Venice is famous for its artisanal traditions such as glass making. However, not everyone realizes that this entails much more than only Murano glass. One of the lesser known specialties is the production of smalti or artisanal glass mosaics. Until the 1950s, there were several mosaic furnaces in Venice and Murano. While most of them moved completely abroad when the industrial production started, there are still a few companies with a local furnace to produce smalti following the old production methods.
In this post, I will first give you some background on the history of glass mosaics and of the Orsoni workshop. I will then explain you how smalti are produced before I tell you about the amazing library of colours which I visited in Cannaregio.
History of glass mosaics
Even though some glass pieces were found in the mosaics of Mesopotamia from the 4th century BC, the art of producing smalti seems to originate from Egypt. From there, it was transferred to Persia and Greece. At the end of the 12th century, the Venetians imported this technique from Constantinople where it had been technically improved over the course of the centuries.
DID YOU KNOW? In 1291, all the glass furnaces in Venice were obliged to move to Murano for safety reasons. After the period of the Republic, furnaces were again allowed in Venice.
The glass masters continued to further improve the process to a very high level. By the 15th century, the glass master Angelo Barovier and the mosaicist Michele Giambono developed an infinite range of colors to compete with the paintbrush. You can find more information on the glass masters in Murano in my post ‘Murano glassmasters: artisans or artists?’.
Smalti were originally created to decorate churches and other religious buildings. One of the most beautiful examples in Venice is without any doubt the San Marco basilica, which is opulently decorated with mosaics. Towards the end of the 19th century, mosaics became also very popular for art, thanks to Gustav Klimt, and as decoration of private houses, following the examples of the art deco buildings in Paris and Budapest.
The Orsoni workshop was created in 1877 by the famous mosaicist Giandomenico Facchina. When he moved to France in 1888, he gave his workshop to his assistant Angelo Orsoni. In 1889, Angelo traveled to the Great Exhibition in Paris with a demonstration panel of 1,467 colors of smalti and gold mosaic tiles. His trip was a success and was the start of his international recognition. When he died in 1921, his son Giovanni inherited a world player in glass mosaics and tiles. The long list of references includes the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the Sacré Coeur and the Opera House in Paris, the Sanctuary of Lourdes and St. Paul Cathedral in London.
The family business continued under Giovanni’s son Angelo (from 1935) and his sons Ruggero and Lucio (from 1969). Since the acquisition in 2003 by Trend Group, Orsoni is no longer in the hands of the Orsoni family. Lucio Orsoni is however the honorary president. He can still be found at the workshop twice a week to share his knowledge and experience with the team of 20 employees. The traditional furnace is a beautiful element to remember the origins of the company.
The showroom in Cannaregio has recently been renovated to show architects from all over the world how mosaics can be integrated in modern houses, bathrooms or floors. The majority of the products (approx. 70%) are now sold abroad.
If you like mosaics, you can follow a mosaic course of 3 or 5 days at their premises. You can even stay overnight in the former residence of the Orsoni family. As can be expected, it’s nicely decorated with plenty of mosaics in each room and with the original colour panels from 1889. It’s also a perfect opportunity to visit the workshop, which is usually not accessible, except for a few guided tours per year. While you’re in the area, you can take the opportunity to follow the walk from my post ‘Cannaregio: A walk along artisans and history’.
INSIDER TIP: Check with Luisella Romeo if she is organizing a guided tour during your visit to Venice. You can find more information on her in ’10 original Venice related gifts and experiences’.
Production of glass mosaics
The production of smalti starts from the same ingredients as glass: sand, soda, opacifying substances and a secret mix of colouring agents (oxides). This mix is melted in a huge clay pot which is put in the furnace at extremely high temperatures. The temperature differs depending on the colour: normal gold needs 860°, crackle gold 980° but red and yellow require for instance 1,100°. The whole process to reach the right colour might take a couple of days. Hence, the furnace stays heated day and night. I can assure you it’s extremely hot in there.
DID YOU KNOW? The clay pots can only be used for approx. 2 months. When they start to release tiny pieces of stone, they have to be replaced. These obsolete pots with traces of different colours make an extremely nice decoration for a garden.
The fused molten paste is then removed from the melting pot with a long, heavy spoon. The glowing ball of glass is squeezed and flattened into oblong slabs. This is a very tough job and typically done by men. These slabs are slowly cooled to obtain tiles of good quality.
The final step is the cutting of the glass by hand. This is more delicate and handled by women. The large glass slabs are first sliced into strips. They are then chipped down into small rectangles. The golden rods are cut with the aid of a grill and a glass cutter.
Library of colours
The most intriguing part of my visit to Orsoni was the library of colours, which you can see in the banner on top of this article. Ever since the demonstration panel of Angelo Orsoni, the multitude of colours has been the trademark of the Orsoni workshop. Secret family recipes have been handed down through 4 generations to acquire the right tone and intensity of the smalti. Orsoni developed more than 3,000 different colours from just a few dozen oxides. Each colour comes in a wide variety of shades. Some are created on-demand for customers.
DID YOU KNOW? As an outsider, it’s very hard to see the difference between 2 tones. There are for instance 100 different shades of skin. These are necessary to create mosaics with realistic looking people.
Gold is the most famous Orsoni colour and their showpiece. The workshop creates 32 different shades of gold. With just 1 cm² of 6 or 24 carat gold, more than 6 m² of an extremely thin layer of beaten gold can be produced. This layer is so thin that it can hardly be seen with the human eye. When I visited, I was lucky to see the production of gold mosaic. It was amazing to see the unspoken choreography of the men while handling all the different steps. The thin gold leaf is put between a transparent glass base and a fine, hand-blown glass that protects the surface. The three elements are then heated again and welded into a single slab that is free of cracks.
INSIDER TIP: You can still see the Orsoni golden tower with different shades of gold mosaics at the Luxus pavilion in Giardini. It will remain there until November 26, when the Art Biennale 2017 ends. More information is available in my post ‘The Art Biennale 2017 is not only about art’.
Depending on the ingredients used, such as copper, aluminium or celenium, one colour can cost twice as much compared to another. The most expensive ones are gold and flesh tones (skin colours) that are also obtained from gold.
If you like to dive deeper into the subject of glass mosaics, I can recommend the following books: Classic Mosaic by Elaine Goodwin and Technical Historical Glossary of Mosaic Art by Manuela Farneti. The San Marco basilica is certainly worth a visit as it has more than 8,000 m² of mosaics. In my post ‘A magical visit to the illuminated mosaics of the basilica‘, you can find out how you can admire these.
If you want to know more about another less known Venetian artisanal product, I suggest you read ‘Venetian artisans carve the most beautiful cameos’.
Enjoy Venice and its artisans!
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