The tour guides did not look like what we were expecting at all.
There were two of them by the dock, waiting for our taxi acquei (water taxi) to arrive. Once we stopped, they helped us up from the boat. I didn’t say they weren’t nice, just not what we expected.
They wore fancy brand-name suits. Had shiny Italian leather wingtips. Slicked-back hair. Neatly-trimmed goatees. Rings and jewelry. And piercing eyes behind smiles that could probably put a bullet in your head as easily as a handshake.
“Mafioso,” I thought as quickly as I felt guilty of the prejudiced thought. But I would totally understand if you saw the same look on a Chinese guy and thought, “Triad.”
“Welcome to Signoretti,” one of the guides said. “I will be the guide for the English-speaking group.” I heard the other guide speaking in French to another group of passengers. “We are one of the oldest glass artisans on Murano. Today, I will be giving you a tour of our glass-making facilities. Please, right this way.”
Mia and I, along with a British family of three, followed him into the impressive Signoretti building.
Inside were several hot furnaces. Half a dozen artisans danced around with poles that were shoved into said furnaces. The tips of the poles were bright orange molten glass.
The guide described the glass making process. It was one that involved design, production, finishing, polishing, and even packaging & shipping. He made a
point to say there were six artisans involved with just one piece of glass art. “Remember, the price you pay, while at a discount because you are purchasing right here in the factory, is to provide for the salaries of six artisans.”
“Now, they will make a Ferrari horse to show you how a sculpture is made.” He motioned to one of the artisans with a hot pole of molten glass. “Get your cameras ready.”
The artist carefully extruded the head, then the legs of the horse from the molten core. He made it seem so easy. We clapped and cheered.
“Now, I will take you to our showroom. Come.”
We walked up a flight of stairs as another tour group entered the factory. The showroom was an impressive display of glass art. Beautiful chandeliers, elegant vases, magnificent wine glasses. Intertwined with colors and curved in seductive shapes, each was a delicate work of art.
And, expensive. Other tours were in the showroom too. I heard some of them asking about prices. “That one is only 100,000 euros,” one tour guide said. “It took several days to make. Very difficult. Very unique. You will not find anything like it anywhere else in Murano.”
That’s when it hit me. “I don’t think they’re tour guides,” I whispered to Mia. “I think they’re salespeople giving tours. It’s like a timeshare sales session. Our hotel probably has an arrangement with these guys. They give us a free tour, pay for our water taxis, and try to sell us on their glassware. They’ll probably try to sell us hard by the end of the tour.”
However, I was wrong. Our slick salesman probably realized we weren’t going to unload a few grand on their merchandise. “Would you like to see any more, or are you interested in smaller pieces?” he asked us.
“Let’s see the smaller pieces,” I said.
He whisked us into a room not unlike a typical Murano glass souvenir shop in Venice. Then he shut the door and was gone. Perhaps to give another tour/sales session.
We wandered out of the complex and into a residential-looking part of Murano. After a few dead-ends, we began following a group of tourists.
“You know what would be a better sales technique?” Mia said. “If he didn’t just throw us out once he realized we weren’t going to buy anything. What if we were to tell our friends about them, and our friends buy something? Or what if we returned someday, after we could afford it, and brought something?”
I nodded. “Totally agree. Sometimes your customers make your best salespeople.”
“I know, right?” she huffed. Then something caught Mia’s eye. “Oh, can we look at that?”
It was a tall glass sculpture in a small enclosed garden. Above the doorway was the sign, “Simone Cenedese Gallery.” She took a picture of the beautiful sculpture, then peeked inside the gallery.
“Should we go in?” she asked. The tourists we were following were disappearing around a bend.
I looked into the gallery. “Sure, why not.” We walked in.
The glass art was exquisite. Contemporary. Grand.
A salesperson came over. “Buongiorno,” he greeted. “Are you looking for chandeliers or souvenirs?”
“Uh…” came my quick-witted reply.
“Our house specializes in chandeliers. We don’t make much else that is smaller.”
“Oh, I see. We are just looking for souvenirs.”
“You will find many beautiful souvenirs here in Murano. But while you are here, please enjoy and take a look at our art as well.” With a smile, he took a step backwards and left us to browse.
We slowly walked down a hallway adorned with majestic works of art. Mia stopped at one and her mouth opened. “This is so beautiful. Wow. I wonder how they did this.” It was a curved slab of clear glass with what looked like organic leaves or shells inside of it.
