Glass blowers of Venice restore medieval church as window on their art

A former place of worship on Murano, home to Venetian glass blowing since 1291, has been resurrected as a shopping and cultural destination; its backers hope it will lure more visitors to island

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 January, 2016, 6:01am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 January, 2016, 6:01am

Giuseppe Belluardo remembers his mother’s reaction when he informed her that he – alongside his almost-retired father and brother-in-law – were planning to enter the Murano glass trade. Not only that but they were also going to rebuild a demolished medieval church.

“She thought we were crazy,” Belluardo says. “She begged us not to do it.”

Nonetheless, the three men forged on. That was in 2012. In September last year, they were able to unveil about half of the Ex Chiesa Santa Chiara, a gorgeous, if still partly crumbling, church with a chequered history. It has been transformed into Murano’s newest and most ambitious shopping and cultural destination.

The Belluardos are native Venetians and have long been in the hotel business, owning and operating small boutique establishments in the famous city. As the senior Belluardo considered retiring a few years ago, the family heard about a church in Murano, built in 1230 and originally called San Nicolo della Torre. Over the centuries it had been occupied by a number of religious groups, including Augustinian monks and Byzantine nuns. The nuns were expelled, and replaced by sisters from the Franciscan order of Santa Chiara – resulting in the name change.

In the 1800s Napoleon (who had conquered most of Italy) suppressed religious activity and the church became an industrial complex: it was used as a glass foundry, a producer of wine bottles and window panes and as administrative offices. By the late 1900s, it was abandoned.

Until Belluardo, his father Giovanni and his brother-in-law Ion Cafadaru, acquired a glass-making factory nearby and set about retrieving old Murano pieces from around the city, with plans to turn the Ex Chiesa Santa Chiara into a sprawling one-stop destination for all things Murano. Visitors can see glass being made and buy chandeliers, goblets, decanters, mirrors, vases and elaborate artistic installations.

Given that Murano has been home to Venetian glass makers since 1291, when the Doge decreed they should all relocate there because of the risk of fire, a venue like the 15,000 sq ft, two-storey Ex Chiesa is bound to shake things up.

“It was very complex to do this,” says Belluardo. “But our idea was to make something different, to let it be a shop, a museum, an artisanal area, a perfumery.”

Bureaucracy in Venice is painful at the best of times, and it can often take years to make any headway on even the most basic construction. That’s why a planned five-star hotel, which will be the first on Murano, has been in development for years, and has switched owners so many times Belluardo has lost count.

When the family took on the Ex Chiesa, the central part of the church was more or less a mountain of bricks and debris. But Cafadaru, who hails from Romania, was not to be deterred and began the restoration with friends and family members.

“Practically, a group of young Romanians rebuilt our church,” says Belluardo. “We used the know-how of bigger companies during parts of the restoration; they would send us a specialised worker who would explain to my brother-in-law how to proceed.” But most of the laborious work – like cleaning out the site and finding and cleaning the original bricks to be reused – was done by the family.

The facade of Ex Chiesa is original, including the Gothic door; the original bricks were cleaned and rebuilt to form the exterior, while very similar ones were sourced to build the interior walls.

Walls on the right of the edifice also are still standing, and parts of the brick embedded with remnants of old paint are still visible. Floors that had collapsed were redone in the same style as the original.

The windows were from about the 1930s on; ironically, in the mid-1900s, the Ex Chiesa was home to Cristalleria Franchetti, a company that produced high-quality glass and windows. Many of these were still intact, and the workers used copious quantities of linseed oil to clean them.

The team also had to research the right kind of beams to hold up the ceiling – hefty wood that would aesthetically be in keeping with the style of the rest of the church, while still adhering to safety standards.

“The beams were very difficult to find,” said Belluardo, adding that ultimately he used Siberian wood, hoisting them up to the ceiling with ropes and chains.

While reconstruction continues, enough of the church has been rebuilt for it to start trading late last year.

Belluardo’s vision is not just to have established Murano glass makers on hand, but also to invite contemporary emerging artists – from around the world – to take up residence in the Ex Chiesa, around Murano’s only electrical furnace.

“The main point of difference is that many of the other stores around here specialise in a certain thing – glasses, or jewellery, lighting or animal figurines. We want to do all of them,” he says.

The pieces he has amassed form an enviable collection – from mirrors dating back decades to pieces from the illustrious Murano Barbini family, which centuries ago did much of the glass work at Versailles.

The setting, with its high ceilings and gracious arches, is dramatic, with sparkling glass attractively framed by the original brick walls. On display are the various versions of Murano glassworks, including lampadari, the intricate chandeliers adorned with leaves and flowers; specchi, the hand-carved floral decorated mirrors; and millefiore, glass featuring what looks like thousands of embedded tiny flowers.

Belluardo is hopeful that his somewhat avant-garde approach to the showing and selling of glass will jump-start what is sometimes a lackadaisical response to Murano, even among enthusiastic visitors to Venice.

“Venice gets 25 million tourists a year,” says Belluardo. “Only 10 per cent of them come here.” And, indeed, many are shepherded on free boat rides to one of the more commercial outposts here.

“I think it helps that we are not originally from Murano,” he says. “Because of that, we can bring something new. We are selling a bit of history as well.”