Murrine Romana vessels in a period photograph published in Domus, July 1936

Designed in collaboration with Paolo Venini in 1936, the Murrine Romana vessels illustrate an ambitious attempt by Carlo Scarpa to recreate the ancient Roman technique of murrine, but cast in a new light. This experimental series would not only presage Scarpa’s later work with murrines at Venini, but also mark his first design collaboration with the company’s prescient founder.

Scarpa became full time art director at Venini in 1934 and his deep interest in historic, ancient and archaic glass was immediately apparent. His first series, Bollicine, were bubbly, thick walled, semi-opaque vessels rendered in jewel-tone colors. In this case, inspiration came from ancient cast and carved glass vases with degraded surfaces excavated at Mesopotamian archaeological sites.

Murrine Romana are more than just well executed novelties—they are a symbol of the inspired co-mingling of experimental art and commerce.

His second series, Mezza Filligrana, was based on a 16th century Venetian technique. These were thin walled vessels with reduced classical forms, but Scarpa, working with Venini’s master blowers, devised new technical methods in order to produce large-scale, out-sized objects. In both instances we see Scarpa’s ability to blend ancient and modern aesthetic concepts, as well as Paolo Venini’s willingness to let his young designer follow his own artistic inclinations. Incidentally, both series were well received and commercially successful.

The Murrine Romana series was another story. These vessels were truly experimental as Venini’s craftsmen were attempting a new variation of the old Roman technique of slumping. Built rather than blown, these pieces were intended to look archaic, with thick, blocky murrine walls, and cobbled, tactile exteriors. Since these vessels were so difficult to achieve, it is amazing that the few surviving examples are so well constructed and aesthetically pleasing.

It is also interesting to note that not only did Paolo Venini support the effort to make these pieces, he was personally involved in their design and execution. Years later, in the 1940s and 1950s, both Scarpa and Venini would go on to design murrine series based on these early attempts. However, the Murrine Romana are more than just well executed novelties—they are a symbol of the inspired co-mingling of experimental art and commerce.

Carlo Scarpa

Carlo Scarpa was born in Venice in 1906, and died an accidental death in Japan in 1978. Like many great artists, Scarpa’s work as architect and designer is highly influential and yet remains enigmatic, illusive and hard to categorize. What is obvious in all his work is an underlying transcendental quality, an uncanny ability to create powerful emotional states in all who experience it. It is perhaps this quality that makes him one of the most beloved and revered figures in the history of 20th century Italian art and design.

Scarpa’s various biographers often point to his sensitivity to materials and his ability to evoke the past, but nothing about Scarpa is easy to define. In 1919 he enrolled in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Venice and graduated in 1926 with the title of Professor of Architecture. He did not, however, sit the pro forma exam required by the Italian government, and hence was never fully licensed as an architect.

A master of blending ancient and modern materials, forms and sensibilities, Scarpa completed over sixty architectural projects for museums in his lifetime. His agile use of precious, humble and industrial materials in order to elegantly frame historical fragments and artifacts is perhaps his greatest architectural achievement. His devotion to restoration and preservation also seem to suggest a belief that the true vocation of any architect is to quietly re-frame history, to convey a sense of both past and present, uniting them in full knowledge that the future is unwritten.

Scarpa’s work as a glass designer is equally poetic and ambitious. Working for both MVM Cappellin and Venini he produced hundreds of models, all of which are now considered masterworks. Drawing inspiration from ancient Chinese and Japanese vessels, Scarpa was able to express the best aspects of Murano glass craftsmanship in reduced modernist forms. Even the titles of his series hint at the elemental power of his work: Bollicine, Transparente, Granulare, Iridato, Inciso, Batutto, Vellato, Fasce, Pennellate (Bubbly, Transparent, Grainy, Iridized, Incised, Beaten, Veiled, Banded, Brushstrokes).

Carlo Scarpa’s death itself was poetic. He died from injuries after falling down a flight of concrete steps that he himself had designed in Sendai, Japan. However his death was not immediate—he lived for ten days. While unable to speak, it is said that he could write, but only backwards, and that he spent his last days creating tiny illustrated books for his friends. In the end he was buried in the standing position, wrapped in white muslin, in a quiet corner of the Brion-Vega Cemetery in San Vito d’Altivole, widely considered to be his ultimate architectural masterpiece.

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