Some of you may recall that I contributed to the lovely photography book, Dream of Venice, years ago. What you may not remember is the book was a labor of love by JoAnn Locktov, who I have come to know over the past few years after she first contacted me about the gorgeous book.
JoAnn is a frequent visitor to Italy, and especially Venice, and late last year she offered to send me a couple of original pieces she had written about recent trips to the canal city for publication here. Here is the first installment – I hope you’ll enjoy reading these as much as I did.
Grazie mille to JoAnn Locktov for sharing this experience with Italy Explained!
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 Murano was for the immediate pleasure of the aristocracy. The glass blowers also produced the humble bead. The minute perfections of glass needed to be strung before they were packed in crates that were shipped around the world.
This was women’s work. 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. She has elevated the status of bead-stringer to the nobility of artisan.
The stringing of beads is a functional requirement. The creation of flowers, embroidery, and adornment is a creative pursuit. If you are curious and book through Italian Stories, Marisa will take you down the rabbit hole of impiraressa legacy.
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 the Castello, in the vicinity of the Arsenale. This is where the impiraressa of Venice worked. This is where they counted out beads, strung on cotton thread with long needles, and gossiped. 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 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, the rope maker, the wood carver, the bead stringer, the weaver, the remer, the cobbler, or the baker – heritage will waiver, and ultimately crumble.
Honor the artisans. They have the courage to sustain the traditions that are keeping Venice alive.
JoAnn Locktov is the founder of Bella Figura Publications, an independent imprint publishing a series of photography books (including Dream of Venice and Dream of Venice Architecture) on Venice as a contemporary living city.