In Venetian arts and crafts

Iron is the name of a major side-walk in Venice, by the Rialto bridge: “riva del ferro”. This area is close to the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the ancient warehouse of the Northern European merchants, who would sell in Venice large quantities of metal.

Iron is present everywhere in Venice. You may not notice any at first glance, but once you turn your attention to it, you will then realise how iron is part of the essence of Venice. Gates, windows’ bars, balconies, key-locks and re-bars, just to mention some.

Rebar in Venice, Zen Palace, Cannaregio

Windows with iron grating in Venice, Zen Palace, Cannaregio

Wrought iron in Venice before industry

By iron in Venice one mainly refers to pre-industrial wrought iron, not just ironwork. A league of iron and carbon, which easily deteriorates in the dampness and saline climate of the Venetian lagoon. Rusting, peeling off, crumbling in your fingers. And when you cannot restore an ancient piece, it is necessary to replace it. The difficult part is that as this piece was man-made, so it is not, industrially speaking, a standard one. So, you need to replicate it, exactly as Venetian blacksmiths made it in the past.

You can imagine what this means. Marco Tenderini is a blacksmith with an in-depth closeness to this kind of work and entering his family’s workshop in Venice can bring you back to ancient times. The old anvil, the incredible variety of man-made tools like hammers, the movements and the sounds are still the same as hundreds of years ago. 

Marco Tenderini's blacksmith workshop in Venice

Marco Tenderini’s blacksmith workshop in Venice

You may say it would be easier to produce all this industrially. If you make everything by hand, it takes more time, it costs more and requires a special expertise. However, it is not possible to replace ironwork in Venice with something industrially produced, as the product would never have the right size or shape. It is the way Venice is that forces you to maintain these blacksmiths’ workshops active. Venice exists in its uniqueness, because blacksmiths with their expertise are keeping uniqueness alive. 

Not just. There’s more that blacksmiths can do for Venice.

Restoring Calder and Falkenstein at the Peggy Guggenheim collection

I interviewed another young blacksmith, Alessandro Ervas, forced to leave Venice a few years ago, but still very much involved in the Venetian reality. Together with his father Ermanno Ervas, he takes care of the Nuovo Trionfo boat, but also of the restoration of several metal sculptures in town. 

Together with Luciano Pensabene and Sandra Divari from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Alessandro recently restored two modern iron art works housed in this museum: The Cow by Alexander Calder and the iron New Gates of Paradise by Claire Falkenstein. 

Alessandro Ervas’ expertise combines with his expertise as a restorer. This is not common and that is why Alessandro is really a valuable professional. Alessandro Ervas says:

Metal carpentry can serve poetry

A few notes about Calder and Falkenstein

While Calder was born in 1898, Claire Falkenstein was ten years younger. In the late 1920s the metallurgical industry was skyrocketing in the United States. Think of the Empire State Building, a skyscraper completely made in steel. Thousands and thousands of nails with a technique, Alessandro pointed out, that was identical to the one applied in the ancient times to make Celtic andirons. Just, at a different scale.

Both artists were born at a time in the history when technology advancement proved to be essential for their art. The invention of the oxy-fuel cutting torch, the coated electrode that allowed for electrical welding and, finally, electric power tools meant a lot for both artists, who, however, studied as goldsmiths, too. Formal refinement combined to electrical welding is the keyword to understand their art.

The Cow by Alexander Calder (1971)

The Cow by Alexander Calder (1971), Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice

Calder was an engineer, but also a goldsmith. When you look at his “Cow”, details matter a lot: a jewel made of iron, beautifully polished all over its borders. Keeping in mind the military warships in steel and signing his art work with a weld, Calder created a cow, a subject reminding of a pastoral idyll. Alessandro Ervas praised:

A most beautiful weld! It’s the weld that holds the whole statue together.

The details of the signature in The Cow by Alexander Calder (1971), Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice

Welders and the war propaganda in the USA during WW2

And let’s not forget that during WW2, the United States considered welders, mainly women, national heroines. Thanks to good welds, you could win the war. That was the propaganda.

