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Episode #208: Introducing the Amazing Artisans of Venice

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Venice has always been a treasure trove of artisans whose skilled hands have woven the fabric of tradition for centuries. From the elaborate mask makers, the gold and glass jewelry makers to the leather, wood and print workers, these artisans embody the essence of Venetian culture, creating masterpieces that transcend time. Our guest today Venetian author and guide Monica Cesarato, is a champion of these artisans and the importance of preserving and passing down the age-old techniques that have defined the city’s identity for generations – as the very existence of many of these crafts continues to be at threat as they face the challenges of modernization and the consumption of mass-produced goods and souvenirs.

Show notes
In this episode, we are heading back to Venice and welcome back food writer, guide and Venice local Monica Cesarato, who shared her tips on enjoying Venetian cicchetti in episode 185 and the secrets and soul of Venice back in episode 35.  Monica runs food tours and classes in Venice, has recently launched a podcast about the city – Venice Talks and she literally wrote the book on Cicchetti. Monica shares with us some amazing Venetian artisans who are skilled in a variety of the city’s ancient traditions and crafts. We discuss the importance of keeping these crafs alive by supporting the ‘Made in Italy’ artisans with the message – buy less, but buy better! 

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Monica is a blogger, podcaster, social media manager and food guide from Venice who also writes books! She started out as a blogger and everything else was born out of that
  2. The English version of her book on Cicchetti Andar Per Bacari has recently been published. It’s all over the bookshops in Venice and the Veneto region, when it became available on Amazon it sold out in 24 hours, so they are waiting for more to be printed. If someone wants one quickly and can’t get on Amazon, they can email Monica as she does have a few copies, so they can buy them directly. Or book a tour with Monica and buy a copy of the book from her then!
  3. Katy can certainly highly recommend going on a Cicchette tour with Monica. She had a personal one this year, and she’s also taking her team on one in 2024. Apart from everything being very tasty, it’s a lot of fun. Monica is knowledgeable and very entertaining.
  4. When Monica first began blogging about Venice, over 15 years ago, she came across an amazing Venetian glass jewelry artist – Marisa Convento on social media. Marisa has since become one of Monica’s best friends. Marisa was, at the time, doing a great job of promoting the glass beads of Venice on social media. When Monica interviewed her, they clicked straight away and Marisa’s passion for the importance of artisanship and crafts in Venice rubbed off on Monica who has herself become a verdant and enthusiastic supporter of all the tradition and artisan crafts of Venice – including of course food
  5. Monica took Katy shopping and whilst Monica could sell ice to Eskimos, Katy didn’t need much persuading and ended up with a beautiful sacred heart broach made up of incredibly tiny mosaics
  6. Venice is a city that was based around crafts, being built on guilds, associations and unions. No matter what job you were doing you had to belong to a union and pay taxes. This actually made Venice such a wealthy and powerful country
  7. Venice is the city with the last goldbeater, beating ingots by hand with hammers to make it very thin – a tradition that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years ago. The gold beaters, Murano glass makers, people dealing with wax, people dying leather, the gondola builders – you name it, there was a guild. It stayed that way right to the end and still now, in the city of Venice, some associations emerged from the old guilds
  8. Other crafts include, of course, Murano Glass, mosaics, paper and printing and it also used to be known as the city of Iron
  9. It was such a rich republic and many had a lot of money to spend
  10. The difference between Venice and Florence is that while Florence was investing most of their money on building churches, Venice was not run by the Pope and the rich aristocratic and merchant families in Venice put the city, rather than religion first. They were the only independent country during the Middle Ages, never under the control of the Pope and this allowed the city to do things that maybe other cities couldn’t
  11. The guilds played a massive part in the wealth of the city and in all the beautiful buildings that you see now. But over time the city lost a lot of pride in its craft. A stone mason who had traditionally passed the trade down from father to son, for generations – the youth no longer wanted to do that
  12. The other thing that influenced the artists and traditions was that they were merchants and they were going to different parts of the world and picking up different skills and products –  like traveling to Constantinople and to the east. They were always exposed to the latest fashions, to new innovative ideas – this was an important part of Venice
  13. Monica is now an evangelist to everyone she meets and everyone on her tours, letting them know what she learned along the way – when you buy cheap stuff you get no value or quality. We need to go back to value people’s time and skill. If you buy a €5 mask, it’s obviously going to be made in plastic and on a machine. If you go and buy a Venetian mask that costs you €50 or more then you are getting a product that takes at the very least a day to make. There is the preparation of all the bases, the paper mache before you even get to the intricate decoration and the skills have taken years to learn. How come people are so willing to pay $100, or $300 an hour for a doctor, a solicitor or an architect but not the same for an artisan?
  14. To get to the stage where an artisan can do something in one hour, it could have taken 30 or 40 years. If you tried to do exactly the same thing, there’s no way you could do it. So why are so few willing to pay for that anymore?
  15. Time is time and knowledge is knowledge. Katy was at an interior design company the other day and was asking the woman if she often gets asked for advice for free. And she said it happened all the time. The same thing happens to Katy and Monica too. People need to remember to value everyone else’s time, effort and expertise a little more

