Carlo Scarpa

At MVM Cappellin

Young Carlo Scarpa’s brilliant tenure as art director at MVM Cappellin (1925-1931) has now been thoroughly documented, in large part due to the inspired and comprehensive exhibition at the Stanze Del Vetro in 2018. One of the surprises in the show were the sculptures—playfully rendered fish, octopi, elephants and owls which verge on the surreal. While animal forms were typical themes for Murano glass firms during the 1930s, they are not necessarily what one associates with Carlo Scarpa. During his years at Cappellin, Scarpa became famous for his reduced modernist vessels composed of rarefied opaque and transparent glass. These objects are so beautiful and transcendental that an air of seriousness, even reverence, surrounds them. Until the exhibition at the Stanze Del Vetro brought together examples of Scarpa’s animal sculptures for Cappellin, his playful, winsome and grotesque moods were not generally appreciated.

The two fish, owl and elephant in this catalog were present in the Stanze Del Vetro exhibition and represent some of the best and rarest examples in existence. If we examine these carefully and compare them to, say, the animals designed by Ercole Barovier during the same period, we see something unique—a particular combination of the whimsical and grotesque, something akin to vanitas paintings of the 16th and 17th century, animals rendered in materials which appear to be almost literally visceral. While Barovier’s birds, elephants and bears possess an air of comedy and charm (and his tiger is truly ferocious), Scarpa’s animals almost dare us to look away.

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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Auction Results Carlo Scarpa