“That,” said the salesperson who seemed to materialize right behind us, “is a compound of minerals sealed inside the glass. It is our master’s own formula, so you won’t see this anywhere else in Murano.”
“It’s beautiful,” Mia said.
“Would you like to see more of our master’s work? Come, let me show you our gallery. Come.”
I hesitated, not wanting to face another sales session. But something about his manner was more inviting than the last guy. Also, at the very least, all we had to say was, “No thanks,” and walk away.
The gallery was as contemporary as the art. Lighted glass floors. White walls. It wasn’t overwhelming like the first place. Fewer pieces were on display. More like an art gallery than a showroom.
“Here,” the salesperson said to Mia. He brought out a piece similar to what she was admiring in the hallway and placed it on a lighted table. “Walk around it and see how the curves of the glass change the view of the shapes inside. It is a very fluid piece.”
She ooo’ed and ahh’ed. On another table was a book with the name Simone Cenedese. “Is this the master?” I asked.
“Ah, yes!” he said with energy. “Simone Cenedese. He is one of the youngest artists in Murano, born in 1973. His work is very modern. His youthful eye brings a new style to this ancient practice.”
He flipped through the book. “One of his sculptures is outside at the end of the canal. You should go take a look later. It is very beautiful.”
He stopped at a page with a photo of the master himself. “Wow, he looks very young,” Mia exclaimed.
“Would you like to see the master at work?”
Mia and I looked at each other. “Sure!” we said together.
“Come.” The salesperson led us through another hallway and down some stairs. We were greeted with several furnaces and artisans with poles of molten glass. It was similar to what we saw earlier, except there was no tourist barrier between us and the artisans. We were allowed much closer. Almost too close. The heat was pretty intense. I could almost feel the suffocating heat on my cheeks.
The salesperson explained the glassmaking process. The sand goes into the furnace. Each furnace is a different color. An artisan dips the pole into the a furnace to get another color onto his piece. All follow a prepared design. It was more information than the last tour had offered.
“Ah, here is the master himself,” the salesperson said. We turned around and saw Cenedese cooling off a pole with molten glass. He looked up for a second, then returned to his work. There was a fierce look of determination on his face. We held our breath as he carved and molded the glass.
After a few moments, the salesperson said, “Come, come.” He whisked us into another room. “Making glass art is a lot of work. What you saw is just the beginning. The glass also needs to be sanded, polished, and finished.” He motioned to tables and tables of glass, all of it dusty. Artisans were sanding down the glass pieces, leaving behind a film of dust everywhere.
It was so dirty and messy that we got the feeling this wasn’t a common place for gawking tourists.
I peered closely at a pile of glass tubes with circles drawn on them. “Those are the imperfections in those glasses,” said the salesperson. “I can’t see them, but they, they can tell. To the trained eye, there are dozens of imperfections at this stage. The artists will continue to polish the glass into each piece is perfect.”
The next room was the packaging & shipping room. Boxes and boxes filled with styrofoam peanuts were scattered about. Workers were wrapping pieces of glass carefully in paper. I pointed at a complex-looking chandelier. “Are instructions included?”
“Oh yes. Instructions are included with each piece. They are not hard to put together. Very easy.” He walked over to another chandelier. “See, each piece is simply screwed in,” he said as he unscrewed a glass tube off, just like an ordinary lightbulb.
After that, we exited the workshop. “I am glad you got to see the master at work. If you would like to make a purchase, I will be happy to help. If not, please enjoy Murano island. Look around at the other glass sculptures. You will see that Simone’s art is unique. It is unlike any other art on this island. He has a very distinctive style. Please, enjoy.”
He smiled warmly. We replied with lots of “grazie’s” and “thank you’s.”
As walked out of the gallery, we turned to each other. “Wow, what a cool experience,” Mia declared. “How nice of him too. He probably knew we weren’t going to buy anything, yet he gave us a full personal tour and even showed us the master at work. And all without the pressure of purchasing. Now that is a fantastic sales technique! We totally can’t afford anything in there, but as soon as we can, I want to come back and buy something from them.”
“And tell all our friends about them,” I added. She nodded.
We smiled to each other. I took her hand and we started down a row of souvenir shops, noting how none were quite as beautiful as the art we saw in the Simone Cenedese Gallery.