Battuto. Adjective. Having undergone a series of strikes inflicted by an apposite tool, for a specific use or as a technique of fabrication.
Louise Berndt. Noun. In Music, originally the beat of a baton, foot, or hands, by the director of a choir to set the tempo for the singers. (1)
The Italian verb, battere, the action of repeated strokes, is used in so many ways—as surface decoration, as a technique for working metal, as a marker of rhythm, as an indicator of life in heartbeat or pulse rate, as a marker of continuous striving, as a description of a good dunning, or as a gauge of approval in applause. How appropriate that one of its derivatives is the title of this show. Monica Guggisberg and Philip Baldwin’s work embodies so many of its elusive and seemingly contradictory connotations that rather than just describing a technique for working glass “battuto” signifies a way of being, a way of breathing, and expresses the beat of life.
Guggisberg and Baldwin have been working glass together for over twenty years. Form and line have been the bedrock of their work from the beginning. Their heroes were those masters of twentieth century glass—Kaj Frank, Alvar Aalto, Paolo Venini, Carlo Scarpa, Tapio Wirkkala—whose works manifest the designer’s goal of technical competence, aesthetic freshness and design as art. The hallmark of the “classic” is a perennial vitality and universality, which is embedded in form: the elusiveness of the essential is evidenced in its rarity. Throughout their collaboration Guggisberg and Baldwin have sought the clear line, in purity of shape and its ability to articulate and communicate value and meaning. Their choice of glass as an expressive medium was not haphazard: glass is perhaps the most lucid of materials; and in its unelaborated transparency the most unremitting in displaying false conception and bad design.
After completing their training and apprenticeship in Sweden and establishing their first independent studio in the Swiss hamlet of Nonfoux in 1982, Guggisberg and Baldwin continued to develop their design and manual skills, holding fast to the philosophical tenants of chastity as the underpinning of good design, and meditative repetition as the means to absorb and internalize the skills necessary to create their seemingly effort-free basic forms. Unlike so many of the proponents of the studio glass movement, their devotion to the fundamentals of design and craft as opposed to the immediate gratification of indulging in superficial application of newly learned technical tricks as a gloss for personal expression cannot be overemphasized. These two are mature artists: they have paid their dues, they have cited their sources, they know just what they are about, and what they are doing is quietly revolutionary.
In marrying the techniques of “Swedish overlay” and Italian cold-working, Guggisberg and Baldwin, have shown us all that surface texture elaboration is more than decoration and embellishment. When, in 1986, they began to augment their series production with one off pieces—first plates and then bowls-- with sandblasted patterns and images revealing colored underlays in the Scandinavian manner they began to move from the strict tenets of constructivist principles and Bauhaus influence and their work gradually became more fluid and organic. By the early 1990’s the artists were well aware of a need to expand their range of skills to overcome method-conditioned limitations of the imagination, and they began to experiment with some Venetian approaches to working glass. The immediate consequence was the development of more anthropomorphic forms in the precursors of the cortigiane and guardiani, with cane worked and incalmo heads. However, the real breakthrough came about when they started working with the master cold worker, Paolo Ferro of Murano. The softer, more intricate and immediate textures and surface effects achieved through Mediterranean hand cutting added the beat, the rhythm, and the work began to dance.
Although blowing hot glass and working it cold seem to be diametrically opposed processes, done in the Venetian way they both require the immediacy of precision and speed that seems to correspond to the very nature of the material itself. Worked free hand, either hot or cold, the result is direct, instantaneous, and lasting. Glass is not stone; even in its solid state it is somehow soft and malleable. It gives way immediately to the touch of the cutter's stone in the same straight and true way that a glass bubble responds to a breath of air. And it is just this sense of the immediate, the captured moment, that underlies the allure of the best of Italian glass and makes it seem to live, to breathe.
In a way it’s anomalous that this type of cold working, battuto, is so closely identified with Murano. The entire Venetian glass aesthetic does rest on the immediacy of free hand , hot forming. No matter how much time and preparation a piece needs beforehand (and mosaic glass and murrine do require both), once the piece enters the annealer it is finished. Oh, perhaps a bit of grinding to smooth out punty marks, and maybe a bit of polishing, but the elaborate enameling and deep cutting that characterize Bohemian and English lead crystal have never made strong inroads on Murano. In fact, most Muranese look askance at all surface treatment, be it gold leaf, scavo, sandblasting, or what have you. The immediate assumption is that there was something wrong with the batch that day and that the finishing is just a way of recuperating what would otherwise be a lost day of production. Yet battuto, inciso, vellato, are all terms that epitomize twentieth century Venetian glass and are virtually synonymous with the names Carlo Scarpa and Paolo Venini. How did this come about?
