The Panther Bowl
by Vittorio Zecchin
It is fitting to begin this catalog with Vittorio Zecchin’s Panther Bowl because Zecchin, in his life and work, represents the rebirth of Murano glass in the 20th century, and the Panther Bowl is a literal representation of the shift in Murano glass from local and traditional to international and modern.
Zecchin trained as a painter, but after graduating from the Venetian Academy of Fine Arts in 1901, he decided to turn his back on the art world, and instead entered the civil service on Murano. What drove him to this decision is unclear, but he certainly felt that his ideas and interests were not compatible with those of the Venetian art establishment. Although the Biennale of Venice had begun in 1895, it was, from the beginning, a relatively conservative commercial enterprise with the ultimate goal of reinventing the image of Venice as a world center of art (by the turn of the century Venice was looking shabby, tired, dark and squalid). To that end, very little work by Venetian artists was included in the early Biennales, and the traditional applied arts and crafts of the Venetian lagoon were left out all together.
The Panther Bowl is a literal representation of the shift in Murano glass form local and traditional to international and modern.
Zecchin continued to paint during his years as a civil servant, but didn’t show his work until 1908 when he joined the Ca’ Pesaro group. This group formed in direct opposition to the perceived conservatism of the Venetian art establishment, and the Biennale in particular. Young artists from all over Italy were drawn to the radical-chic of the Ca’ Pesaro group, whose artist studios were housed in the elegant Palazzo Ca’ Pesaro, bequeathed to the city by the Duchess Felicita Bevilacqua La Masa as a museum of modern art, and refuge for idiosyncratic creative talent. Here Zecchin encountered like-minded young artists interested in a wide range of artistic styles, disciplines and materials.
Growing up in and around the furnaces of Murano, Zecchin had always been deeply interested in the material culture of glassblowing, and during his early years as a painter he was profoundly inspired by the rich colors and elegant fluidity of Murano glass. In 1913, Zecchin, along with fellow painter Teodoro Wolf-Ferrari, began his first experiments in glass design. Zecchin and Wolf-Ferrari were both devotees of the Secessionist painter Gustav Klimt who, in turn, had been deeply influenced by Byzantine Murano glass mosaics. Their idea was to design a series of vessels, plaques and stained glass windows in the Secessionist style, and to achieve this they enlisted the help of Murano’s greatest glassblower—Giuseppe Barovier. Barovier was already famous for his ability to produce the finest quality glass in any style, and his ability to execute blown Murrine glass was legendary. Using this technique he produced a group of thirteen Secessionist inspired objects designed by Zecchin and Wolf-Ferrari which were exhibited in Munich in 1913, and again at the Venice Biennale of 1914. These pieces were immediately recognized as a new synthesis of traditional Murano craftsmanship with an international, contemporary art sensibility, and today these works are considered masterpieces of early modern design.
In the reduced, simplified form of the vessel we see the essence of Vittorio Zecchin’s future work with Venini, which will reinvent Murano glass in the 20th century, and make it truly modern.
By 1916, Zecchin had established a studio in an abandoned Monastery on Murano dedicated to the production of large-scale, woven tapestries. During this period he also continued to paint and design glass objects. For the Ca’ Pesaro Exhibition of 1919, Zecchin presented ten tapestries, four embroideries, and a number of clear, thin walled glass vessels decorated with gold gilt and enamel, including the Panther Bowl. Like the mosaic glass vessels of 1914, these pieces represent a shift away from traditional Murano glassmaking which, throughout the 19th century, had been self-referential, focused on reproducing historical models, and was almost completely disconnected from international art trends. The Panther Bowl presented here is unique, and represents one of the few pieces of glass from this important series to survive. In the gilding and enamel work, we see reference to 16th century Murano glassmaking during the height of the Renaissance. In the stylized panther and tree motif, we see the influence of Secessionism, even Art Nouveau. And in the reduced, simplified form of the vessel we see the essence of Vittorio Zecchin’s future work with Venini, which will reinvent Murano glass in the 20th century, and make it truly modern.