The Murrine Opache technique must be considered as amongst the architect’s greatest technical and stylistic achievements. Revealed at the XXII Venice Biennale of 1940, these important and revolutionary forms represented the triumph of years of meticulous technical innovation, and deliver abstracted surfaces described by intuitive, painterly verve.
Archive photographs of the Biennale record a cornucopia of vases, vessels and bowls, primarily of sober, minimalist form and of solid colour. The foreground offers four glass trays, each describing an alternative interpretation of the Murrine Opache technique. The importance of this display was profound – for not only was the arrangement representative of innovative new techniques across myriad applications and within a variety of forms, but the installation appears to have been conceived and arranged as a chromatic narrative, encouraging the observer to succumb to a sensation that offered parallel, entwined narratives of both the Antique, and of the Modern. The 1940 Biennale was triumph, not only for Scarpa and for Venini, but for Italy’s stature at forefront of the creative and artistic avant-garde.
Scarpa’s reinvention of the Murrine Opache technique was revolutionary. In this instance, the murrine is a tiny glass cube, cut from an internally-decorated glass cane. The process required the meticulous alignment of these cubic murrine, fused together in the furnace, and allowed to slump-cool to predetermined form. The exceptionally thin wall of fused murrine was finished by sensitive grinding and polishing to a matte reflective surface. The origins of this technique can be traced to ancient Roman glass, with Scarpa deriving further inspiration from his appreciation of Byzantine mosaic. Together with Paolo Venini, Scarpa first assessed this ancient technique with his Roman Murrine series of 1936, and was subsequently refined with the Murrine Transparenti, and the Laccati Neri e Rossi series of 1940. Both these techniques were also exhibited alongside examples of the Murrine Opache at the 1940 Biennale. These forms were pure, architectonic vessels, polished to high brilliance, and with the murrine structures suppressed to near-invisibility.
The cubic personality of these tiny glass murrine cannot be understated, as the cube and the square remained persistent structural and decorative features within Scarpa’s subsequent career as an architect. The mosaic floor of the Olivetti showroom in Piazza San Marco, Venice, 1957 is a celebrated example, however also noteworthy is the irregular mosaic floor created for the Bellotto House, Venice, 1944-46 – a project commenced whilst Scarpa was still with Venini – and which bears comparison to at least one of the dishes presented at the Biennale four years prior. Numerous other architectural projects can be cited, many of which feature two-dimensional applications of abstract cubic mosaic as floor or wall surface treatments, or three-dimensionally as in the example of the irregular, asymmetric platform created for the monument to the Women of the Resistance, Venice, 1968. The conceptual symbolism of mosaic, and by implication labyrinthine maze-like patterns, clearly held strong personal resonance for Scarpa. An early inspiration may have been the templates utilised for the mechanised production of woven and knotted textiles, an interest that Scarpa shared with the artist Bice Lazzari, the older sister of his future wife Onorina. Ambidextrous, in later life Scarpa’s right hand regularly bore a heavy Native American sterling ring, the surface inset with asymmetric turquoise mosaic inlay, a gift from his admiring friend Frank Lloyd Wright.
Revealingly, for the first time Scarpa now selected dishes as the medium through which to communicate the painterly qualities of his Murrine Opache technique. The flattened rectangular, circular or ovoid forms, often with irregular or undulating rims, represented the perfect canvas through which to frame the energy of his conceptions. The four dishes exhibited at the Biennale illustrated artistic variations of technique, evolving from pointillist or architectonic minimalism through to a stylized serpentine labyrinth, suggestive of an ancient mosaic fragment now abstracted to pure sensory pattern. Other examples, to include the present dish, invoke a stylised memory of the vibrant fields of flowers that surrounded Scarpa’s childhood home in Vicenza.
Since his appointment with M.V.M. Capelllin in 1926, Carlo Scarpa had rigorously assessed technical and stylistic possibilities within modern glass design. He was able to perfect multiple complex surface techniques, and had pioneered the transition from vessels that were blown, to structures that were constructed. By 1940, as confirmed by the seminal exhibition at the XXII Biennale, his virtuoso capacity for innovation was unrivalled, and his mastery of delivery was assured. The dishes of the Murrine Opache series illustrate pattern guided by process, and by turn process is determined by structure – revealing Scarpa as an innovator who imagines as an architect, yet describes as an artist.
The following lot is an exceptional and early example, and remains in excellent condition. By repute a wedding gift to the original owner, this fine and important example benefits from having been preserved, apparently unused, within the manufacturer’s original signed presentation box.
A. Venini Diaz de Santillana, Venini, Catalogue Raisonné 1921-1986, Milan, 2000, p. 148, n. 105, and p. 215, n. 143 for a highly comparable dish;
Exhibition catalogue, Venetian Glass: the Nancy Olnik and Giorgio Spanu Collection, New York, 2000, p. 94, n. 64 for this model illustrated;
F. Deboni, Venini Glass, Catalogue 1921-2007, Turin, 2007, pl. 92 for a highly comparable dish;
M. Barovier, Carlo Scarpa: Glass of an Architect, Milan, 1998, pp. 168-69, 221 no. 243 for another vase of this model; p. 274, n. 21 and p. 276, n. 27 for another dish of this model at the XXII Venice Biennale, 1940;
M. Barovier, Carlo Scarpa: Venini 1932-1947, exhibition catalogue, Le Stanze del Vetro, Milan, 2012, pp. 390-391, 395-397 for this model illustrated and design drawings.