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Venice is still full of cats. Few of them now, however, are the type to slip around corners,

parade along the tops of bridges, and lie basking in the sun stretched out across the iron of the wellheads.

They are only found now in any quantity in the numerous boutiques that sell authentic glass to tourists.

The cheapest are almost a cartoon in glass; just a small blob, a quick flick of a strip of glass for a tail and a dab of the same for whiskers and some eyes. They come in a multitude of colour, in all shades and all tones.

There are those that are more cat-like in form, though still essentially a blob, (and slightly taller) with the addition of an extra lump for a head. These too come in various colours.

The next two are the most expensive. The first of these are fat and curled on glass cushions, the others seem to come from a glass factory where someone has at least studied their anatomy, perhaps even loved cats.

These cats have tails with attitude, they have more character and you can see the physiology of the creatures. They are usually black and can be found looking into goldfish bowls, catching a mouse (that always has a nose with an over large dot of glass on the end), sitting on glass capitals looking down from their pillars or just sitting gazing out from their glass shelves with a note hanging below stating ‘Not made in China’.

They are almost all thin creatures; as one Venetian told me ‘They are Venetian, used to running…’ but often they have a slight edge to them, and though they are the most feline, they can often be too thin, a little angular and somehow most are not creatures you would want to take home.

It is as though someone knows about cats and has taught others to make glass cats but they aren’t cat lovers and don’t quite know how their anatomy works.

The last type of cat are often diminutive, smaller than a finger nail; little tiny twists of black glass kittens that are displayed amongst other tiny creatures and characters in the more established and larger shops.

One in particular has a whole orchestra, spread out on a large display in the window. Glass ballerinas on their toes near the window with their pink tutu’s spread out and their arms above their heads, the conductor, baton raised standing in the middle.

Rising from either side are small shelves and on these are a plethora of other creatures and characters. Large spiders, their legs whisper thin, witches and their small feline familiars, (the afore mentioned twists of black glass), frogs, birds, Venetian lions, ladybirds, snails and other small fauna all displayed to attract the eye. How they keep the display from becoming coated with dust I don’t know. I suspect they have to take it down regularly and replace each delicate individual, piece by piece.

The tiny glass twists of kitten remind me of the families of animals bought for me in Venice many years ago. I still have them. The cats were an arch of grey purple-black and white glass, with four legs, a long straight tail and a round blob for a head. The set of dogs, a bright incongruous yellow with brown ears, made much in the same style of the cats, with tiny puppies and were the next family that were purchased, followed by a group of very pink and rather rotund pigs – with tiny glass tails.

They are treasured by me, even though they were probably the least well made glass items that could be bought at the time, but are vastly superior to the last type of Venetian cat of the same size that you can purchase now. These look as though untalented and untrained flame workers have put them together.  They stand more upright than other seated glass cats, but look poorly constructed and the least cat like of all.

It saddens me as I wander around Venice that she seems only to remember her feline lives in glass (and a little in paper form), having lost the physical, warm, furry creatures that were once so much part of the city.

It is true that many were in poor condition and needed care, but even so, they all brought an extra life to the city. They showed the spirit of this enormously complex place, which admittedly has its problems as it always has had. They didn’t need to reduce the numbers of cats to such an extent. Careful care and neutering of sick animals would have sufficed and I am sure that the numbers of pantegane, the Venetian rats must have increased as a result.

The Venetian glass cats cannot take the place of the cats that were so part of the lives of Venice and the dogs, though often friendly enough, are too sycophantic to my mind. No true Venetian behaves that way – they lack the pride that even the oldest, most tatty cat, whether Venetian or otherwise intrinsically display.

Venetian glass is extraordinary. Their chandeliers are almost too colourful, often constructed from multiple colours and should give a discordant note, though I have a great affection for them. They are almost designed with a child’s sense of colour and always make me smile.

There was once a Venetian chandelier displayed in Harrods (where I worked for many years as a bookseller), between the escalators. It was made (as always) very ornately, with blues, greens and pinks, and it made me smile as I went up to go to work. Though I often thought you would need a very plain room to set the light fitting off and it would need to be a good size too.

They have a talent for glass bowls, figures, and wine glasses. Some of their modern objects leave me cold and others have me stopping to wonder and to stand astonished at the cost.