Masks

  • Monica showed Katy where to go to get wonderful masks for her children, and she ended up with beautiful masks – one rabbit and one fox. There’s no question you can tell the difference between the souvenir shop busy and the craftsmanship that’s gone into these masks
  • Monica has a few favorite mask shops in Venice. Peter Pan/Mater Domini in Campo S.Maria and also Ca ‘Macana. There are quite a few makers and all the artisans are good. As long as you see the mask maker, they are making the mask
  • If you buy a mask from a souvenir shop, they’re not going to be handmade. If you want to see a real mask then the craftsperson will be there doing the creating and then you know it’s handmade, or you can tell from the prices as handmade is simply not going to be cheap
  • Monica always tells people that if they come to Venice to buy cheap souvenirs, don’t bother, go and buy food to take home instead. If you want to bring back something lasting, with a good memory connected, then be ready to invest. Buy less, but buy better! 
  • Masks are from the tradition of Carnivale. The concept of carnival has been around since Roman times, but in Venice, it dates back to around the year 1000. The Venetians wanted a certain period to celebrate the run-up to Lent by eating a lot of meat. It went from January to the beginning of Lent. But then it got bigger and longer until Venice, at one point celebrated Carnivale for over 200 days. The richer the city became, the more they wanted to show it and things got so big that it wasn’t so much a carnival anymore – it was becoming almost orgy-like! Learn more about the Venice Carnivale in episode 111 
  • Venice used to be a city that was very much divided by class. It had a very strong social class system. During Carnivale, however, all the social classes could mix – because everybody was wearing a mask. You could be a farmer talking to a Duke but everyone was hidden behind masks so you couldn’t tell. It was the only time you were allowed to mix
  • Carnivale got bigger and bigger until at one point it got so crazy that the Austrians decided enough and it was stopped. It didn’t really get revived again until the 70s. It was at its peak in the 80s and the 90s but now it has become quite commercialized
  • Originally there were only a couple of kinds of masks and then they developed more and more into the elaborate masks we think of today
  • Back in the day, they used to have housewives all over the city preparing the masks, then they were collected. This is still happening today

Glass beads

  • Murano Glass is of course very famous. But not everyone knows about the Venetian glass beads, which now are a part of UNESCO. A couple of years ago, along with the French ones, they were listed by UNESCO as an intangible good.  It was a long process – about 12 years to get this status. It was a lot of work for Marisa and the others involved
  • The glass beads have probably been around even longer than the Murano glass makers or at least from a similar time. There has been glass beads since glass was first invented
  • Venetian glass beads are very important because when Venice was at its most famous, the glass beads were used as coins/as a kind of bargaining chips
  • When New York first came into being and was known as New Amsterdam, it had been bought from the Indigenous Americans with Venetian glass beads. Throughout most of Africa, many tribes would bargain and exchange beads for goods. Most of the little beads used by the Masai, back in the day used to be from Venice. Venetian glass beads were known all over the world until the new cheaper versions came along – machine-made and plastics etc
  • Another friend of Monica’s is the glass expert Alessia Fuga whom you can learn to create glass beads. You have got to be very dextrous because you need to do two completely different movements with each hand and concentrate very hard
  • Murano glass is a soft glass, so it melts very quickly, but also hardens very quickly, which makes the process even harder
  • Katy was very lucky that for her birthday she got a piece from Alessia Fuga. Her work is amazing. She is very meticulous and detailed and is also a great teacher
  • She’s famous in the city as an artist and appreciated by the masters like Seguso and Tagliapietra

