I have visited Murano many times but I had never heard of Santa Chiara before reading an article from a Chinese newspaper that spoke of Giovanni Belluardo.
In this paper, reference was made to a man who for four years had been restoring an old church built in 1200 desecrated by Napoleon, who had turned it into accommodation for his troops, and that now it was being rebuilt as a center for glass art. The text and photography intrigued me to the point of asking for an interview and to go once more to Venice.
In Murano many glass furnaces have closed as owners prefer to move from production to trade and the true masters of glass are busy creating in their furnaces rather than in the dissemination of their art. The border between art and craft is intangible and for a tourist it is hard to understand and know the sweat of years of learning behind each work of glass art. Without a history and a guide, a tourist is guided only by price and personal taste.
I learned over several years, and many interviews, to understand all the different ways of working with glass, this amorphous material that can take different shapes and colors and reflect light in such an exciting way. Frail but sharp. Docile but resistant.
I met Giovanni as soon as I arrived at Santa Chiara which I found thanks to instinct. None of the local seemed to know of the project, even those who work nearby. After Napoleon’s troops departed, this building was sold to private owners who turned it into a glass factory. Up to 700 people have worked here, spread throughout the former convent. Then it was abandoned, split up and sold in separate lots and the memory of its existence was lost.
“You know why I have chosen Santa Chiara? For the number 13, my lucky charm. When I saw the roof had fallen down, and parts of the wall had collapsed. But it had 13 trusses and the day was the 13th. I was born on January 13 and everything important has happened in my life happened to me in connection with this number.”
Giovanni is an athletic man of a certain age with a funny accent between the Sicilian and English. He tells me that he left Sicily at age 13 to come to work in the hotels in Venice. Here he met his wife and they went to Toronto, Canada. The conversation half in English and half in Italian, was in that strange way of speaking of people living with a double citizenship .
“It was good in Canada, I started a company processing iron, but my wife was always longing for Venice. So, at some point we came back. I do not know if we made the right decision but the family comes before everything.”
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In fact, Giovanni is not alone and just after these initial stories, he was called aside and left me in the company of his son Giuseppe and his Romanian son-in-law Cafadari, ‘Cafi’. Two sunny friends, delighted to have different roles and to collaborate and to follow the father in this business venture. Cafi is multifaceted, he is a glass artisan and has an artistic mind, while Giuseppe takes the role of promotion, administration and public relations. Respect for the father is palpable, as well as the love they continually broadcast with phrases, looks and small signs.
“I was able to see the beauty of Santa Chiara because I come from the outside and I could see Murano with a detached view. Like when I left Sicily, I did not understand what he had in particular my country Pozzallo near Ragusa had in particular. Then when I came back after traveling and had acquired a certain detachment, I was surprised by its beauty and its heritage. The people of Murano had become addicted to the existence of this church.”
It reminded me of the words of Proust ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes’ – a phrase that is understood only after trying so many different experiences.
The structure of the church is impressive and the engineering works are now completed. Now the only thing left is cleaning the area outside while you begin to see the different workstations inside. Six different craftsmen will take turns in areas equipped with ancient and modern tools and equipment to show all the different processes of glass making. Visitors will enjoy the ‘live’ viewing experience and understand the years of experience and expertise that are needed to create ‘sand art’ (glass is made from sand).
“We want this place to be alive creating events and presenting the various great artists and artisans – masters of glass. We want to be a center of culture where everyone feels at home and visitors to Murano can understand the spirit of this unique island of Venice, which for centuries has been a world center of glass.”