January 20 2023
The story behind two lenses: Ottica Urbani, in Venice, their story from Murano to Elton John
Venice… through the looking glass!
Venice – Every day we wake up, we yawn, we pull our feet out of bed and on the ground to open the window and make our way toward the rooms of our everyday life: the bathroom, the kitchen, the living room, the study.
For those of us who are nearsighted, however, there also is the first task of having to search our bedside table for our faithful companions: our glasses. In many cases we find ourselves having to search for them in the pages of a book or hiding in our bed-sheets. The point of the matter is that without our lenses – whether round, rectangular, oval, heart-shaped or butterfly-shaped – we go nowhere. We also may have never asked ourselves where they come from.
In the renowned Venetian optician shop “Ottica Urbani“, Lorenzo, Barbara and Fosca could answer the question with another question: “What kind of glasses? Prescription glasses or the ones that we decorate with murine (Murano glass beads)?”. As a matter of fact, a lot of “water has gone under the bridge” from the first simple glasses sold as “crutches” for those who had vision problems and the ones that people with perfect vision wear anyway nowadays.
And it is water that has flowed under the very bridges of Venice, because itis here that the first lenses in history were made. Or, to be precise, on the island that in year 1100 the Republic of Venice confined the furnaces in, so as to keep the secrets behind the art of glass production: Murano.
Trying again and again, cutting and polishing, by the end of the 13th Century the glass manufacturers and craftsmen began to distinguish roidi da ogli (glasses) from lapides ad legendum (lenses). At the time, Venetians were the only ones that were able to make malleable glass for the so called reading support: glasses to help farsighted people read and help religious people interpret God’s word.
They only made them of one kind, with either a metal, horn or wooden frame. And no temples. In the 1700s, the gifted hands of the glass factories of Murano also shaped the first sunglasses in history, with green lenses that shielded ladies, children’s and even the Doge’s eyes from ultra-violet rays during their gondola outings.
It has taken many centuries of inventions, experiments, studies, researches and creativity in order to give us the endless spectrum of frames for us to choose from and to fit our personality. Ottica Urbani, address San Marco 1280, is the shop where the Venetian story of glass-making is told in the bizarre, eccentric and artistic shapes that you can find only here. It is also told in a thick journal, full of newspaper clippings, where the image of Elton John pops up more than once, wearing a pair of glasses designed by the Urbani brothers.
Lorenzo, Barbara and Fosca are the shop’s third generation. The shop was opened by their grandfather Filippo during the first post-war period. Initially, it was a simple workshop for prescription glasses. Between the 1950s and 1960s, though, it became a meeting point for artists and intellectuals that came to ask young Franco Urbani (in the picture below) – father of the three Venetian brothers – to make them personalized glasses. We are talking of people of the caliber of Ernest Hemingway, Zoran Mušič, Emilio Vedova, Carlo Scarpa and Le Corbusier.
It was Le Corbusier himself who actually launched the business of Ottica Urbani di Venezia as a fashion and creative workshop in the world of eye-wear. It all happened a day in 1963 when the famous architect broke his glasses while working on the project for a new wing in Venice’s Civil Hospital. Carlo Scarpa offered to bring him to the shop in San Marco.
Le Corbusier gave Franco Urbani detailed instructions on the design of the glasses he wanted. Having received a set that was even better and more beautiful than the ones he accidentally broke, many friends and admirers followed his steps and made their way in the city of Venice to find a set for themselves.
In the 1960s, wearing glasses just for show became a trend. So it quickly went from wearing prescription glasses for near or farsighted to actually appreciating different “brands” of glasses. At Some of the biggest names of the time were Chanel, Dior, and Hermès. One step at a time, Urbani began to think up its own style, design and identity.
“In the 1960s, the idea of pairing the actual make of the glasses to art was expressed in our ‘Optical‘ collection, inspired by the famous decorative movement that played on black and white graphic alternation”, Fosca Urbani tells us. An identity that today, 60 years from the shop’s first opening in Venice, has made its way around the world.
If you ever decide to leave the Venetian lagoon area wearing Urbani means that you shouldn’t be surprised to find a friendly stranger come up to ask you:
“Excuse me, are those Urbani?”
“Yes, they are Urbani”, are words that many Venetians and known foresti answer back, wearing glasses that best represent their personalities.
“Glasses say a lot about the person who is wearing them − says Fosca Urbani – to wear an eccentric pair is not for everybody. Who comes here usually has a very clear idea of what he is looking for”.
And the collections, designed by Fosca, are proof of this:
From classics to “sun”, to folding glasses, to “original” ones, and to Venetian ones that are decorated in glass murrine, it is easy to see how Urbani glasses are the result of continuous exchanges of ideas and inspirations which, in a city like Venice with its relaxed yet stimulating rhythms, happen quite naturally.
“Our frames are made from water buffalo horns, wood, steel or cellulose acetate, which allow us to apply different inserts, like textiles and Venetian murrine – Fosca explains – Our whole production is given to Cadore artisans, which come from the old production of combs. With the opening of the eye-wear shop, they went from processing horn for combs to doing so for glasses”.
“We couldn’t imagine another place for our work. Its history inspires us every day in inventing new shapes and forms. Venice, homeland of glass and lenses-making, is the city where we have the luck of continuing the projects and dreams of our family”.
So we can easily say that, yes, a lot more water will be passing under these bridges.