Illustration by Harshita Bandodkar
The landing announcements had been made and the flight was on schedule. As the craft started its descent, the Venetian sun began to rise, its soft orange light streaming in through my window.
When we landed, it was early morning with little activity around and MarcoPolo airport was still waking up. I completed the arrival formalities and headed to the water taxi dock. A chilly early summer breeze greeted me as the automatic doors opened, sensing a new visitor to this old famed city. A motor boat had been arranged by the hotel for pick up.
Crossing over to load my luggage, the boat bobbed over the vast Adriatic waters spreading across the horizon in shimmering hues of turquoise, sapphire and gold. Once baggage and passenger were both secured, the driver turned on the ignition and the engine roared loudly. We quickly gathered speed and were soon racing over the water to my destination – the island of Murano.
It had taken more than three months, numerous emails, phone calls and connections to secure an appointment with the Master. Not wanting to risk being late, I had decided to forgo a stop at the hotel and head directly to Murano. The Master of Venetian Glass, Pino Signoretto, was a renowned artist, unparalleled in the techniques of hot-shaping glass, who had collaborated with the likes of Dali, Koons, Barbini and Chihuly. The list was long.
In 2001, a commission to design the house of a prominent business family found its way to my then young architectural practice. The design proposal was a departure from previous projects. Conceptually the central idea was envisioned as monochromatic sculpted forms, fluid and unpredictable. Employing light to express the ebbs and swells of spaces and surfaces, it aimed to create an alchemy of illumination and shadow. The focal point in the entry salon required an artwork – a pièce de résistance, that would tie in these ideas. Using glass as the medium to achieve this was a natural choice and while Mumbai did not lack for good artists, some of whom I had previously collaborated with, this project needed something or someone special. Each new project, especially one that attempts to tread new design territory, is inevitably accompanied by a range of emotions — trepidation, exhilaration, doubt and adventure. It was a new voyage, and my clients had graciously agreed to come on board. The Italian company coordinating other aspects of the project had sent a list of possible artists for this commission. The last name on that list was that of Pino Signoretto.
The water taxi sped over the Venetian lagoon, past the intricate villas and cathedrals that bind this dense floating city. Ahead, the Island of Murano started taking shape with its colorful buildings. A few miles from the main city, Murano is a tiny island home to historic glass foundries.
After docking at the nearest jetty, I set off by foot to the studio. The tourist season was some weeks away and Murano was calmly stirring to life with small cafes and storefronts prepping to open. There was a bustle of industry in the air. It was not easy to find, but everyone knew the studio, and with some local help and a few bridges later, I arrived at my destination.
High innocuous brick walls surrounded the studio; a simple black door and large double gates were its only features. There were no signs or names, just a doorbell to ring. A gentleman, whose name I cannot recall, dressed in a chic olive-green suit opened the door and welcomed me. We headed inside into a most extraordinary courtyard, elegantly landscaped and lined with ancient, centuries-old marble sculptures. At its center stood a majestic sculpture of a horse nine feet high made entirely from hot-sculpted and blown glass. The equine form was mesmerizing – a sparkling gem trapping and reflecting rays of light.
Before I could digest the full glory of this surprising artwork, another well-dressed lady ushered us into a large reception room, its dark walls adorned by awards, and personal letters of admiration from the likes of Bill Clinton, George Bush, Shinzo Abe and Hollywood stars. While we waited, my host offered a tour of the studio galleries. The glass horse had been just a precursor to what lay inside. Each gallery housed a themed collection, hundreds of works, one inspired by Picasso, another by the human form, each expressed in transparent glass with sprays of gold flecks. The art pieces were seductive, beautiful, powerful and provocative all at once.
Pino Signoretto was clearly prolific without compromising originality and experimentation. This was the world of a master artist in full command of his craft. I was intrigued, how does one transition to such genius? Hard work and perseverance alone could not account for such artistic evolution. What was his secret mantra?
A considerable amount of time had passed and there was no sign of the Master. Sensing mounting impatience, my green-suited host made several rounds of inquiry, each time assuring me that the Master was late, but on his way. Another hour passed, it was almost noon when my host reappeared apologizing profusely that the meeting had to be cancelled.
“The Master was on his way when he had an inspiration and had to take off to the neighboring island to contemplate,” he said.
I was crestfallen. Overcome by waves of frustration and disappointment, it was a turbulent ride back to the hotel both emotionally and literally. Months of efforts and thousands of miles of travel had amounted to nothing. Like the meeting, the commission never materialized.
But the next morning, seated at the breakfast table overlooking the now calm waters of the grand canal, a deeper realization set in.
The Master had unknowingly shown me that the pursuit of ideas is a way of life.
We all possess a unique gift – our mind. It whispers insights and inspiration that transcend conscious intellect and when it does, we must take the time to listen.