A conversation with the glass artist Michela Cattai
At first a trick of the light makes it seem that the curves of Tintoretto’s clouds have simply slipped from the canvas of his draft for Il Paradiso, drifting out into the three-dimensional world. Up the winding staircase of Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo tucked away in a side street behind San Marco, three glass sculptures are set before the painting, an offering upon a dark black pedestal.
These echoes of Tintoretto’s form erupting before our eyes are the compositions of the Italian artist Michela Cattai, rendered in Murano glass through a collaboration with the glass maestro Andrea Zilio. Inspired by the famous pictorial technique of the great Venetian artist, Cattai took the contrasting concept of chiaroscuro – literally “light and dark” in Italian – applying it to the medium of glass.
In these works, Cattai acts as a choreographer of light, painstakingly hand-drawing each gash of the grinders wheel onto the hand-blown glass for the masters to retrace. This energy cannot help but be felt when regarding these objects, the shivering shadow of Cattai’s marks living on within the final forms. To encounter the works with the canvas of Tintoretto is to be made privy to a private conversation, a dialogue between the materials, with each illuminating the other.
After the opening of the exhibition, we sat down with Cattai to talk about her work…
It’s hard to ignore the fact that you studied painting. How did you end up in the world of glass and how do you think your traditional artistic education influenced the way you approached the material?
My approach to glass goes right back to the period when I was studying painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice. At that time, there was a very strong ferment in the Painting section at the Academy, such as Emilio Vedova, the father of abstractionism. I graduated under the guidance of the master Fabrizio Plessi. I was living in a very stimulating environment with significant figures in the history of Italian art. During those years I was lucky enough to attend the special two-year course in Design, which focused on the study of semantics and semiotics of design, taught by the master Ennio Chiggio. The course was based precisely on the subject of glass, called Vasi Comunicanti, which allowed me to familiarise myself with glass right away in a context of conceptual and pictorial study: concept, form and aesthetics. Thus was born my first experimentation with glassmaking in the Murano furnaces.
What first attracted you to glass? In 1991 you decided to open your own gallery, what gave you the courage to take this leap?
I was attracted to glass because of its unique composition that allows it to go from a liquid to a solid state through the magic of fire. This material offers the possibility of capturing a moment in time and giving it form. After completing my studies at the Academy, I felt a strong desire to express myself through the visual arts. This desire, combined with a desire for freedom and creative autonomy, led me to start a collection of objects of historical and artistic interest with a focus on glass. I shared this passion by exhibiting my collection, which attracted the attention of academics and collectors, thus contributing to my growth as a gallerist in the field of art and design.
Why is the interaction between art and design important to you? What do you think can be achieved by bringing different media and artworks into dialogue and why is it important to give space and promote these dialogues?
In my case, the interaction between art and design is a natural reflection of my experience. My gallery, since its founding, has always reflected this fusion of art and design, allowing me to explore the different expressive possibilities of decorative arts and traditional visual arts. Although they use different mediums, both disciplines offer unique and enriching expressive value. I believe that bringing different forms of expression into dialogue can open new perspectives, influence contemporary artistic trends, and stimulate creative growth.
What is special about the way glass can interact with other materials? How does this relationship interest you?
The complexity and versatility of glass make it a fascinating element, and I am interested in exploring the endless possibilities this interaction offers, including experimenting to discover new perspectives. One example is my Linfaseries, which was created by combining a waste material from bronze sculpture with glass. This fusion created a special dialogue that led to innovative results: clear crystal blown glass is wrapped on the outside with an opaque bronze bark, creating an intriguing contrast between the materials. The relationship between glass and other materials fascinates me because it challenges expectations and perceptions.
What was it like working as Venini's Artistic Director? As you decided to step away and focus on your studio, it must not have been an easy decision….
Being appointed Artistic Director of Venini in 2019 was surprising and challenging at first, but I quickly found great satisfaction in the experience. Before assuming this position, I had spent three decades meticulously collecting historic French and Venetian glass, including those by Venini. This experience allowed me to apply my knowledge of glass, both in its historical and contemporary aspects. I worked closely with international artists and designers and helped to create prototypes with Venini’s master glassmakers. This environment has been a constant source of inspiration, but since 2023 I decided to refocus on my creative practice. It was not an easy decision, but it allowed me to explore new directions in my artistic practice and focus on my personal expression. Undoubtedly, the experience as Venini’s artistic director has contributed significantly to solidifying my love for glass and represents a fundamental chapter in my career.
Can you tell us a little bit about the specific techniques used for the pieces in your exhibition In Chiaroscuro? Many of your works have to do with painterly techniques, but rendered in glass: did you have to experiment a lot to achieve them or did you find that there were methods just waiting to be used in the right way...?
The pieces in the Chiaroscuro series have a painterly texture representing strokes of shadow and light, achieved through the cold-worked battuto “wrought” technique, which involves grinding the glass. These marks recall the painterly gestures typical of the chiaroscuro technique with graphite, creating nuances aided by the chromatic nuance of the glass. For them to be on display in Venice at Palazzo Contarini Scala del Bovolo, with the background of the canvas of Tintoretto’s draft of Paradise, for me creates an exciting vibration in the dialogue between them.
Approaching glass with a pictorial thought is natural for me; I see glass as a canvas where I can place my mark, whether inciso (engraved) or battuto (wrought), or in a chromatic composition. Every time I encounter glass it is an experimentation for me, an evolution, and a challenge as I wait to read the result.
At the opening, you mentioned how you literally hand-drawn the marks for the masters to follow on these vases. How have you cultivated your relationship with glass masters and technicians over the years? Do you always work with the same people? Is it sometimes difficult to communicate your ideas?
The glass in the Chiaroscuro series present a pictorial texture representing strokes of shadow and light, obtained by the battuto engraving technique. I drew my chiaroscuro on the surface of the glass so that the craftsman could retrace the intended mark, its direction and form. In the creative act, an empathy is also created with the craftsman, the intention of the design is explained and accompanies him as he makes the artwork. The relationship between a creative mind and an artisan’s hand becomes one of mutual esteem and appreciation. In the furnace we grow together, with experimentation I have built profound dialogues that are easy to understand.
For the Tintoretto-inspired works, it is almost as if she has blown the clouds from canvas to glass. Is there always a connecting point or detail for you?
In the Chiaroscuro series, I have tried to recreate the magic of shaded and nuanced colour, using various tones of metallic oxides mixed with sand, as well as shades of dark grays with warm accents, which have become a hallmark in Tintoretto’s art. I am deeply inspired by his ability to evoke extraordinary drama through the play of light and shadow with color. For me, the Chiaroscuro series represents an emotional bridge between my artistic vision and Tintoretto’s art. It is as if I am trying to capture some of that intensity and energy that he conveyed in his canvases, interpreting it in a personal way in each of my works. There is always a special connection or detail that captures my attention. It would be beautiful to have the power to make the clouds move beyond the canvas…