An artistic exchange between Venice and America sparks the Carnegie's Viva Vetro! show. | Community Profile | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

An artistic exchange between Venice and America sparks the Carnegie's Viva Vetro! show.

An artistic exchange between Venice and America sparks the Carnegie's Viva Vetro! show.
Translucent artistry: Toots Zynsky's "Parapiglia" (2000), part of Viva Vetro!
Before Pittsburgh was known as the Steel City -- or even the Iron City -- it was the national center of glass production. Between 1763 and 1850, approximately 50 glass fabricators sprang up within the region. By 1920, the city would boast that it manufactured 80 percent of American-made glass.

Around that time, as Pittsburgh reached its glass-producing zenith, Italian painter Vittorio Zecchin designed the now-iconic Veronese Vase for the visionary upstart V.S.M. Cappellin, Venini, & Co. An amethyst-colored, blown-glass version of Zecchin's prototype -- originally inspired by Renaissance artist Paolo Veronese's painted representation of a similar vessel -- is the first work on display in Viva Vetro! Glass Alive! Venice and America, an exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art.

Under the gallery lights, the vase has the fragile transparency and opalescent sheen of a soap bubble. And like the proud forebear of an enormous progeny, it stands at the head of 124 subsequent works, which stretch outward into the expansive three-room Heinz Galleries. This prime position is fitting: Often reproduced in subsequent decades, it became the icon of modern Venetian glassmaking. And -- because it was designed by an independent artist rather than a traditional glass master-- it also heralded a new era.

Viva Vetro!, which reveals the little-known story of art glass' development in America and Venice, was organized by the Carnegie's recently retired chief curator, Sarah Nichols. The exhibition reveals the circulation of ideas between America and the island of Murano, situated in the Venetian Lagoon and deemed the safest location for the development of the furnace-driven glass industry in the 1500s. The show is intended to complement other exhibitions included in Pittsburgh Celebrates Glass!, a city-wide tribute.

It is no coincidence that sculptor Dale Chihuly's work figures so prominently in Viva Vetro. Chihuly is not only the first American glassblower to have worked in a Murano factory; he is also widely considered the father of the American studio-glass movement. After reaching Murano, in 1968, Chihuly helped to relax Venetian studios' closed-door policy. For centuries, Venetians had guarded their glassmaking techniques from foreigners, whom they viewed with the narrow-eyed suspicion reserved for thieves and pickpockets. The exhibition posits that it wasn't until World War II, when the innovative, two-decade-old company Venini engaged internationally renowned artists to work with its glass masters. The move shifted industry culture so that a fertile era of international collaboration could begin.

Enter Chihuly. The Venetian art-deco style inspired him the most. His "Cadmium Yellow Putti Venetian, 1993," part of his extensive "Venetian" series, displays the flamboyant, almost rococo sensibility and skill that is Chihuly's trademark. The vase's sweeping contours and brilliant ochre hue are accented by gilded cherubs and gleaming flecks of gold.

Aside from the well-plotted unfurling of studio histories and artist profiles, another vital exhibition component is the detailed explication of technique, which, to the layman, might still seem somewhat magical. The helix-like spirals in, for example, American Charles Lin Tissot's "Chess Set, c. 1954--55" are created by a process called "zanfirico," in which threads of colored glass are twisted as the vessel is blown. The result is a stunning internal embellishment suggesting linear pirouettes. The exhibition also explains a bevy of other technical terms and reveals how these age-old Venetian techniques were later incorporated into American studio creations.

Chronologically organized, this exceptional survey of work, techniques, figures and schools artfully compresses more than a half-century of American and Venetian creative exchange and offers an absorbing, and easily charted, three-gallery journey. With elements that appeal to both intellectual and aesthetic interests, Viva Vetro is a delight for both the eye and the mind.

Viva Vetro! continues through Sept. 16. Carnegie Museum of Art, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. 412-622-3131 or

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