Oarlocks

  • When you visit Venice, the gondolas are of course amazing and the workshops for those working on them are of course interesting to see this unique and traditional craft and there are not so many people doing it anymore. But there are also the people that do the oarlocks, of whom there are only three or four left
  • Monica’s favorite oarlock maker is Piero Dri who is young and fun, an amazing artisan and is also very passionate about Venice. He’s an activist, always organizing cleanups of the lagoon and fighting for the protection of Venice. Oarlocks weren’t used just for the gondola, it was used for all of the Venetian boats. But as there are now fewer boats and fewer Venetians  He realized that the oarlocks make a great ornament so he started making them not just as something that can be used, but also lamps, statues, and even earrings
  • He really knows a lot about his craft and its history and likes to connect and work with other people. He totally understood the importance of networking with other artisans in Venice. With the Venetian old-school crafters, each craft, like Murano, tended to exist within closed doors which meant a lot of old masters died and they didn’t leave anything written down/that could be passed on. So for Murano perhaps some secret recipes of how to make certain shades of glass have gotten lost
  • Things in Venice, as in much of the world, have not been passed on as young people don’t want to do manual jobs and the crafts are being lost

Etchings

  • One of the first artisans Monica ever interviewed, nearly 15 years ago was Arianna from Plum Plum. She’s an artisan Etcher based near the Jewish Ghetto
  • Etching is very important for the city of Venice and now, there are only 3 or 4 of them left. In the past, this was a way that people used to decorate books. Printing was a big thing in Venice, so most Italian books were printed there and etching was one of the main industries in the city but as everything became industrialized, it started to disappear
  • Arianna does etching, Aquaforte and as well as painting. She also does classes. Not everyone is a great teacher, but she is fantastic and her passion shines through

Cameos

  • When Katy was in Venice with Monica, she took her to a particularly memorable shop on the Rialto Bridge. The amazing Cameo shop of Eredi Jovon. Monica interviewed him the other day, finally, after knowing and being friends with him for years, as it took a long time to convince him to talk on the podcast
  • Marco at Eredi Jovon really embraces the Made in Italy ideal. His shop has been there since 1934 and was opened by his grandad, and passed to his dad before him
  • The cameos and corals themselves are not from Venice – they come from the south of Italy, Positano and around. But he has developed such an incredible network of artists and he promotes these special items Made in Italy. He won’t touch anything unless it is from a certified source and he knows exactly where it comes from and his corals must be Italian
  • When you walk in the hop, you don’t just buy something – you just get like an hour’s history because he and his family are very passionate, making it very special and different perhaps from the other jewelry shops around there often catering for tourists
  • They have so much stuff and lots of vintage stuff too – it’s one of the biggest collections of vintage cameos in Venice, possibly in Italy
  • The other day Marco told Monica about opening a box that he had totally forgot about that he found hidden somewhere in the shop. It turned out it was a box of his dad’s and there were 500 – 600 cameos in there. The box would have been 60 – 70 years old and the cameos in there were already old when his dad got them
  • Cameos have been around almost as long as man has been around because it is literally depicting something on stone
  • Cameos developed mainly during the Greek and Roman times and is when they carved a face or picture onto various stones and shells – turquoise, coral, Cornelian shell etc
  • Back in Roman times, it would have been gods or any mythological figure. Then during the Middle Ages, it became portraits of people. During the 1800s, it became a very big thing for those visiting Italy. During the Grand Tour, you couldn’t say you went to a Grand Tour of Italy unless you went back with a cameo and the bigger the cameo the better
  • It then died down in popularity in the 1900s but now there is a resurgence in interest
  • You can find cameos on shells of course but you can even find them carved on glass
  • One thing that Marco does is that you can send him a picture of what you want and have your own special cameo created from it – of you, your children or pets
  • He’s very limited on the number of cameos he does – around 100 per year because it takes so much time to do each one
  • When Monica was in Sorrento,  she went to watch some of his artisans. It takes a long time and is a very complicated process
  • What they are carving on is often very thin and delicate. It takes years to become an amazing carver

Lace

  • Lace is one of the oldest crafts of Venice. If you go to Burano, there are shops that sell lace but again you have to be careful because around the city there is the real Burano-created lace and then cheap copies
  • A piece of lace about the size of a 1 Euro coin can take a whole day to make
  • One great shop and probably one of the best is well-known is called Martina Vidal in Burano. When you arrive in Burano, it’s one of the first shops you see and it’s quite big. They have their own collection and a little lace museum upstairs an generally they have a lady sitting there making the lace for you to watch

Paper

  • Venice is a city where printing was first developed. It wasn’t invented here, but it was developed there with people like Aldo Manuzio. 
  • Monica’s friend Stefania Janicci runs Paper Oowl and makes all kinds of amazing things with paper. You name it and she can make it
  • She does amazing jewelry,  which is stunning and so light  – you can keep it all day long and it doesn’t weigh anything.  It’s very detailed and is very different from other types of paper jewelry

