It was a spring day in Venice shortly before the end of World War II. The air was filled with a sense of imminent freedom and new possibilities. A young Lino Tagliapietra was playing with a paper ball on the island of Murano, Venice’s glassmaking center since medieval times. He glanced inside a glassmaking factory and stopped, entranced, as an elderly glassblower, small in stature, blew a huge glass bubble. Tagliapietra stood mesmerized in the doorway until the object was complete.
“The glass seemed so light, it appeared to fly,” he recalls. “I said to myself, ‘I want to do something like this in my life.’”
Initially his family was not supportive of his dream. Though there were glassworkers in the family and glass was often discussed at the table, his father knew that working in a glass factory meant punishing hours at a hot furnace. Only a few glassmakers would ever rise to the venerated position of maestro vetraio, or master designer, one who makes art with glass. But Tagliapietra persisted, becoming an apprentice at age 11, a maestro at 21, and in the next 50 years, reinventing his career and his work several times.
In the process he emerged from the traditional Venetian role of designer of production pieces and master glassblower to that of independent studio artist. He is widely regarded as the foremost glassblower in the world today.
Tagliapietra is a master of traditional Venetian glassmaking techniques, a teacher who has helped shape the world of contemporary glass, and an artist who creates work known for exceptional complexity, elegance, and visual poetry. His influence on contemporary artists working in glass has been profound. He is credited for helping both to raise the standards of glass craftsmanship worldwide and to renew the world’s appreciation for Murano’s legacy, the façon de Venise, or “Venetian style” in glass.
One of the key breakthroughs in his life, and for contemporary studio glass, came in 1979, when he was 45 years old. Already a venerated maestro in Venice, he defied the traditional secrecy and insularity of the Muranese glass industry by boarding a plane for the first time, at the invitation of Dale Chihuly, to teach Venetian glassmaking techniques at the Pilchuck Glass School near Seattle. He has returned to Pilchuck nearly every year since.
The most influential Venetian maestro to teach in the U.S., Tagliapietra exerted a powerful influence on artists working in glass worldwide. His knowledge of Venetian techniques and the grace and confidence of his work connected the brash American artists—who had been working with glass in innovative but inefficient ways—to centuries of Muranese craft knowledge and its vocabulary.
Richard Marquis recalls, “For the first time there was someone who actually could make things perfectly and easily.” Tellingly, Tagliapietra shared his knowledge not for industrial production or commercial gain, but for art. Since the 1980s he has taught at glassmaking schools across the U.S. and around the world. In 1996 he taught the first glassblowing class at the Museum’s Studio and has returned several times.
As a result of his experience in the U.S., Tagliapietra sought to take new risks and to develop a different approach to his work. In his own words, “The boldness [of the Americans] was new to me. On the one hand, it was a shock—the lack of a cultural base, the absence of traditions. But, on the other hand, it was exhilarating…The lack of restraint in the process; the exciting results.” In the U.S., he says, he found fertile ground for “ideas that were always inside me.”
Soon he was experimenting with bolder, more dramatic forms, stretching and elongating glass into curves that would never have been produced in the Muranese glass factories in which he had worked for decades. Always a Venetian at heart, he has nevertheless been influenced by modern painters, including the abstract expressionists, whose work he first saw at the Biennale in Venice, as well as by Native American pottery and textiles, exotic birds, Chinese sculptural vessels, even the shields of the tribal Masai. In 1988 he left the Murano glass industry altogether and completed his transition to independent artist.
He is at the peak of his powers. One of his recent works, Endeavor (^^2005.4.170^^), a major installation of 18 four-foot-long boat forms, suspended by steel cables, was acquired by the Museum and dedicated on November 8, 2006, with the artist in attendance.
“Endeavor captures the evanescence and mystery of glass,” observes Tina Oldknow, the Museum’s curator of modern glass. “Tagliapietra’s boats are elegant and natural, impossibly elongated, yet beautifully light, strong, and efficient, just like the uniquely proportioned gondolas that navigate the Venetian lagoon. The artist’s massing of the boats is an eloquent evocation of the emotional and romantic character of blown glass—and of Venice, its undisputed home.”