Before I moved back to the US I was fortunate enough to take a class at the Orsoni mosaic foundry in Venice. Located in the Cannaregio district, the workshop is tucked away down one of the endless alleys that line the city’s canals. The only indicator of the place’s existence is a small mosaic sign outside the Domus Orsoni, the bed and breakfast that is run out of the original Orsoni home (above).
I wanted to share some pictures and background of this special place, where the same tools, techniques and recipes have been used to create mosaic glass (smalti) for over hundred years. Founded in 1888 by Angelo Orsoni, the workshop was run as a family business until 2003 when Trend bought the company. Though the ownership has changed, almost everything else seems to have remained untouched by the hands of time.
During my week long course, the staff was kind enough to show us how the glass is made. Our tour begins in the Orsoni color library, home for the 2,000 plus colors of smalti the foundry has produced. Some colors are part of their collection of 100 standard tones, while others are remnants from special orders, one-off colors that would make Crayola jealous.
The glass plates are made in a furnace from a mixture of sand, soda and various oxides for color. The ingredients are hand mixed in ceramic crucibles, which only last for about 5-6 weeks before cracking. Inside the Orsoni courtyard there were stacks of these crucibles, dripping with color from their final firing (above left). The cracked pieces are sold and find a second life as planters. If only I could have lugged one home.
When an order comes in, glass is taken from the color library to the cutting room where the larger plates are hand scored and cut into the smaller squares used in mosaics (smalti). During our class everyone from the fellows working the furnace to the business administrator stopped by to see our work and chat. It was such a welcoming and friendly environment; its like every student becomes part of the Orsoni family.
My teacher, Antonella Gallenda, has been making mosaics (like the ones above) since she was a teenager, having been taught by the last Orsoni owner Lucio Orsoni (great grandson of the founder Angelo). Being in this place was amazing; getting to see firsthand the dedication of the artisans who make the glass and the mosaic works. Though I gladly would have stayed for a month, my ticket back home dictated I take the one week course. Orsoni offers a variety of classes including 3, 5 and 10 day workshops.
Sometimes when you are traveling it is nice to step beyond the regular tourist agenda and get a different perspective on a place. For the week I was in Venice, I felt like I was part of the fabric of the city, learning a cherished trade and celebrating the work of a renowned Venetian family. Thanks to Antonella, Mirta and everyone else at Orsoni for making the course so wonderful, I hope to come back soon!