Antique Items

  • In the Ghetto, go to Antichita al Ghetto, to see the old crafts. They specialize in the Murano micro mosaics, that are not around anymore. Everything is vintage and they also do a lot of antiques to do with the Jewish religion
  • It’s a beautiful place
  • Katy has been with Monica and found the mosaics to be incredible. They are about the size of a dot of a pen. You need a magnifying glass to look at them in detail
  • They stop doing those in the ’80s when they stop producing the tassels so anything in the shop is at least 50 years old

Carnivale and historic costumes

  • When you think of the Venice Carnivale you think of beautiful carnival costumes which is an artisanship because it’s all detailed handmade tailoring
  • One of Monica’s favorites is Atelier Pietro Longhi who specialize in historic costumes
  • Another favorite is Ca’macana, they make beautiful dresses as well their masks
  • If you want something a bit more princess-like, there is Atelier Nicolao, that’s in the Cannaregio district
  • They do a lot also for theater and for film productions. Most of the film production that comes to the city uses them. At the back, they’ve got a huge area of costumes

Food

  • Monica, who does food tours, is of course passionate about the food of Venice and one artisanal product you cannot miss is the homemade chocolate of Venice. The place you have to go for that is Vizio Virtù

The Future

  • While craft and artisanship are not so much a part of daily life in Venice, we do have hope with the young people coming through picking up and being passionate about the traditional crafts
  • There are people that are very well known in Venice and Italy, often further afield but then there are new ones who still pop up for Monica – that maybe they just starting to promote themselves. Maybe they’ve been working for years, but they never were on social media and so on
  • Young people spend hours on their phones, tablets and laptops and whilst it may seem that they are not engaging with the old, traditional world, it might be that coming across something on TikTok inspires them to take up one of these ancient crafts – whilst before they wouldn’t have seen it anywhere else
  • Venice has a lot of gems that are un-tapped by many visitors. When they come to Venice many people just go to San Mark Square, and the usual places, but are missing out
  • There are lots of famous people coming to the city and talking about the city, but they’re not really championing the city in the right way. If all the influencers, famous actors and VIPs that come to Venice, didn’t do the same as those before them and went into one of these shops or workshops, it would end up with many more people getting to know about these artisans
  • Supply and demand is the key – if people see the demand for something and see that it is valued, then more people will invest the time and energy it takes to learn that craft

Find Monica

  • You can find Monica, where she started out – on her blog at www.monicacesarato.com which has a wealth of information about Venice. You can find her podcast Venice Talks, on any podcast platform – which is all about Venetians. Her book on Cicchetti, Andar Per Bacari, is available on Amazon – as well as talking bout how to do Cicchetti it is also a cookbook
  • Monica loves welcoming Untold Italy listeners on her tours – with people on nine out of ten tours telling her they’ve listened to her on the podcast
  • She is an advocate for podcasts like this one and her own for getting people excited about arts and traditions because, more so than in writing, hearing someone’s passions can really rub off

About our guest – Monica Cesarato

Monica cesarato

Monica Cesarato is an Italian food and travel blogger born near Venice. She has lived there most of her life, apart from a break of 11 years spent in the UK.

As well as writing about Venetian and Italian food and about Venice and Italy in general, Monica also offers culinary tours of the city and is a cooking instructor offering cooking classes. She has written a book about Cicchetti, Andar Per Bacari.

She has appeared in various TV shows talking about Venice and its food, including Apple TV’s The Reluctant Traveler with Eugene Levy. She now also has her own podcast all about Venice – Venice Talks.

Find more about her tours and writing on monicacesarato.com.

You can find Monica and her blogs on these social media channels:

Monica’s Book:

Andar per Bacari. Food, Wine & Itineraries among Venice.

Places mentioned in the show

  • Piazza San Marco –  main square of Venice home to ritzy cafes, the basilica and Palazzo Ducale
  • Rialto bridge – famous white bridge of Venice spanning the Grand Canal
  • Cannaregio – the northernmost of the six historic sestieri (districts) of Venice
  • Burano – island famous for its colorful houses with a strong fishing and lace-making tradition

Makers

Resources

  • auguri – congratulations in Italian
  • Aldo Manuzio – an Italian printer and humanist who founded the Aldine Press in 1494
  • etching – a printmaking process in which lines or areas are made using acid onto a metal plate to hold the ink
  • aquaforte – ancient form of etching

Resources from Untold Italy

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Transcript

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