Gianni Toso sat at the workstation, sweat gathering on his forehead just below the kippah, his bare fingers mere inches from a 2,000-degree propane blowtorch. The Venetian glass-blowing maestro delicately shaped globs of molten silica, selenium and cadmium into rose petals, and, in mere minutes, presented onlookers with an impromptu blossom of glass.
The crowd applauded warmly. This was a special day for East Bay glasswork students and artisans. Toso was in town, visiting Revere Glass in Berkeley to conduct a master class on June 6.
Toso is the last in a family line of Jewish Venetian glassblowers — a very long line stretching back 700 years. Although he has been a Baltimore resident since the 1980s, he remains a pure Venetian, with an accent as melodious as that of a singing gondolier.
Resembling a living Chagall figure with tzitzit fringes hanging at his waist, Toso is fluent in the chemistry of glassmaking. Terms like quartz, carbonate and potash flew trippingly off his tongue, as young students hung on his every word.
A master of all facets of the trade, Toso gained worldwide fame among fine art and Judaica collectors for his lanky figurines, many expressing some aspect of Jewish life — for example, a wedding party gathered under a chuppah or a glass chess set that pits Chassids against Catholics or Maccabis against Hellenists.
“To elevate this artificial medium, there must be magic,” he says. “Art is a power God gave us to develop humanity.”
Philosophy comes easily to Toso, who grew up in a glassmaking family on Murano Island, the center of Venetian Jewish glassblowing for hundreds of years. He started working in a glass factory at age 10, and enrolled in a local arts academy at 14. His apprenticeship lasted another 14 years before he opened his own studio in Venice’s famed Jewish Ghetto.
In time, thanks in part to his droll figurines, he became the city’s most celebrated glassmaker. “It’s part of Venetian culture,” he says. “We have commedia dell arte. Everything is a joke, satirical.”
“Sing a song, maestro” requested one of the master class attendees.
“Give me a glass of wine first,” replied Toso.
Since the glory days of ancient Rome, Jews have dominated Italian glassmaking, especially in Venice, and jealously guarded its secrets. In 1979, Toso made his first visit to America and introduced Venetian glassmaking techniques to American artisans.
A few years later, after falling in love with an Orthodox American woman, Toso moved first to New Jersey then to the outskirts of Baltimore, where he opened a studio and became fervently religious. One of his sons now attends yeshiva on the East Coast.
Despite a presence since the 13th century, Jewish glassmakers in Venice are a dying breed. “[Venice glassmakers] started to become business people,” he laments. “As family producers, it was successful, but it became industrial. People came in from the outside, and that was the death of it. America is the future of glass.”
Toso’s other passion is winemaking. He buys Italian grapes from California and handcrafts his own kosher wines and grappa on his Maryland estate. He does not, however, make his own wine bottles.
“We Italians don’t like American psychologists,” he says. If Italians have a problem, “you sit down and have a bottle of wine, maybe two, go to bed, get up and start over,” he said.
Given his abiding love for Judaism and glass, it seemed only logical to ask the maestro how he feels at Jewish weddings when the groom squashes a glass underfoot.
As it turns out, he thinks it’s a very good thing — and not just because another Jewish couple just sealed the deal. “It means they give a job to a glassblower,” he said.