Cadmium is another chemical to colour glass that will leave the studio. ’As a result, beautiful red, yellow and orange will disappear from the colour palette. When bromine gets banned too, we lose a stunning blue,’ says Babled. So in the end, the famous, once very colourful Murano glass will be transparent, albino, colourless, just like the Pyros: Acromatico. For Babled, the piece is an alarm bell. ‘Even the production of the famous Murano vetro smalto (white enamelled glass) comes to an end, because it contains the forbidden arsenic. All these fabulous pieces will be part of the past, only for the pleasure of collectors.
‘The effect of the European legislation is a disaster for the artisanal glass production in Venice, and has the effect of rapid distinction of the cultural heritage so typical for Venice’s artisanal glass production. As the situation is now, precious knowledge and skills passed from one generation to the next are threatened with extinction.’
Strong words but the way Babled tells it, an entire métier is endangered and so are jobs. The craftsmanship of glassmaking is paramount for employment on Murano, which has already been challenged by competition from abroad (China, especially). It’s a readily available statistic, but the fact that there were thousands of glass workers there a few years ago, while now there are only 500, doesn’t get less depressing when repeated.
‘Sure, but we should avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater: rather than killing an age-old craft in order to protect the environment and public health, we should invest in developing eco-compatible alternatives. By the way, the potential irony is that from now on we’ll POSSIBLY have these pieces with colour made in China and other parts of the world, where there is much less regulation, and where the know-how of these age-old European crafts is much less developed. So banning the use of these chemicals in Europe does not solve the problem of pollution at all.’
Arsenic has never had a good press – just ask any of Agatha Christie’s fictional victims. But EU regulations don’t happen overnight. Italy, and its glass-making bodies, has responded to the public health issues with research and substitute materials that some companies are using, but has it been enough? Of course protecting workers is a no-brainer, but one can’t quite ignore a nagging sense that this is an opaque story, full of wonderful shades of red tape, but no definitive narrative. Does the reality, for those with the resources, mean that something banned can be bypassed by adeptness for bureaucracy? Somewhere along the line there seems to have been a lag. Rather than working in tandem with the microcosm that is Murano, has progress balance tripped between the reactive and collaborative?
Babled has decided to take action for himself, and for the wider glass-making community. The launch of the Pyros: Acromatico was his first step in an attempt to provide the ancient craft with a new future. Venini will produce a series of the design in early 2018, with parts of the profits generated invested in research – what Babled describes as A first result of sensibilisation through making things of beauty! As the designer explains:
‘I first wanted to raise awareness; now it’s necessary to research glassmaking techniques in order to keep the Venetian glass art tradition alive. And beyond, because all remaining traditional crafts centres across Europe are endangered, not just the Venetian or Italian ones. It’s necessary to find alternatives to replace the banned ingredients, while maintaining the quality of traditional glassware.’
That’s why Babled is using his position as a well-connected designer and artist to link scientific institutions and universities with traditional workshops and artisans. Together, they will analyse and describe traditional, artisanal glass-colouring techniques.
‘Not much is known about those age-old techniques, because each glass workshop has several secret recipes. Murano is not a well-oiled chemical giant, but just a series of workshops where fantastic artisanal know-how has been developed through trial and error. It’s more alchemy than chemistry. As such, it has never been systematically researched. The moment to start doing that, is now.’
Babled hopes that by analysing the existing recipes, scientists are eventually able to come up with high-quality alternatives for banned chemicals like arsenic, cadmium and the likes. Meanwhile, Babled’s studio, Lisbon University’s research unit VICARTE, the Ca'Foscari University of Venice, the Università Iuav di Venezia and the commune of Venice are looking at ways to join forces in this project. The first step for Babled and VICARTE will be to research Murano’s vetro smalto in order to find an acceptable eco-compatible alternative.
‘We need scientists and researchers to translate precious traditional knowledge from the artisanal centres into contemporary, eco-sustainable, high-quality techniques,’
says Babled passionately.
‘You know, I think we designers and artists have an active role in society. It’s not enough to just produce. We work in a context, with a legacy that we have to keep and honour. Of course it’s necessary to protect our lungs and the environment; I support that. Unfortunately, while we’re improving the quality of the air we breathe, we’re also throwing away many centuries of heritage. There must be an eco-compatible way to safeguard this precious legacy. And that’s exactly what I want to do - it is my duty as a maker to put my finger on this, to research this and to try to find funding for that research.’