Orsoni “Master in Mosaic” Workshop in Venice, Italy

The amazing part about being in Venice is BEING IN VENICE. Here you experience a heightened reality. Roads of churning water. Grand architecture and tiny cafes tucked in corners. Artistic expression every street you turn onto. I came to Venice for 1 week in October to learn an ancient mosaic technique and to work with the crème de la crème of mosaic materials- Orsoni Smalti. The Orsoni Furnace (the word “Furnace” is used in Venice to mean where the entire glass making process takes place) is a centuries old, walled compound. Within the walls is a beautiful hostel/office, the actual furnace (the only open flame furnace allowed now in Venice), the Library of Colour (floor to ceiling shelves and shelves of glass slabs) and a small building housing the spaces for teaching and cutting the smalti glass. The rectangular chunks of Smalti are shipped to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, among other places. These work areas are surrounded by gardens, patios and everywhere the stacked drums used in the furnace to melt the glass ingredients. The drums are encrusted with dripping layers of molten colour. This is where I was fortunate enough to take the Orsoni “Master In Mosaic” Workshop for 5 days in October 2019.

Venice Street 2019

Antonella Gallenda led me and three other women in the techniques associated with using smalti glass and the traditional hammer and hardie tools. These tools and materials have been in use for hundreds of years going back beyond the Byzantine times. We had free reign in choosing our colours from the Orsoni palette including the gold leaf smalti they are known for. I had never used hammer and hardie – an embedded chisel point that you hold the smalti onto while striking it with the sharp edge of the half-moon shaped hammer. Sounds easy enough but while I struck and crushed many a piece, Antonella could succinctly cut one small rectangle of glass into many even, tiny slivers. Smalti mosaics are not grouted. The surface of a smalti mosaic is generally uneven due to the uneven nature of the hand poured glass slabs that the smalti is cut from. Therefore, the cut fragments, known as Tesserae, must be placed directly up against each other with as little space between them as possible. Cutting and placing becomes very important if you wish the design to be effective and the mosaic to be cohesive. Antonella worked alongside us, instructing as needed, for 5 days, 9-5.

Sheryl Crowley At Orsoni Studio in Venice, Italy October 2019

Left: Antonella at Orsoni, Venice 2019
Right: Orsoni disused melting drums, Venice 2019

The design I had worked on at home ended up not being the one I used. A week before leaving I had photographed some horse chestnuts (conkers) that I had picked up near my home. I brought one of these photos with me and it was this that felt right to work with. The spiky exterior shell of the seed seemed to call for the nubbly textured gold smalti that Orsoni makes. Antonella encouraged us all to add gold to our pieces. We all joked that if we did not have enough gold in our pieces that Antonella might refuse us our course certificates. The finished piece is 16” x 12”, much of that taken up by the chestnut image. The 5 days of the workshop brought me to the completion of the chestnut itself. Antonella helped me gather glass to bring home so I might do the background back in NB. International travel with a still drying mosaic is a challenge in itself. No smalti was harmed in the making of this journey. The chestnut came home intact.

Orsoni workshop 201 – 16×12 inches SherylCrowley

Looking back at the time at Orsoni, from a vantage point of several months later, what I value most about the experience is the immersion in the atmosphere and daily running of the Furnace. In the next room there were  women cutting rods of smalti into small rectangles with chisel like hand tools, keeping up a constant banter in Italian and occasionally singing to the radio, calling out to the man in the next small building whose job it was to take the cooled slabs of glass and hand slice them into rods for the women to take. Across the walkway from our room, were large open containers piled high with brilliant coloured fragments, leftovers from the process. Inside the flaming furnace area three men took turns stirring the molten glass batter with long spoons, scooping out spoonfuls and pouring them onto a metal slab that would roll the liquid glass like pastry dough. One of the men played “air guitar” on his 6ft. long spoon as I filmed him working. We wandered through the 10-12ft (?) high shelves of the library of colour, surrounded by thousands of slabs of brilliantly hued glass. All of this will stay with me. Thank you, artsnb for the Career Development Grant, and for helping me to have this experience.

You can learn more about Sheryl and her work through her social media accounts or her website. Check out these YouTube videos from the workshop.