Carlo Scarpa at MVM Cappellin

As with the work of Vittorio Zecchin, Carlo Scarpa’s designs for MVM Cappellin have become recognized as masterworks of 20th century design. Like Zecchin, Scarpa was influenced by antique forms, but from a more diverse point of view. Drawing inspiration from ancient Assyrian carved and molded glass, Phoenician core-formed vessels, ancient Chinese and Japanese ceramics, and Byzantine, Islamic and Venetian glass from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Scarpa was able to synthesize elements from these diverse historic and cultural sources and re-cast them in the context of 20th century art and design. Because of this, Scarpa’s work at MVM Cappellin is considered prescient, if not genius.

The MVM Cappellin company emblem featuring model 5673.

The recent exhibition, The M.V.M Cappellin Glassworks and The Young Carlo Scarpa 1925–1931 at Stanze del Vetro in Venice, documents Scarpa’s earliest work as a glass designer and demonstrates the strength and diversity of his vision. The use of vibrant colors and opaque glass present in Scarpa’s work for Cappellin was something new and unexpected and subsequently changed the assumption that transparency and lightness were prerequisites in the design of Murano glass. That said, Scarpa continued to employ Soffiato glass at Cappellin for the production of refined utilitarian objects, lighting, and for elegant vessels, all of which, possess the elemental power of sculpture. 

It is also important to note that much of Scarpa’s glass for Cappellin was largely experimental and both difficult and expensive to make—this is why pieces are so rare and highly valued by scholars and collectors today (it also helps explain why the Cappellin company went out of business in 1932).

Much of what Scarpa learned at Cappellin he brought with him to Venini where he famously served as art director from 1934 until 1947. And while Scarpa’s work for Venini is well known, his work for Cappellin is just beginning to be understood.

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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