Top Glass - With the prestigious Bonhams Prize about to launch at Venice Glass Week, Rachel Spence meets the visionary founder of the festival

A light touch: one of the installations at the 2018 Venice Glass Week

Murano's glass industry was in crisis. Its furnaces had been firing since the 13th century, but over the last 50 years manufacturing dwindled, with dozens of furnaces wiped out. The cause was not hard to find: competition from talented glassmakers in other countries, allied to a tide of cheap faux-Murano imports made in Chinese factories. It's true too that the residents of La Serenissima – the most beautiful city in the world – are frequently their own worst enemies, prone to gossip and backbiting, and capable of bearing grudges that outlast generations.

The dapper man in his 60s who is talking to me over coffee had a solution: why not launch a festival of glass? "We needed something public to get the message across," David Landau tells me, "that Murano glass is reviving and that this fact is much more interesting than people realise." The result was The Venice Glass Week, which is now in its third edition. But Landau, its founder, had been under no illusions about the obstacles he would have to surmount. "Murano was famous for three words: non si può", he recalls with a bittersweet grin. "It can't be done."

Above: David Landau: "Murano glass is reviving – and that fact is much more interesting than people realise"

We are in the San Giorgio Café, a stylish new restaurant on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore with views of sailing boats in the marina as well as the sunlit waters of the Bacino San Marco. Just metres away stands Le Stanze del Vetro, a museum dedicated to modern glass, which Landau launched in 2012. Behind its birth – and indeed Landau's own passion for glass – lies a tale that is part romance, part melodrama.

The embryo was sown in the late 1990s, when Landau met his wife Rosi – Marie-Rose Kahane. "She had a small but very refined collection of Venini glass, which included very important historical pieces," he recalls in a voice inflected with a millefeuille of different accents. Paolo Venini, founder of the firm that dominated Murano for much of the 20th century, was one of the producers – along with Seguso and Salviati – whose names have become known beyond the cognoscenti. Interestingly, he was also one who took the bold step of employing external designers, such as the architect Carlo Scarpa, to take Murano's traditional styles down radical new paths.

Kahane's collection included, for example, pieces from Scarpa's bollicine series, designed in the early 1930s, with air bubbles and an aquatic patina that evokes the Venetian lagoon. Landau had never seen anything like these ethereal vessels. "When I fell in love [with Rosi], I started looking at these pieces. They are very beautiful but...", he gives a self-deprecating smile, "I am a Renaissance scholar, and I couldn't place [the glass] in any kind of knowledge."

Landau is too modest: he is a polymath. Born in Israel, he moved to Trieste at the age of four. There he lived with his grandmother and his great-aunt, who owned a jeweller's shop and had been a pupil of Egon Schiele. He tells the story – with remarkable good humour – of discovering that his aunt had given a painting by Schiele away to the Leopold Museum in Vienna. "I said to her: 'It was worth a lot of money'. And she replied, 'Look, I knew Schiele. ...He was a very nice man, but he couldn't paint for toffee.'"

Determined perhaps to retain control of any artistic gems he came across in the future, Landau bought his first work at the age of 15 or 16, "a beautiful German engraving by [Heinrich] Aldegrever". Then, rather than become an art historian, he trained as a medical doctor for an array of reasons – to overcome his fear of blood, to avoid becoming a diamond wholesaler like his parents and "to do good" – that say much about his mercurial patterns of thought.

Above:He's blown it: glass-making in Murano

After practising as a cardiologist in Pavia, he quit medicine convinced that the "fundamental trigger" for our health is our "state of happiness". Instead, he took up a fellowship at Oxford on the history of print-making. The change – "a kind of miracle" – marked the beginning of an academic career that lasts to this day: he is currently writing a book about the spread of art and style during the Renaissance, although he no longer teaches. He remained restless, reinventing himself once more, this time as an entrepreneur. After a failed ice-cream venture – "it rained every day that summer" – he founded the free-ads newspaper Loot, which was sold in 2000 for £190 million.

By then, Landau had met Kahane and begun to collect Murano glass. He thinks it was the material's abstract quality that drew him. "I'm never interested in subjects. I'm interested in how things are made and what they look like. I have maybe 20,000 pictures in my mind, [but ] I only see the forms and colours... I can't remember if it's a Virgin and Child, for example."

The couple, who have a home in Venice, intended to donate their collection to the Museo del Vetro on Murano. But the institution, bafflingly, refused to take it. When Landau took over as chair of the Venice Civic Museums Foundation in 2010 – which includes the glass museum – he hoped he would be able to change that decision. But his tenure, which lasted just months, was too short-lived.

He won't be drawn on the debacle, which saw him sacked by the mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, but the upshot was that Landau and Kahane donated 40 Carlo Scarpa works to the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Out of the ashes of these fractured relationships rose the the phoenix of Le Stanze del Vetro and its offspring, The Venice Glass Week. Glass Week is a collaboration between the Civic Museums Foundation, the Veneto Institute of Science, Literature and Arts (IVSLA), the Giorgio Cini Foundation and the Murano Promovetro Consortium, which promotes Murano glass. It is a significant undertaking: this year, the festival encompasses more than 180 events across Venice, Murano and the mainland town of Mestre. As well as the expected exhibitions by artists and designers (including luminaries such as Laura de Santillana and Massimo Micheluzzi, both from Venice, and Czech master Václav Cigler), there are also demonstrations, guided tours, conferences, film screenings, a "non-competitive" race around Murano and even a treasure hunt.

Above:The piano nobile at Palazzo Franchetti with pieces from the 2018 festival

For the first time this year, there is an award for the best participant. Sponsored by Bonhams, the Bonhams Prize for The Venice Glass Week aims, say the organisers, "to stimulate original and high-quality projects in the field of artistic glass". With a prize of €1,000, the winner will be chosen by a jury comprising Dan Tolson, international director of the Modern Decorative Art and Design Department of Bonhams New York, Giovanna Palandri, chancellor of the IVSLA, and Jean Blanchaert, a noted curator from Milan.

According to Landau, the prize is an incentive, just as the Golden Lion for Glass – awarded at the Venice Biennale for Contemporary Art until 1976, when its glass section was cancelled – used to be. Both the Biennale and the prize encouraged Murano furnaces to feel that it was worth making "something that was not for sale". When Landau likens the prize to the Oscars – "it will be very prestigious" – he does so with a smile. But you sense he is not entirely joking.

Given his entrepreneurialism, it's little wonder that he argues "competition is good". But his paradigm is typically idiosyncratic. For 36 years, he tells me, he has been sitting as a model for the painter Frank Auerbach. Auerbach always told Landau how important it was for him to see the work of other artists of his generation – Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, Ron Kitaj and David Hockney. "It was a big stimulus: they pushed each other to the limit every time."

"This happened with Titian and Tintoretto," Landau continues. "They were friends but they were competitors, and artists need that if they are to challenge each other and find new aesthetic solutions. You can't do it if you are isolated... You need the context to set your stall, you need a market."

As I say goodbye, it occurs to me that Landau – doctor, art historian, glass connoisseur, entrepreneur and chief executive – is a 21st-century Renaissance man. Little wonder he navigates so deftly the glittering, turbulent waters of La Serenissima.

Rachel Spence writes for the Financial Times. She lived in Venice for many years.

The third edition of The Venice Glass Week runs from 7 to 15 September with a programme of 180 events at 150 venues around Venice, Murano and Mestre. The Bonhams Prize will be awarded on 11 September at Palazzo Franchetti. For more information, visit

The next Modern Decorative Art + Design in New York is on Thursday 12 December.
Enquiries: [email protected]

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