have had to cut back drastically. The industry’s work force has dropped from 6,000 employees in 1970 to about 900 today, according to Gianfranco Albertini, president of the Promovetro Consortium, which manages a trademark for original Murano glass.
Manufacturers point to a series of difficulties and growing expenses.
Labor costs have increased — when labor can be found. Generational renewal is nearly nonexistent and manufacturers note that it has become nearly impossible to find young people willing to spend 12 hours a day working in front of a hot furnace.
The factories have also been struggling with the expense of adapting to E.U. health and environment directives.
At the same time, the cost of production has also swelled because of increases in energy and transportation prices.
And, as some Murano businessmen said privately, it used to be easier for Italian companies to work in the black economy, cheating on taxes and not putting workers on the books. Increased controls have made such evasion much more difficult.
Lower-quality products emerging ever faster from China and Eastern Europe have also made a considerable dent in Murano’s global glass market.
Real Murano glass is handmade and can require enormous skill to craft.
“The Muranese concept of beauty is directly proportional to the difficulty of creating the object,” explained Fabio Fornasier, a young maestro on the island, who has been among the most successful glassmakers to emerge in recent years.
But that beauty has its price. You can take home a made-in-China Murano-style glass for less than €10. Giovanni Moretti, who co-founded his company with his late brother in 1958 and is one of the few Murano glassmakers to have a store devoted to the brand in Venice, sells glasses that can range in price from €90 to €250.
“Once you know that, for example, it takes 11 workers to make one glass, I think you can agree that the prices are reasonable,” Mr. Moretti said.
Other glassmakers are less sanguine.
“If I sell a vase for €800 and a Chinese copy costs €30, there’s no competition,” said Gino Seguso, the son of the late Archimede Seguso, one of the island’s best-known glass maestros. “I can understand why you’d buy it. Of course, you’re losing out on all the mastery and knowledge, but let’s face it, not everyone is an expert and can tell.”
To plump up local quality and deter sales of fakes, the Artistico Murano trademark was set up in 1994 to guarantee that glass products are made on the island using traditional techniques that were once so jealously guarded that Renaissance artisans were not allowed to leave Murano to set up shop elsewhere. (They faced severe fines and penalties — sometimes death — if they defied the interdiction).
About 45 companies adhere to the trademark.
But not everyone has jumped on board. Many of Murano’s best-known manufacturers, like Barovier & Toso, Venini, Salviati, Seguso, and Carlo Moretti, have declined to join, because their brands, they say, are enough of a guarantee.
And fraud persists.
Last June, Italian papers reported that the finance police had confiscated 11 million Chinese glass pieces (vases, glasses and jewelry) with a reported wholesale value of €13 million from three companies (two on Murano, one on the coast) that sold the pieces as locally made.
Mr. De Checchi, of Confartigianato, believes that tourism will be good for an island that has depended on an industrial monoculture for more than 700 years. “As long as that reality allows Murano to preserve its history,” he said.
Despite the shift toward tourism, for some, Murano “is glass and will always be nothing other than glass,” said Renata Ferrara, who designs delicate and elaborate custom jewelry with hand-made beads.
And regardless of the island’s future development, glass will still be part of it, said Mr. Ferro, who is also president of the island’s only glassmaking school, which offers courses and workshops mostly to foreigners.
“People come to Murano,” he said, “because they want to see the furnaces.”