The Once-lost Art of Stained Glass Revives

A fifth-generation stained glass artist gives the glass a three-dimensional depth and the rotundity of Renaissance paintings.

At the Moretti Caselli Studio, the dark-haired artist bends over a glass work surface, blending the paint with careful, practiced movements. “I love cutting and assembling the pieces,” explains Maddalena Forenza, a fifth-generation stained glass artist. “That’s when you know if your work is good.”

Maddalena working with the “grisatoio” (nibbler or grinder), a tool for grinding the pieces of glass.

“You need to be very patient; sometimes during firing, the glass cracks, and you need to start all over again.” I watch, transfixed, as the paint is applied with thousands of impossibly light touches of the brush. Held together by pieces of cerini, or waxed thread, the sections are suspended, and as daylight meets the jewel-hued glass, it transforms — the colors glimmering, dancing, alive.

Oil Paintings on “Canvas” Made of Glass

“Our workshop is also a museum, and the whole family is involved,” Forenza’s aunt, Paola Falsettini, tells us. Dating back to medieval times, we’re told stained glass painting was a lost art up until the 19th century, when it resurged in a new method where glass was painted and fired. This process, perfected by Francesco Moretti, Forenza’s great-uncle, who founded Moretti Caselli in 1859, is comparable to oil painting except on glass, exploiting its play of light and transparency. Picked up by Moretti’s nephew, the family craft evolved into a tradition spanning centuries.

Left: As in the past, Forenza’s subjects are based on detailed research and are meticulously executed using tiny brush strokes so as to render the work as lifelike as possible. Right: Incoronazione, stained glass window depicting the Crowning of the Virgin (139 cm) by Francesco Moretti in 1867.

“Francesco Moretti was a genius,” says Forenza. The “hatching” technique of paint application that sets the studio apart from other stained glass artists, was his own invention, she tells us, giving the glass a three-dimensional depth and the rotundity of Renaissance paintings.

A labor-intensive process, restoration of an ancient stained glass window in progress.

For Forenza herself, following in Moretti’s footsteps was “an unexpected decision.” “During my school years, I was very confused about my future,” she says. “It took me years of hard work to realize that I could make it, that I could be as patient, precise and meticulous as Francesco Moretti.” Remembering observing her mother at work as a child, today, she is thankful to work alongside her, “because I can have her precious advice every day.”

Stunning Artwork is Spared by the Force of Nature

In 1997, a strong earthquake struck the area, damaging some of the original frescoes in the family’s restored 15th-century home. Miraculously, all of the studio’s stained glass windows, including a massive work depicting Queen Margherita of Savoy, created by Moretti in 1881, remained unharmed. “The small pieces of glass can move some without breaking,” suggests Falsettini.

In the current economic climate, Italy’s churches are faltering, and with them, the demand for stained glass windows. “Churches are poorer, and very often they require just colored glass, which is less expensive than painted,” says Forenza. More of her commissions today come from private clients: right now, she is working on an order for a private chapel and windows for an Umbrian church.

But as the kiln’s fire burns strong, so does the family’s passion and dedication to its beautiful heritage. Passing the legacy on to the next generation, the family offers tours for schoolchildren to experience stained glass art hands-on, and even wrote a fairy tale about the studio. With ten grandchildren on the rise, “we hope in the future, someone in the family will carry on the art,” says Falsettini.

Left: Studio Moretti Caelli, Queen Margherita’s Room holds two historic stained glass windows, Queen Margherita of Savoy and the Crowning of the Virgin, along with numerous preparatory cartoons. Right: A stained glass window with the portrait of Italy’s first queen, Margherita of Savoy, was created by Francesco Moretti in 1881, demonstrating the artistic value of stained glass and its use for secular purposes. (222×158 cm)
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