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Carlo Scarpa: Connecting the Glass Artist and the Architect

Scarpa’s glass designs for Venini coming to The Metropolitan Museum of Art reveal the influences of poetry and religion.

By Norman Weinstein October 30, 2013

Several major modern architects have had an intensive preoccupation with glass—Frank Lloyd Wright and Gio Ponti come to mind—but no other architect has so comprehensively and dynamically designed with, and invented new processes to decorate, glass as Carlo Scarpa (1906–78).

Carlo Scarpa, Incamiciati “Cinesi,” designed for Venini, 1940. “Cinesi” (Chinese) was the definition attributed to a series of incamiciati (“sleeved”) glass vases and bowls, with forms drawn from Oriental porcelain. The use of the incamiciatura technique, in which various differently colored glass layers were superimposed, enabled the craftsmen to create thin and strikingly colored objects. From Carlo Scarpa: Venini, 1932–1947 by Marino Barovier (Skira)

Why did Scarpa have such an intimate, hands-on love affair with glass? Even if you plan to attend The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s forthcoming exhibition on Scarpa’s Venetian glass opening in November (or saw the original version of the show at Le Stanze del Vetro in Venice last year) with the two new and hefty Scarpa books—Carlo Scarpa: Venini, 1932–1947 by Marino Barovier (Skira) and Carlo Scarpa by Robert McCarter (Phaidon Press)—in tow, you’ll find these insightful volumes vague regarding this key question. What makes comprehending the bridge between the glass artist and architect crucial is how that understanding, or lack of it, can color (in every sense) and shape a viewer’s entire experience of Scarpa’s glass.

Carlo Scarpa at work in his studio at Asolo Treviso, Italy, at the end of the 1970s. Photo: courtesy of Le Stanze del Vetro, Venice

Here’s what’s missing in numerous Scarpa exhibitions and publications: Scarpa was a devout Roman Catholic, poetry lover (particularly French poetry), and autodidact who defied multiple conventions of art and architecture careers. Proof for these assertions can be found readily in Scarpa’s own words as well as in the study of his well-used and heavily annotated personal library. One major clue to the primacy of these devotions is given in Scarpa’s lifelong design leitmotif, one he worked, directly or indirectly, into his architecture: the vesica piscis. This consists of two circles intersecting with the identical radius so that the center of each circle lies on the perimeter of the other. Utilized in numerous medieval and contemporary church designs, it spawned the Gothic arch as well as stained glass designs where an almond shape of radiant light bathes an illuminated figure of Jesus or Mary. The earliest Christian iconography, the fish—two convex arches intersecting horizontally—marked Roman catacombs. This symbol historically has been globally interpreted as suggesting doubleness, a paradoxical interplay of flesh and spirit, masculinity and femininity, base and precious materials, fragility and strength, permanence and impermanence, terra firma and water, earth and heaven, the human eye and divine eye. Most prominent in Scarpa’s last architectural design, the Brion Cemetery, Scarpa referred to the vesica piscis at its entrance as “eyes.”

Carlo Scarpa, Brion Cemetery, San Vito D’Altivole, 1969–77, window of the pavilion of meditation in the form of a vesica piscis (via Wikimedia Commons)

Carlo Scarpa, Brion Cemetery, San Vito D’Altivole, 1969–77, plan and elevation for the family tomb, graphite and colored pencil on paper. Carlo Scarpa Archive, MAXXI Architecture Collection, © MAXXI, Museum of the XXI Century Arts, MAXXI Foundation, Rome, From Carlo Scarpa by Robert McCarter (Phaidon Press)

A more potent symbol for an artist with a highly developed poetic imagination and spiritual sensibility working in glass and architecture, particularly Venetian architecture, could not be imagined. Glass design became realized art objects for Scarpa through his direction of magisterial glass masters lampworking or blowing glass. Imagine their exhalation (the immediate consequence of artistic as well as physical inspiration) through a glasspipe into a paste becoming initially a transparent globular world. The glass workers set molten glass spinning, artfully shaping heated liquidity into cooling solidity. This previously emergent form assumed a final form—fragile as an emergent soul in flesh—yet infused with an acute integrity of shape, color, brilliance, surface texture, and depth in relation to ever-changing atmospheric light. In contrast, Scarpa’s Venetian architecture literally began with designing a durable foundation—a foundation that paradoxically was compounded of shifting sand and mud, lagoon-submerged, supported by wooden pilings. Unlike glass art, architecture has called out for human habitation to be complete, for a constant dwelling within interiors with delineated linking pathways and viewpoints throughout, all firm, robustly designed for a (hopefully) long human interaction.

