While I'm doing research in Italy, the creator of the Dream of Venice series of photography books shares some of the city's delights:
by JoAnn Locktov
Now say the word slowly. It rolls off your tongue with images of imperial empresses. In truth, it is the Venetian word for bead-stringer.
Not everything made on the island of Murano was for the immediate pleasure of the aristocracy. The glass blowers also produced the humble bead (perlina). The minute perfections of glass needed to be strung before they were packed in crates that were shipped around the world.
This was woman’s work (un lavoro da donne). As the men were busy building ships that would conquer east and west, the women sat outside in the fading light and gave linear form to glass no bigger than a seed.
Marisa Convento is a modern impiraressa in Venice. She has elevated the status of bead-stringer to the nobility of artisan (artigiana). The stringing of beads is a functional requirement. The creation of flowers, embroidery and adornment is a creative pursuit.
If you go to Venice and book a tour through Italian Stories, Marisa will take you down the rabbit hole of impiraressa legacy with an immersive experience. She wears shoes with leather soles and not insubstantial heels. They click when she walks with the confidence of someone who knows exactly where she is going.
We venture to Castello, in the vicinity of the Arsenale. This is where the impiraresse of Venice worked. This is where they counted out beads, strung on cotton thread (filo di cotone) with long needles (aghi lunghi), and gossiped (pettegolavano, chiacchieravano). And when no longer able to feed their children on meager wages, they went on strike.
Marisa will take you to the votive displays, saints sheltered in a sotoportego (covered passageway) offering protection and grace. She will explain that child labor was not allowed. By comparing early 20th century photography she will take you to the exact doorways where the women sat with laps filled with glass.
The history of the impiraressa is intimately connected to the history of the Arsenale, which is the history of Venice. Workers were skilled; they exemplified the common good that was the basis for the Republic’s success. When you extinguish one category of expertise, the sail maker (velaio), the rope maker (cordaio), the wood carver (intagliatore del legno), the weaver (tessitore), the remer (remaio), the cobbler (calzolaio, ciabattino) or the baker (fornaio), heritage will waiver and ultimately crumble. Honor the artisans. They have the courage to sustain the traditions that are keeping Venice alive.
Words and Expressions
Artigiano –- craftsman
Fatto a mano –- made by hand
Chi ha arte ha parte –- a person with a trade can always make a living
Antichi mestieri –- ancient crafts
JoAnn Locktov is the founder of Bella Figura Publications, an independent imprint publishing a series of photography books on Venice as a contemporary living city, including Dream of Venice and Dream of Venice Architecture.
Photos by Evelyn Leveghi for Italian Stories.
Dianne Hales is the author of Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered and La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.