Venice Glassmakers’ Ancient Art Shattered by Slump, Taxes

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Daniele Mazzuccato’s life has become as fragile as the famed Murano chandeliers he makes.

The glassmaker has sold his apartment to keep his factory going and now sleeps in the back room of his foundry on the tiny island of Murano, a mile north of the Italian canal city of Venice. The 47-year-old, who comes from a family of glassmakers, says lack of credit, an economic slump and crisis-driven tax increases are killing the island’s centuries-old traditions.

“We are just waiting to die,” Mazzuccato, whose father was a glassmaker and whose mother came from a long line of Murano artisans, said as he chain-smoked in his office that was strewn with invoices and glass ashtrays.

Murano craftsmanship has been passed on from generation to generation. So renowned were the island’s master glassmakers that in the 17th century Louis XIV brought some of them to France to steal their secrets and help adorn the “Hall of Mirrors” at the Versailles Palace. Murano chandeliers hang from ceilings of the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul, which has played host to the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Alfred Hitchcock and was the last stop of the legendary Orient Express.

Over the years, however, the sparkle of Murano glass has dimmed, squeezed by shrinking demand on the high end and cheap knockoffs on the low end.

In the last 14 years, the number of people employed in the island’s glassware factories has shrunk to about 400 from 2,000, according to the FILCTEM-CGIL union, which represents the sector’s workers. Over the past two years, about 80 percent of artisans and foundry employees had to temporarily rely on wage-guaranteed layoff plans, said Riccardo Colletti, secretary of the union’s Venice section.

Skyrocketing Costs

Skyrocketing energy and labor costs, coupled with difficulty getting credit amid Italy’s recession, have made it impossible for entrepreneurs to make a profit, Mazzuccato said. His company’s revenue tumbled to 740,000 euros ($919,000) last year from about 3 million euros in 2008.

The number of people he employs has shrunk to a third of what it was in 2008 and debt has far outstripped sales. He now employs about 10 people, down from 33 in 2008. Half of his staff works only a few days a week. His company has about 1.5 million euros of debt, and has been in the red since 2008, except for one year, he said.

Mazzuccato -- who learned his craft in 1982, opened his own factory in 1993 and says he’s the youngest local entrepreneur -- fears Murano’s hay days may be behind it.

The island became the world’s glass-making Mecca after Venetian authorities forced artisans to move their foundries there in 1291, worried a fire could break out and burn down the city, whose buildings were mostly made of wood at the time.

Today, the once-busy island lies quiet.

Last Supper

Younger entrepreneurs have started converting old factories into hotels to take advantage of the island’s beauty and its location near Venice.

On a recent sunny Tuesday afternoon the few tourists who made the short vaporetto boat trip from Venice to Murano, admired the brightly painted facades of the island’s homes and wandered around the few shops that sell glass necklaces, lamps, paperweights and myriad other intricate trinkets. While some wandered into the foundries with their hot furnaces to watch artisans blowing into or delicately twirling pipes with molten glass to create varying shapes, few made any purchases.

“When tourists knock on the door here, it’s because they are looking for a toilet,” said Mazzuccato.

In the 1970s, the island was so full of glassmakers that at lunchtime “you had to be very careful not to fall into the canals while crossing the bridges,” said Giovanni Camozzo, owner of the Trattoria ai Frati, a restaurant founded in 1859, with a painting of Murano’s best-known residents sitting at a table in a scene reminiscent of the Last Supper.

Chinese Knockoffs

That was before knockoffs from China began flooding the world market and before Europe’s sovereign debt crisis plummeted Italy into its longest recession since World War II. Forced to keep its finances in check, the government has few resources for dying industrial districts like Murano.

“We used to benefit from tax breaks, including a 45 percent discount on gas,” said Fabiano Amadi, as his steps echo in the half empty factory where he now works with a team of six. “Now I pay about 15,000 euros a month.” The space he moved into recently housed over 200 people in the 1980s.

It also hasn’t helped that much of what passes off as Murano glass these days isn’t made on the island.

“About 70 percent of the glass sold in Venice doesn’t come from Murano,” said Luciano Gambaro, head of the Consorzio Promovetro Murano association, which promotes the island’s glass products and represents more than 50 craftsmen and businesses.

Counterfeiting

“The Chinese have become better at imitating mid-to-low level products,” said Rossana Barbini, who owns a glassware shop in Murano. “There’s lots of competition on low-priced products.”

While some entrepreneurs, like Mazzuccato, said they’re not affected by counterfeiting because they produce high-end products and work only on commission, other artisans say fighting imitations is essential.

“We cannot stop globalization, we cannot prevent someone from selling fake Murano glass, still we have the right and the duty to inform the client so that he can make an informed choice,” said Gambaro.

In 2010, Italy’s Finance Police seized more than 11 million fake Murano glass artifacts that had been made in China. The creation, back in 1994, of a trademark that identifies real Murano glass and can be requested by entrepreneurs and artisans operating on the island has helped, although more can be done, according to Gambaro.

Murano Ties

Mazzuccato now sells about 90 percent of his products outside Europe, which isn’t always simple. It can take weeks to obtain documents needed for export, which he says can frustrate clients and discourage future purchases.

A tell-tale 86,000-euro glass chandelier hangs above the heads of Mazzuccato’s employees as they use blow pipes and tongs to shape red-hot molten glass balls taken out of furnaces heated to 1,400 degrees Celsius (2,552 degrees Fahrenheit). The chandelier was commissioned by a client in Uzbekistan, who then canceled the order. It remains as a reminder of the pitfalls of export sales.

Mazzuccato has received many offers to work abroad, including in the Czech Republic, Iran, China and Austria, and has turned them down.

Asked when he last thought about leaving the country, he says “last night,” with a smile.

Then, waving to a friend crossing the canal on a small boat, he says, “What would I be without all this?”