The Books

Carlo Scarpa Robert McCarter

Scarpa’s glass art and Venetian architecture share a mirror effect, each acting as a “lens” filtering light through imaginative design facets emphasizing matter showcased as fluid and luminescent while maintaining exquisitely crafted joints bespeaking solidity. As sensually and aesthetically pleasurable as this achievement was, it was also an apotheosis of his lifelong devotion to romantic poetry and Christianity, pathways transforming the conventional course of the modern architect’s career into a symbolically layered, metaphoric, spiritually focused sojourn. In Scarpa’s personal library were various and well underlined copies of the 19th-century romantic French poetry of Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé. Both poets wrote about glass and glaziers repeatedly. Baudelaire, in “The Bad Glazier” (in Paris Spleen) berates a glazier for selling transparent glass only—nothing with wildly vivid colors to satisfy Baudelaire’s thirst for a life fiercely lived. And Mallarmé in “The Gift of the Poem” compares the beauty of sunlight filtered through a glass pane upon the face of a dying old man to the radiant beauty found in a poet’s lyrical words. These poems translate the tensions of modern secular urban life into timeless ecstatic experiences, fusing earthly and otherworldly illumination.

Carlo Scarpa, Corrosi (“corroded glass”), designed for Venini, 1936–38. Corroded glass featured a rough surface, caused by hydrofluoric and sulphuric acid in solution. The glass piece, often clear and colored, was covered with sawdust soaked in acid. From Carlo Scarpa: Venini, 1932–1947 by Marino Barovier (Skira)

The Books

Carlo Scarpa: Architecture and Design Guido Beltramini
Italo Zannier
Carlo Scarpa: Architecture in Details Bianca Albertini
Alessandro Bagnoli
Carlo Scarpa: The Complete Works Francesco Dal Co
Giuseppe Mazzariol

Carrying this imagery over to the particulars of Scarpa’s creative life in glass and architecture, the poetic imagery of glass resonates throughout Christian history, from the Biblical account of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians with “For now we see through a glass darkly” to the numerous churches decorated with glittering stained-glass windows that personally and professionally impacted Scarpa’s life. Scarpa asked for this epithet on his grave: “A man of Byzantium who came to Venice by way of Greece.” Consider the golden shimmering windows and dazzle of gold altarpieces in a Byzantine church. Also ponder how these elements of splendor traveled from Constantinople to Venice, following the silk trade route, transformed as facets of Italian Romanesque and Gothic church architecture. And Greece? Before the birth of Christianity, there was Greek philosophy, geometry (meaning etymologically “measure of the earth”), architecture, religion, and poetry. There was Plato’s famous allegory of the cave in which the forces of light and darkness explain the cyclical patterns of human history, reconfigured in both Jewish and Christian mysticism.

When you see the various inventive surfaces of Scarpa’s glass art, pieces seemingly dredged up from ancient seas, others speckled with gold or silver leaf, contrasting with still other earth- and sea-colored objects, reflect on how each piece enacts in your vision a ritual religious drama of warming light overcoming chilling darkness, or the constant ritual of Venetian architecture, particularly Scarpa’s, enduring floodwaters against the odds. Add poetry and religion to your perception of the architect’s glass, and its iridescence will become that much more enduring.

 Carlo Scarpa, Sommersi a bollicine, designed for Venini, 1934–36. From the exhibition “Carlo Scarpa. Venini 1932–1947,” Le Stanze del Vetro, Venice (2012–13). Photo: courtesy of Le Stanze del Vetro, Venice

Carlo Scarpa, Sommersi a bollicine, designed for Venini, 1934–36. From the exhibition “Carlo Scarpa. Venini 1932–1947,” Le Stanze del Vetro, Venice (2012–13). Photo: courtesy of Le Stanze del Vetro, Venice


Carlo Scarpa, Variegati, designed for Venini, 1942. From the exhibition “Carlo Scarpa. Venini 1932–1947,” Le Stanze del Vetro, Venice (2012–13). Photo: courtesy of Le Stanze del Vetro, Venice

Carlo Scarpa, Murrine Romane, designed for Venini, 1936. From the exhibition “Carlo Scarpa. Venini 1932–1947,” Le Stanze del Vetro, Venice (2012–13). Photo: courtesy of Le Stanze del Vetro, Venice

Venetian Glass by Carlo Scarpa: The Venini Company, 1932–1947” will be on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, November 5, 2013–March 2, 2014. The exhibition is an adaptation of “Carlo Scarpa. Venini 1932–1947,” organized by the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice, and Pentagram Stiftung for presentation at Le Stanze del Vetro, Venice, in 2012.

Carlo Scarpa: Venini, 1932–1947 by Marino Barovier (Skira)was reviewed as a Notable Design Book of 2013 on Designers & Books in October 2013.

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