The tourist work sold in the small shops surrounding St Marks are often poorly done – versions and styles similar to that I have already noted with the glass cats. Some have a little more talent, though they are often let down by one aspect or another. The fine spiders’ long legs arching over other creatures are astonishing, until you actually look at the body of the arachnid, to find he has no body at all, a blob, possibly two if you are lucky, but certainly nothing to be worth the problem of transporting such a creature home, by boat, then ‘plane, and car.

A few years ago, wandering through Venice as you should, semi-lost, but knowing we would eventually find our way back again, my family and I found a small window set into the side of a calle near Fondementa Nuove.

Inside was an unbelievable display of glass creatures. Bees resting on a lump of honey, butterflies seemingly just settled in the heat of the lights, beetles that looked as though they were about to scuttle out of sight, and fish glistening with scales deep set into the glass.

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A range of birds stood on a glass shelf, their detail clear and beautiful.

The shop is small. A large display in the window and other cabinets with examples of creatures of all varieties stand against the walls. Many are not for sale and are part of the owner’s and artist’s own collection.

A small workbench is at one side at the back and there is a small table on the other side along with a ledge just in front of the worktable covered in books of natural history.

Dad bought me two beetles. Exquisitely made. If you turn them upside down, you will notice the ridges beneath them, their legs fine and beautiful end in split toes and I love them. I displayed them in my flat, on my return to England and kept them safe in a wooden bowl to prevent anything happening to them.

Only to have a friend scream as she looked at them and then refuse to handle them, as they were too lifelike.

Vittorio Costantini, ‘The Beetle Man’ Imageas he is known in my family is an unassuming quiet gentleman with a talent and an eye for detail that cannot be surpassed. He takes great care to ensure his beetles and spiders – actually anything he produces is a good a representation of the natural animal as it can be. With the result that he has become world-renowned and a place of pilgrimage for me whenever I visit. (www.vittoriocostantini.com)

I have a small number of favourite glass creatures made by Vittorio. Two octopi sit opposite one another in my glass case. My original beetles, a hermit crab sits with an anemone, like a miniature crown on his head, and most recently I have a small jellyfish with exquisite colours twisted into the bell and down the tendrils. A gift of a small shell, matt on the outer surface but smooth on the inside, like one taken from the beach rests near it. Each exquisite an sculpture of pieces of natural history.

ImageOn this last trip, he had amongst his usual collections of animals and amphibians, fish and insects, and  a beautiful jellyfish working its way through its tentacles.

He presented me with a shell too, to look at, white and beautiful, only to hold it to my ear, so I could listen to the sea.

He is quite superb and will sit whilst his wife talks to his English customers, pulling glass to make the long legs of spiders, or to make the legs of beetles, happily absorbed, to look up periodically to answer questions that his wife then translates for us.

Venice is an extraordinary place; beautiful, damp, aromatic (some would say positively smelly), historic and full of life: The Venetians, the remaining small number of carefully cared for felines, Serenissima herself and of course, the water that is so part of the city.

The people are wonderfully welcoming, and are consummate traders. They know how to sell, to ensure that everyone who visits is happy to pay and often to pay a little over the odds. Sometimes even more.

They have an extraordinary artistic heritage, and without doubt they have a talent with glass; though I have yet to find work as good as Vittorio’s anywhere in the city.

Similarly there is a small shop near the Naval museum close to the Arsenale, along the Riva San Biagio. It is set away from the majority of the shops looking out over the waters to San Giorgio Maggiore. This shop too is small, and smells delightfully of leather and contains numerous items of stationery, and bags along with gorgeous leather masks.

The owner works behind a small table cutting leather and making useful items as well as the decorative. A few visits ago I purchased the only mask I have. It is not the traditional white paper mask, but made of dark leather, moulded and beautifully made; something vastly different from the usual brightly coloured tourist pieces that can be purchased for a fraction of the cost closer to St Marc’s Square.

I visited his shop on this trip too, and spoke to him about how pleased I was with what I had bought and was informed that though other things had changed, his ability to produce beautiful items had not.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to afford to purchase a second mask, one has to curtail something in this life, and I’m afraid it won’t be my purchases from Vittorio’s small workshop.

I have, I must admit, wondered what a glass cat made by Vittorio would be like, I suspect it would be a very Venetian animal.

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