Ercole Barovier: Murano glass visionary
NEW YORK – Not many companies have been in continuous operation for 750 years, but that enviable claim can be made by the Italian glassworks firm Barovier & Toso, founded in 1295 in Italy as Vetreria Artistica Barovier & Co. The enterprise is still going strong today, with the new name the result of a merger with the Toso family of Italy in the 1930s. Today the company is run by Angelo Barovier, the latest in a long line of Baroviers dating all the way back to 1295. It was Angelo’s father, Ercole Barovier (1889-1974), who left a major mark on the company and the entire glassworks industry.
Ercole Barovier was born in Murano, Italy, and also died there. He joined the family business as a partner in 1919 and in 1926 was named artistic director. He was more than just a businessman; he was an entrepreneur and artistic visionary. He invented the “heat coloring without fusion” technique and from the late 1920s until his retirement in 1972 he personally designed every significant glass object produced by the company – a portfolio that boasted over 25,000 designs. Ercole Barovier lights, glass and designs can be found in major museum collections worldwide.
Beginning in 1933, Barovier designed a number of vessels with unmelted pigment dispersed in thick, clear glass as decoration. In these, he incorporated references from nature, history and contemporary art – evidence of his genius. Embellished with expressive hot-work applications, some of his creations had soft organic forms inspired by sea life and the ever-changing effect of light on water. His A Mugnoni, Medusa and Lenti series share this naturalist aesthetic, combined with the feeling of monumental sculpture most associated with the late Italian Novecento style.
In the 1950s Barovier’s interest in ancient glass and primitive objects became apparent in the series Barbarico, Aborigeni and Neolitici. During this time period, Barovier also made poetic reference to design motifs from classical antiquity through the use of tightly controlled geometric patterning resulting in the series Moreschi, Dorico, and Argo. The Intarsio series was composed of clear and brightly colored glass tesserae and shows the influence of Op-Art. Barovier’s many bestowed honors included being named Cavaliere del Lavoro by the Italian government in 1954.
So what is it about Barovier that explains the man’s success and the company’s longevity? “Color, color and color,” declared Shane Combs of Hill Auction Gallery in Sunrise, Florida. “Ercole Barovier was fearless. He wasn’t afraid to experiment with unknown formulas to create a new and exciting color. His vast knowledge of traditional techniques combined with emerging technological advances in glassmaking made for the perfect storm. Vibrant shades and artistic designs were executed with precision and elegance unsurpassed by many of his industry rivals.”
Combs said that with the rise in demand for fine midcentury modern furniture, there’s been a steady increase in the demand for decorative accessories. “Well educated consumers are seeking the best examples to accent their homes and as a long-term investment in an often-turbulent secondary market,” he pointed out. “The quiet and deceptively simple forms of Ercole Barovier vessels and their bold colors are perfect for the well curated interior.”
Chase Lanford of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates in Mount Crawford, Virginia, said it’s important to recognize that Ercole Barovier descended from the legendary Barovier family in Murano. “This family had been working in glassmaking for generations before, and were already a well-recognized and respected firm,” he said. “Ercole grew up around glass and, like many in Murano, it was a way of life. I think really what makes Ercole Barovier such a revered artist is he is somewhat of a transitional figure – a studio artist before the movement ever really caught on.”
Lanford said it was Barovier’s unique merger of time-honored technique and the embracing of new technology that allowed him to push the limits of glass making and introduce a large audience to his work. “He also mastered murine construction and mosiac glassmaking, showing people the tremendous scope of color that only glass can provide,” Lanford remarked. “Glass is a medium that shows color in a unique way and Barovier showed the world a new rainbow of color. So, with him being a greatly skilled technician, having a great care of form, and expressing the latter with tremendous mosaics of color, are what brought Barovier such profound success.”
Cristina Campion of Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland, California, said Ercole Barovier has always been collected by both Italian glass afficianados and interior designers alike for decades, mainly because of his Modernist techniques. “His pieces really challenged and furthered technological advancements in glass making of the 1920s through ’60s,” she said. “One of my favorite examples is the Lenti series, which used clear glass pieces having highly textured surfaces. The large oval glass pieces would be fused together, and the vases often featured beautiful gilt inclusions. This style pairs well with any Modernist home.”
Karen Swager of Brunk Auctions in Asheville, North Carolina, agreed that people are attracted to Barovier’s innovative designs and techniques, developed and revised over his long career. “His work appeals to people on different levels,” Swager said. “Some collectors may seek out pieces from a certain period in his career. Others may be more interested in the technical aspects of his work, but all can enjoy the sheer beauty of the glass. His art glass creations can be showcased in a room or gallery with fine art and antiques or complement midcentury modern décor.”
With regard to market demand for Barovier’s work, Swager reviewed his auction records and determined the demand has been fairly consistent for the last five to ten years. “His early works from the Primavera series can bring record prices well over $100,000, but his later pieces from the 1950s and 1960s seem to bring more in $5,000 to $20,000 range,” she said. “The Pezzato bicolor vase we sold in May 2019 hammered at $13,000 with an estimate of $4,000-$6,000. In most cases, conservative estimates for Barovier’s glass have achieved higher results as I did notice some passed lots with steeper estimates. Like so many things in the antique and art markets, I suspect values for the rare and exceptional Barovier works will continue to climb and values for later examples produced during his career will continue to hold.”
Cristina Campion at Clars said that Italian Modern Design overall today is very popular. “Furniture designers such as Gio Ponti and Ico Parisi are quite collected,” she said. “As a result of this, Ercole Barovier’s pieces are highly sought-after as well. While styles may change over time, similar to the stock market, I foresee that renowned glassmakers like Barovier will always retain their inherent value.”
Shane Combs at Hill Auction said the rarity of early Barovier glass has been underappreciated for years. “The rising demand for his early innovative pieces using mosaico or murrine construction are seeing record setting prices when presented at auction,” he said. “We’re likely to see rising prices for average pieces as the market expands. Museum quality examples are likely to emerge from estates as popular culture catches on to the trend.”