With the re-establishment of the glass industry on the island of Murano after the Austrians left the Veneto and the region joined the newly establish kingdom of Italy, there was a conscious effort on the part of Muranese glass houses to rediscover lost glass making techniques, especially those that characterized Roman glass. Among the archeological finds were cane-worked and murrine vessels and anforas decorated with fine, regular incised lines. The problem with working with glass tissues, especially pezzati and murrine was that the finished vessel was often rough or pitted, and needed to be smoothed out by a fine surface grinding, a process which, when left unpolished, gave the piece a matte luster which came to be called vellato, and was in common use from the 1880’s onward.
Battuto itself, as a surface finishing technique that imitates the “distressed” effect of hammered metal was introduced to Murano by Venini &C. after Carlo Scarpa took over as artistic director in 1933, and works featuring this technique were first shown in the Venice Biennale in 1938. Anna Venini states that Scarpa was inspired by the “reappearance” of this technique in French glass in the 1900’s (2), and vases with “hammered” cut surface, designed by Romain and Jeanne Gevaert, were in production at the Belgium glass works, Val Saint-Lambert , in the 1920’s (3). Although it is likely that battuto was first applied on Murano in the grand old tradition of surface decoration used to mask imperfections in the glass, the effect was so successful that Scarpa continued to develop new applications, and was joined by other Venini designers; most notably Paolo Venini, Tobia Scarpa, Ludiovico Diaz de Santillana, and in a series of vases that were more carved than hammered by Miroslav Hrstka in 1968.
Even given the widespread popularity of the various battuto applications, use of the technique in production has been confined almost exclusively to Venini & C. Traditional Muranese resistance to surface elaboration, and the undeniable expense of reworking the glass cold, checked widespread commercial adoption. However, especially in recent years, several independent artists working on Murano and elsewhere have begun to utilize similar hammering, cutting, and grinding techniques to elaborate and refine the surface of their one-off works, especially in finishing cane worked or murrine pieces, or to overcome the shiny glossiness of glass by reducing distracting reflection to emphasize form and/or texture. In one way or another most are following the pathway set by Scarpa and Venini, although often to personal and poetic ends.
Guggisberg and Baldwin have laid a new avenue. By joining Italian cold working to the Swedish overlay, they have embarked upon an innovative sequence of experimentation and research not only on surfaces, but also on color and the interplay of color and texture through surface treatment. These explorations have increasingly drawn them to probe the expressive fields of textural elements. Initially soft and tactile, with the new strong angles, facets, and deep cuts, the surface itself is taking on a fourth dimension, something sculptural that moves beyond the limits set by height, width, and volume.
The artists’s rigorous use of almost archetypal vessels, their elongated, boat-like“sentinels” and gourd like “watchers”, which have served as fundamental, ego free symbols of awareness, while still strict in line and form seem to begin to breathe more freely, to unfold in an evolutionary process of growth and change. Their newer (from 1996) free standing pieces, Cortigiane and Guardiani , representations of human vanities and foibles, have begun to dance and, through movement, to transform into something beyond the anthropomorphic. It’s as though the work itself is generating change, as when a fictional character takes on a life of its own and leads the author to unplotted territory. The years Guggisberg and Baldwin have devoted to seeking essential forms representative of universal truths has given their work innate intensity and duration, and their courageous and innovative surface treatments—the hand cuts, lines, textures, and facets—have added the beat, the interval that marks the beat that makes being.
The work Monica Guggisberg and Philip Baldwin are presenting in this collection is tremendously exciting. It throbs to the beat of a universal heart. Fugue like variations, the ramifications that emerge through subtle alterations in repetition of a theme, stems from precision in form and precision in cutting. The artists seem to have captured some elemental truth of continuty in change, like fractiles and chaos theory as a foundation of order in cosmic expansion. Through daring surface elaboration and striking use of color, transparency, and translucency they are unveiling the fundamental. The work strikes one as evolutionary in a cosmic, geomorphic, biological sense. Some of the cuts, the rounded battuto, revealing the transparent glass underneath through irregular facing intervals of opaque color, recall a moonscape, or the milky way on a clear northern night, the first living cells developing in a primordial pond. Others feel like stars shooting out at the birth of this universe: spiraling ridges, waves on the sea, the living earth, icebergs and cliff villages, chains of interlocking DNA, mollusk communities or fossil rocks, life-organic and inorganic-with all its infinite potential.
Louise Berndt, Venice, November 2001
- Devoto, Giacomo and Oli, Gian Carlo. Il Dizionario della Lingua Italiana. Casa Editrice Flce Le Monnier S.p.A., Firenze. 2000. p. 228. (translation by the author)
- Venini Diaz de Santillana, Anna. Venini: Catalogue Raisonne` 1921-1986. Skira Editore S.p.a. Milano. 2000. p. 309.
- Jackson, Leslie. 20th Century Factory Glass. Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. New York. 2000. p. 211.