A good friend who visited us in August asked me more than once for suggestions about what one should buy in Venice. He had to ask more than once because I never managed to answer him, though I knew very well what he meant.
He was asking about the distinctive Venetian product--the thing made only, or most famously in Venice. Of course he already knew what those were: glass and lace and masks, but he was thinking I might have some inside information to give him on where deals might be found on these items.
I didn't. I could refer him to a lace shop I knew whose owners were knowledgeable and honest, for example, but there are no deals on well-made lace or well-made glass or well-made anything actually made in Venice.
So then he got desperate: How about ties? he asked me one day as we passed a shop displaying them in its window. I shook my head. They might be nice ties, but they'd likely be the same ones he'd find in Florence or Rome at a better price. I couldn't help him. I told him there really were no bargains left.
However, a couple of weeks ago I wondered if perhaps I found one: a particular one to be sure, a niche item, and not for everyone, but something.
About mid-way between the churches of San Francesco della Vigna and SS Giovanni e Paolo is a single antique shop with two storefronts on two perpendicular calle. One of its storefronts is near the end of the Calle Barbaria de le Tole; the other is about 10 meters around the corner on Calle delle Cappuccine. A small garden court leads from the backdoor of one to the the backdoor of the other. I'm not in Venice at the moment and remember nothing about the name of the place except the proprietor's first name, Valter. [Note added 13 December 2011: the name of the shop is: Valter Ballarin, Rigattiere in Venezia]
In any case, it was there that I bought the fondo of an old Murano glass chandelier. The fondo is the base of the chandlier, its bottom-most central element from which all its various parts branch up and out as the leaves of an artichoke emanate from its own fondo. There were all kinds of parts from old dismembered chandeliers for sale in the shop: sinuous floral pieces of various pale colors that some creative person could probably put to good use, for example. But the pink hand-blown element I bought, pictured twice above, had found second life as a tea light holder.
It was not the only piece born again to such a use. But the other tea light holders were slightly smaller in diameter and had previously adorned the base of one or another chandelier's candles. Called coppetta, they also were beautiful: fairly shallow little cups, petaled like flowers, with a little hole at the center.
Here was hand-blown glass at an affordable price: 15 euro is what mine cost me.
I don't think it would have worked for my friend, who doesn't seem like a guy who has much time for candles of any sort, but we've really enjoyed our fondo. In a dark room a tea light at the center of this very slightly asymmetrical piece of blown glass transports one back to its creation 80 years ago or more. The glass takes on an almost molten appearance--which it never had when it was part of a chandelier--and it's easy to imagine that it's fresh out of the forno. One can imagine the artist spinning it into a bowl-like shape at the end of his or her long pipe, then pulling and crimping into existence its two rows of angled leaves. The glass is returned to the fire, at least on a small scale, and the viewer is returned to an ancient process carried out on a specific day by an anonymous artisan otherwise long forgotten.