On the couch Lino Tagliapietra
From talking about Hugo Pratt to the eroticism hidden in our everyday lives, a conversation with Lino Tagliapietra, the last of the great Italian master glassmakers Edited by Walter Mariotti “You see those seagulls? They’re the ones Hugo Pratt always used to put in his stories about Corto Maltese. Or rather, they represent my interpretation of Pratt’s seagulls. To me he was not only an inexhaustible source of inspiration but a true master. Of adventure, the search for distant places, freedom and, if we like, of that special form of eroticism that is bound up with mystery, discovered in the crannies of life, in its pauses and voids. It is from that erotic mystery that the seduction of creation arises, as I learned from Dale Chihuly, the man who enabled me to enter the second dimension of my artistic research.”
Only the masters can know the masters. And give them what they have themselves learned, with the respect and devotion that illuminate a life and last a lifetime. This is the case of Lino Tagliapietra, born in 1934, undoubtedly the last of the great Italian master glassmakers. He defies the warmth of the Biennale from the windows of his Murano gallery with a woollen sweater worn over his dark polo shirt. To Tagliapietra goes the credit for the global consecration of the Murano tradition, a technique dating back at least to the late 13th century. Thanks to him, over the past four decades it has eclipsed the hegemony of the Serbian technique worldwide and helped create the New Glass Movement, the artistic current born in Seattle but today recognised from Australia to Japan.
“My approach to design?” Tagliapietra smiles. “Some have called it visionary, perhaps because it has always passed the bounds of craftsmanship, design and even art, making them sculptural, fusing and amalgamating them in a simple or rather natural expressive language.
Then, it’s true my work is always done on the flame, in the furnace, where it’s the breath that gives life to everything — colour, form, structure.” Tagliapietra’s works are actually the opposite of simple.
They are the conceptual, chromatic and concrete elaborations of absolute complexity, true expressive virtuosity, where matter and form evolve in successive spirals, in magical volutes, mathematically impossible yet held together by the inspiration and mastery of a unique talent.
“Everything is done by breath. You see this Saturn? Here, a single breath does everything — the planet, the rings, the raised edge. Simple, right?”
Tagliapietra learnt glass-blowing when he was 14. This followed a twoyear apprenticeship as a watercarrier for the Galliano Ferro furnace, run by the great master Archimede Seguso.
Promoted to applying rings to individual pieces, he educated himself as an autodidact at the Biennale, with a passion for the art of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Ellsworth Kelly. He drew on their work to recreate historical models, but at the same time expanded his artistic vocabulary. Less than ten years later, on his 25th birthday, he was granted the rank of master but had to put his work on hold to complete his military service. During that period he met his future wife, Lina Ongaro, whose family was a large part of the history of the Murano glassworks. Her father Alberto was a friend of Hugo Pratt’s, with whom he travelled under the boundless skies of Brazil and Argentina.
Tagliapietra’s work with major Italian glass companies dates from this period, the early sixties: Venini, La Murrina, Effetre International. At the same time he travelled across America, first discovering it when he was invited to Seattle by his friend Dale Chihuly, at the apex of American glass sculpture. Their meeting came about in 1968, by chance, like much else.
Chihuly initiated Tagliapietra into his art, inaugurating the VeniceSeattle shuttle. It continued for decades and led to a new burst of development in his work. In the Eighties, Tagliapietra traversed multiple experiences, travelling the world, teaching and designing one-off pieces for commercial brands as a truly independent artist. This phase culminated in his first solo exhibition, held in Seattle in 1990, with the critics consecrating his “continuous, modern experimentation that combines the ancient techniques of Italian tradition: wheel-engraving, zanfirico, filigree, reticello, pulegoso, martelé, etching and incalmo”.
Since 1979 Tagliapietra has spent most of each year in the Belltown neighbourhood of Seattle, where he set up his studio-gallery, recently renovated by Graham Baba Architects. It occupies a 1917 redbrick building, formerly the premises of an auction house, where the prevailing tones are cold, from bleached oak flooring to high ceilings, ideal for creating contrasts with the colourful universe of his vases.
As often happens, his homeland acknowledged his stature later, in 2011, when the Veneto Institute of Sciences, Arts and Letters paid tribute to him with “Avventura”, a retrospective devoted to a figure already celebrated around the world. “Tagliapetra’s vases,” wrote Glass Quarterly, “emulate Roman amphorae, vessel forms far older than the Murano glass-blowing tradition and its challenging
avventurina technique… Sixteen textured elliptical pieces form
Masai d’Oro, part of a series inspired by the deeply symbolic shields used by the Masai peoples in Kenya and Tanzania.”
Gifted with a childlike curiosity, Tagliapietra continues his research, expanding the vocabulary and techniques made possible by digital innovation. In October 2012, he spent a week at MIT Glass Lab, working with artists and school educators exploring digital glassmaking models.
This resulted in the development of Virtual Glass, a software to facilitate research into materials, reduce production costs and make the prices of the works more affordable. In June 2012, the Columbus Museum of Art announced it had purchased a glass installation by Tagliapietra: Endeavor, a fleet of 35 ships suspended from the ceiling, that immediately transformed into an icon of seduction in the permanent collection.
Begun under the auspices of the seagulls, our encounter with the master ends with the seagulls escorting us to the Biennale. We promise to return in September, when he comes back from Seattle.
To talk about Pratt and the mystery of everyday eroticism, which is after all only a variation on artistic freedom, “I’m completely open,” he says as he takes his leave. “What I like doing above all is research. I don’t want to represent the Venetian technique alone, though I was born here. Because style is just who you are.” Simple, right?