Calder revolved all this and turned a national symbol of military power into a most inoffensive cow, sending a message of peace.

Line up of some of women welders including the women’s welding champion of Ingalls (Shipbuilding Corp., Pascagoula, MS) – NARA

The restoration of The Cow by Alexander Calder in 2018

It was not easy to restore “The Cow”. The incredible precision of the borders, how they were smoothed and refined, is exactly what you can find in ancient statues of the 19th century. Calder’s love for details forced the restorers to take all possible photos of the art work. After the art work was dismantled, then all the seven pieces that compose the statue had to be restored and reassembled the way they were. Even bolts and nuts were precisely placed back to the original position. And by the way, none of the bolts and nuts used by Calder were still in the market when he worked, so he had them made for him.

Joints, nuts and bolts in The Cow by Alexander Calder (1971), Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice

Welds, nuts and bolts in The Cow by Alexander Calder (1971), Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice

The New Gates of Paradise by Claire Falkenstein (1961)

Claire Falkenstein built the iron gates herself with a blowtorch. The work was commissioned to her directly by Peggy Guggenheim for her house in Venice. She created a 3D, sculptural effect on the side of the gates towards the garden. She used the welding technique to create something looking like a natural web out of metal rods, or rather like a bird’s nest or a mental labyrinth. 

A gate in metal and glass designed by Claire Falkenstein for the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice

Claire Falkenstein’s gate at the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice

The project to restore the piece was possibile in 2016 thanks to Save Venice.

Restoring Falkenstein’s gates almost turned Alessandro “crazy”. He followed the maze of all these iron rods, sanded them accurately to remove the paint and the rust, and then gave the anti-rust, piece after piece. Finally, he repainted them, one at the time, with a little brush. The gate’s pieces in Murano glass encased in the metal web had to be protected as they could easily break.

Murano glass piece encased in the New Gates of Paradise by Claire Falkenstein (1961), Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice

The gate’s weight had to be equally supported so that it would not crash onto itself. Almost two years of work.

An artisanal expertise is essential and a call for help

The problem of restoration of metal art works is that one tends to apply techniques imported from the industry because of the material the artefacts are made. Even if the word “iron” evokes the industrial world, let’s not forget, however, how an artisanal approach is often the only way to guarantee the aesthetic message and the memory of the artist’s gesture. And this is an important lesson from blacksmiths in Venice one should not ignore.

The next step…? Well, there is a lot to do in Venice, but it would be nice if Carlo Scarpa’s iron gates at the Querini Stampalia museum were taken care of soon…

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

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Showing 4 comments
  • GailS

    Years ago blacksmiths, with their fires, were allowed in Venice even though glass makers were not? Are there many left in Venice today?

    • Luisella Romeo, blogseevenice

      Interesting question, thank you! I believe the difference between a foundry or a blacksmith’s workshop and the glass furnaces lies in the material they used as fuel. For glass, they used wood, which is highly dangerous in terms of fires. The foundry workers and the blacksmiths instead used charcoal, which tends to turn off.

  • Jill Kerby

    Thanks so much for this terrifically informative blog. I spent an entire day in Venice once, wandering around the city looking at the endless collection, from so many centuries, of ironwork window grills, door locks, bars, hasps, hinges, knockers, though many of the latter were bronze or brass. In the great churches I often found belts of iron encasing massive pillars and rebars holding together great granite blocks. In my mind’s eye I could see the dark medieval blacksmith’s forges behind heavy wooden gates, white hot sparks shattering off their anvils, apprentices in leather gauntlets and aprons pouring hot metal into the ancient stone molds. And the sound – the whoosh of the bellows, the clanging of metal on metal…what a great day that was. ☘

    • Reply

      Dear Jill, thank you for your kind words! It’s indeed an art and craft which, once you focus on it, leaves you breathless! I will do more research! Stay tuned!

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Snow in Venice, 1956, CameraPhoto Epoche©, Venice