A visit to the palazzo of glass dealer and collector Alessandro Zoppi.

A Venetian Treasure

By Michael Krzyzanowski

It is a grey winter day in Venice, the season of Acqua Alta (High Water). A distinguished, silver-haired man in high green waders and an exquisite short Mackintosh walks purposefully across a small stone bridge toward a long and misty corridor, terminating in a formidable, dark wooden door with a lion’s head handle. When the door opens, the damp Venetian morning dissolves into warm and cavernous rooms eclectically filled with cases of vibrantly colored glass objects. Room after room presents dreamlike views of the Grand Canal, each more inviting than the last. This is the lair of collector Alessandro Zoppi, and his story is made of sand, silica, fire, and passion.

Zoppi is a true son of Venice. Born into an atmosphere of comfort and elegance—his father was a surgeon and his grandfather a successful hotelier and restaurateur—he grew up in an apartment on the fifth floor of a grand hotel. His grandfather, Enrico Zoppi, had amongst his various small collections a pair of Salviati Blackamore figures, which became the source of the boy’s fascination with glass: delicious, inviting objects never to be touched, yet always desired.

In 1958, the young Zoppi’s father died unexpectedly, leaving him as the family’s only son and essentially ending his childhood. In 1961, he moved to London, and for the next few years this exuberant young Venetian lived a heady and exciting life working in chic Italian restaurants and residing in a lovely Kensington flat. He quickly developed a taste for English tailored clothes and, after work, discotheques.

By 1964, though, he’d returned home to Venice to take up a job as the manager of an important glass gallery in San Marco. His first professional foray into glass dealing was a resounding success, and within two years he was able to join forces with a new partner and buy the business from the original owner. Soon a firmly established member of the Venetian glass community, he also developed a strong working relationship with glass artists Livio and Angelo Seguso, with whom he created original and often grand works for the gallery. Over the years, Zoppi collaborated with a few different partners, and even took his business to Rome for a brief stint, but always remained connected to his Murano roots. In the 1990s, at the urging of his wife Alessandra, he opened Antichità Cesana, the Venetian gallery he runs still today.

A collector is born rather than bred. Through the course of his regular business ventures, frequently visiting the factories in and around Venice, Zoppi steadily added to his private collection. As time passed, he increasingly sought out older, forgotten pieces from the back rooms of glassworks. Although still fully immersed in the contemporary glass represented by his gallery, he began to gently dip into the world of historical reference, 19th century, and sometimes older, confections: museum-quality goblets, vases, ewers and pitchers in abundance, along with dragons, dolphins, and snakes produced by the masters of Artisti Barovier and Salviati in every conceivable technique.

Today, inside Zoppi’s dramatic palazzo, every tabletop and cabinet, every shelf and flat surface drips with glass. The collection strikes visitors as a living, breathing entity, drawing light in from the Venetian canals and reflecting it back into the world of mortals. Here, three tribes live in harmony: 18th and 19th century antiques, early modernist works from the 1920s and 1930s, and sculptural, often whimsical objects from the postwar era. Offerings by Vittorio Zecchin for Venini and the innovative forms of Carlo Scarpa flow throughout the collection, entwined with the fluid expressions of Alfredo Barbini and Archimede Seguso.

Wonderful cacti in the pulegoso and pasta techniques by Napoleone Martinuzzi sit alongside VAMSA anatra (ducks), which lean against slender Venini obelisks from the 1950s. The collection gathers all the great names from 1850 to today and presents them without chronological order or genre—and with great success. The bountiful assembly currently on view represents only a fraction of the Murano-made treasures Zoppi has owned through the course of his lifetime. At one point, for example, he amassed the most interesting and important figurine collection—rare and rarer works by Barovier, AVEM, Venini, Seguso—which was sold intact to The Hakone Glass Forest Museum in Japan.

Alessandro Zoppi with his wife in their palazzo © Mattia Balsamini for L'AB/Pamono
For Zoppi, of course, where one collection ends another surely begins. From the start, his approach has been instinctive, patient, and hands-on; there is always more to unearth from the bowels of the Murano warehouses, not to mention nearby antique shops and flea markets. His vast, extraordinary, and organic collection is guided by an intimate and sometimes secret knowledge, rather than a scholarly account. Informed by the background and taste of one man, it is also completely uninhibited and unique.

A collector is born rather than bred. But even those with unfettered access to their own predilections need direction from outside expertise, and Zoppi's mentors came from the highest order. Glass specialist Astone Gasparetto—who had been a friend of Zoppi’s grandfather Enrico—helped him with some of the more academic aspects of this education. His primary influences, however, came directly from the designers and masters themselves. In this sense, he was fantastically fortunate to have met many of the great names in glass so early on in his career—indeed, not just to have met them as a fellow Venetian, but also to have them recognize his passion and understanding for their works. He was included as a member of their brotherhood, a league of artist that included Alfredo Barbini, Archimede Seguso, Livio and Angelo Seguso, and Pino Signoretto. This intimacy and depth of knowledge—probably unattainable in today’s world—infuses his collection, which now stands as documentation for an oral history of glass.

“Alfredo Barbini was the greatest person ever to work with a hot glass mass,” Zoppi might happily note to an enchanted guest. “He invented a type of wet paper ‘glove’ that he used to caress and smooth his molten forms. He worked with Martinuzzi! He worked into his 90s!”

Or, gently leaning in: “Archimede Seguso worked with glass until he died. He got up at 5 a.m. to go to the furnace every day. He once told me the best thing is not what I’m making today but the thing I will make tomorrow. Towards the end he complained how his hands hurt from too much work.”

Zoppi's obsession in 2013 remains gentle and unhurried. Although he feels that everything has already been invented or tried, he is eternally on the look-out for the extraordinary and unknown, be it for clients’ special requests or self-driven experiments—such as a recently discovered set of shell motif door handles from the 1930s, or as he gushes, “a rare kipper tie from the 1970s designed by Ken Scott.” Nestled between the opulent and luxurious international boutiques of San Marco, Zoppi’s glowing, jeweled space reminds us that—especially as the world leans more and more towards the safely generic—it is the sublimely independent, intimate, and idiosyncratic journeys that offer the most valuable and exceptional prizes.

  • Text by

    • Michael Krzyzanowski

      Michael Krzyzanowski

      Michael is a design consultant, interior designer, and documentary filmmaker specializing in 20th and 21st century decorative arts.
  • Images by

    • Mattia Balsamini

      Mattia Balsamini

      After a number of years freelancing while traveling, Mattia moved back to his home town of Pordenone, Italy, where he continues to pursue his passion for photography. He loves bread, apples, warm weather, and fast alpine skiing.