Murano’s first all-female glass furnace shatters the glass ceiling

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Rebecca Ann Hughes visits El Cocal in Murano, Italy. The first all-female furnace on Murano, it’s run by Chiara Taiariol and Mariana Oliboni.


Listen to Rebecca narrating her article:

In the small showroom of Chiara Taiariol’s hot shop on the Venetian island of Murano stands a collection of curvaceous ancient goddess statues. The voluptuous figures come in solid or blown glass and a range of colours and forms. They represent creativity, fertility and rebirth. But they also speak volumes about their creators; two women who are heralding a new era in the 1000-year-old tradition of glass on Murano. 

El Cocal studio is the project of Italian-American Taiariol and Mariana Oliboni, who was born in Brazil and has lived in Italy since she was nine. When I visit, a disco ball is refracting colourful lights over the workshop and The Beatles are blasting from the speakers.

Chiara Taiariol and Mariana Oliboni. Picture courtesy of El Cocal.

Taiariol, in red leggings and denim dungarees, dances to the music as she deftly spins and manipulates a rod carrying a glowing blob of molten glass. She demonstrates a technique to two other women who are taking a class on glasswork. 

The atmosphere is a refreshing contrast to the other furnaces on the island. There, the environment has come to feel inherently masculine, characterised by fire, straining muscles, sweat and an all-male workforce.

Chiara Taiariol at work in her furnace on Murano.

Taiariol explains to me that the contrast is entirely deliberate. “I want to create a different atmosphere where people like me feel comfortable to work,” she says. In fact, El Cocal represents the first all-female glass workshop on Murano.  

On the island, which is 15 minutes by waterbus from Venice, boys once started work in the furnaces as young as eight or nine years old. They would work their way up through the pecking order, perhaps eventually becoming a maestro (master) many years later.

Women residents of the island were also intrinsically connected to glass, but in distinct areas like decorating, bead-stringing or packaging. Now, several talented female glass artists work using a small blowtorch, but the furnaces remain almost exclusively the domain of men.   

Taiariol recalls visiting the island at six years old when the furnaces first piqued her interest. But after studying at an art school in Milan, she had to go abroad to Australia and America to find a glass school. She tells me she tried several times to find a job on Murano over the years but received constant rejections, “partly because of the crisis, but mainly because I’m a woman”. A couple of years ago, however, she took the plunge to move to the island and broke into the world of the furnaces. “I tried again and succeeded, and I decided I wanted to live here,” she says. “Murano is the mecca of glassmaking.”

She lost her job in that furnace, but it gave her the chance to make the bold decision to set up on her own. “I wanted to work and also to give others the opportunity to do this job, particularly women,” she explains.

Oliboni was also instrumental in this process and feels passionate about making Murano’s workshops more inclusive. “The figure of a woman in the furnaces is seen as quite peculiar,” she says. “There are many women in the world who are talented with glass but it is very difficult to enter into a furnace on Murano because it is a masculine space.” Oliboni has a background in music and theatre but was invited by Taiariol to join her for a glassmaking project. During the experience, Oliboni found that “rather than me choosing glass, it chose me […] and I understood that the world of the furnaces fascinated me”. 

Setting up the hot shop was not plain sailing, however. After signing a contract to rent a workshop, the offer was retracted and Taiariol was forced to start from scratch again. “It was pretty bad,” she says, “but now we’re found someone new and we’re in really good hands.” But it still required the rebuilding of the furnaces and some of the workshop itself. 

For their first sculpture line, Taiariol says she and Oliboni wanted to draw on something “really genuine” that also represents “women, fertility and nature”. Thus, the ancient deities were born, taking inspiration from archaeological artifacts.

“They are really important because here the image of woman is at the centre,” continues Taiariol. One figure of the Prehistoric Venus range is formed with soft, sinuous shapes emphasised by the swirling, glittery colours of the glass. The figure is then recreated in a matte glass, imitating stone, which instead expresses the strength and eternal resistance of women. 

Another recent line is a quirky, feminine play on traditional Murano tableware. “The series is inspired by the woman’s body but giving it a touch of irony and a slightly provocative edge,” Oliboni says, who created the series. It features vases and glasses sprouting breasts and nipples.

“The slightly stylized and playful shapes take up the more traditional techniques carrying them towards the future,” Oliboni adds. Based on the importance of touch and texture, the series is titled Sensibilità (Sensibility). As Oliboni explains, this is because while drinking, “it stimulates not only the taste but also the touch, making it capable of creating a unique experience”.

Taiariol and Oliboni have now found their feet and say their groundbreaking enterprise is mostly well-received on the island. “So many glass masters help me and come over and give me suggestions,” Taiariol says. “I consider myself very lucky.” There is now a team of women in the hot shop and the space is also rented out to artists and other collaborators. 

Could El Cocal represent the beginning of a new phase in Murano’s history? Taiariol is optimistic. “We are changing Murano; it is who we are and what we do,” she says. “Here on Murano, there has always been a lot of influence between factories so hopefully things will keep going in this direction.”

Oliboni, too, hopes their hot shop will bring change. “We are trying to bring as many people as possible closer to this world which risks dying out or being stuck in the past,” she says. “As such, we try to create unusual works that stimulate the curiosity of everyone.” 

All images by Rebecca Ann Hughes unless otherwise stated.