The heat we were warned of in Venice had yet to take hold. The crowds we were warned of weren‚Äôt here in Murano. Occassional vaporetto loads of tourists showed up and departed, but the throngs of Venetian alleyways were pleasantly missing. Murano was a quiet island lined mostly with glass shops, some selling simple knickknacks, others selling extravagant chandeliers, and with industrial factories making the glass for sale.
The difference between stores selling Chinese stuff and locally-made stuff seemed clear before we even checked the price tags. Merchants selling their work welcomed us in with a certain pride, as if we were the first tourists to visit them. Those hustling knock-offs seemed as indifferent to us as if we were buying a bottle of Coke.
Grocers sold produce off their motorboats. DHL deliverymen made their stops the same way. The pace was different than in any other tourist town I could think of. By late afternoon, as the light on the water was becoming more and more alive, most tourists had gone home and the pace of Murano regained its natural lethargic gait. The hustle to usher tourists from the vaporetti for ‚Äúspecial‚ÄĚ factory tours and outlet prices had ended.
Massimo Bottacin was getting ready to close up his shop when we stopped in. Like many workers in and around Venice, Bottacin had to commute back to the mainland where he lived. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs very expensive,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúWages and rents don‚Äôt go together. But I‚Äôm 48 years old. It‚Äôs always been like that since I was born.‚ÄĚ
The shelves were filled with fragile hand-blown glass animals made in the back by the craftsman. ‚ÄúThe Chinese,‚ÄĚ Bottacin said. ‚ÄúThey make it very, very cheap and they‚Äôre invading the market. Not just in Murano glass but everything. Globalization is the problem.‚ÄĚ
They‚Äôre ironic words in a city that has been at the edge of global trade for centuries. It was from here, after all, that Marco Polo ventured into China in the first place. Maybe he should have just stayed home.
Bottacin led us to the back where Gino Mazzuccato was toiling over his workbench. He blazed a white-hot torch like a laser at a glass rod and spun it into a giraffe. Across the room, a double-doored furnace glowed orange and heated the room. He stepped through the clutter of equipment to show us his glass-blowing technique. Mazzuccato hoisted the long metal tube and blew a glass bubble, bigger, bigger, bigger still, then shattered it on the floor, cackling as the glass, somewhere between a liquid and a solid, rained down on my feet.
‚ÄúThis is my factory,‚ÄĚ Mazzucatto said proudly. His gray hair hung over his ears and his eyes had a playful glint. He started making glass as a 10-year-old boy, he said, and was once a one-man tsotchke machine, turning out little glass animals by the barrel. Age has slowed him down, he admitted, but he‚Äôs not worried about the competition from across the Pacific. It‚Äôs not his style. When he used to play soccer, he said, teammates would curse the opponents if they won. He put the blame on himself. He feels the same about Chinese glassmakers.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm not afraid of anybody,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúThe Chinese people, they make glass, never mind. We must make better.‚ÄĚ
Not everyone in Murano agreed. From one bridge over a canal hung a banner, spray-painted in English, with a plea to Italy, the European Union, the United Nations and the world. ‚ÄúPLEASE SAVE MURANO GLASS,‚ÄĚ it said.