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Heart of Glass: Studio Moretti Caselli

Sometimes I discover something so amazing, so unique, so share-worthy, that it immediately plunges me into a schizophrenic episode.  Yes, because I have had two women warring inside my head for the past, oh, 39 years and nine months.

One of them wears her hair loose and flowing, dresses in organic cotton flower-print yoga pants, has tantric sex, and urges me to eat according to my dosha and do my daily affirmations.  The other pulls her hair in a tight bun at the nape of her neck, wears Hillary pantsuits, hasn’t gotten it on since, oh, forever, and tisks about fat content and carbohydrates with her lips pursed like a cat’s butt.

The first says, “Look at you, aren’t you a star!  You found a hidden gem, you.  Go, go and shout it from the mountain tops!  You are fabulous!”  The other says, “Well, it certainly took you long enough.  Seventeen years in Umbria and you’re only blumbering on it now.  Humiliating, really.  Always the last to know. Keep it quiet so you won’t make a fool out of yourself again.  And put that cupcake down.”

They slug it out for awhile, but the first woman always ends up coming out on top.  Because, as we all know, tantric sex always kicks pantsuit’s ass.

So, here I am, a couple of weeks later, telling you all about one of the best kept secrets in Perugia.  And I really do mean best kept, because, despite it being just steps from both the Corso and the main parking garage in the provincial capital and despite me having passed directly in front of the nondescript sign probably a thousand times over the years, I had no idea what was in store for me when I stopped by their open house a few Sundays ago.

Studio Moretti Caselli has been producing hand-painted stained glass windows for cathedrals and monuments all over the world since its founding in 1860 by Francesco Moretti, who began by studying chemistry and glass art texts from the 12th and 13th centuries (glass art had declined to the point of becoming almost extinct after the 1400s) to become one of the greatest modern restorers of stained glass windows.  Now in the fifth generation of the same family of artists, the studio is still an active artelier and offers guided visits through its museum-workshop.

This rendering of Perugino's Incoronation of the Virgin rivals the original. Loaned for a museum exhibit, it was returned with four cracks in the delicate glass.

The studio is housed in a 15th century palazzo originally belonging to the once powerful Baglioni family; the modest plaque near the heavy wooden front door belies the soaring and lightfilled vaulted rooms with their immense windows inside.  A visit begins in the archive, where instead of computers and file drawers, the shelves are filled with cracked leather volumes containing more than 150 years of commissions, sketches, and family documents.

The Moretti Caselli archive, with its historic ledgers of commissions, collections of sketches, and family documents.

From there, the charming Maddalena Forenza—the last of the Moretti Caselli family, who continues to run the workshop with help of her sister, Elizabetta—leads you to the historic laboratory, where tiny glass jars of powdered pigment line the walls and 19th century chemistry equipment used to prepare the paints (now subsituted by modern pigments which are much less toxic) are still on display.

The founder of the Moretti Caselli Studio died relatively young, quite probably from the effects of toxins commonly added to pigments at the time.

The Moretti Caselli Studio's founder died relatively young, quite probably from the effect of toxins commonly found in pigments at the time.

The highlight of the workship is without a doubt the two main halls; the first was used to recieve clients and is covered in pretty period frescoes restored by Moretti at the beginning of the 1900s.  From here, visitors pass into the captivating second hall, with monumental life-sized displays of pencil sketches and final drawings of many of the finished works still mounted in windows across Italy and the world.  Two of the most precious works produced by the Moretti Caselli Studio are on permanent display here: a full sized portrait of the Queen Margherita and a tondo copied from a Perugino painting.  I never knew how enchanting a stained glass window could be until I found myself utterly entranced by the delicate and flawless brushwork and the luminous effect created as the light passes through layers of pigment applied and fired repeatedly.  These are truly works of art.

It's hard to capture the breathtaking luminosity of these works in photographs. Stained glass is meant to be seen with the light behind, not in front.

The visit ends in the workrooms of the studio, where I was aghast at the time and effort involved in producing each piece.  From the initial drawings and sketches, to the selection and cutting of glass, to the actual painting (which can only be done by daylight, as the secret to a masterpiece is the alchemy of correctly mixing colours and light), the pieces then begin the baking process to fix the colour. Often pieces pass through the kiln—the studio uses a modern electric kiln now, but until just a few years ago was still using the original wood-burning kiln which takes up an entire room–three or four times, applying a new delicate coating of color between each firing. Finally, the glass pieces are assembled on their lead mountings to create the stained glass window.

This wood-fired kiln, which required two to three people to bake glass pieces, was used until 1993.

Have I mentioned how often pieces break?  Often.  Incredibly often.  So often I begin to think that the Moretti Caselli clan is either extraordinarily patient or slightly off.  I, for example, dropped one stitch on my son’s baby blanket and disgustedly stuffed it unfinished into the back of the closet, where it remains nine years later.  But the pride this family has for their work, and the passion with which they still talk about both their windows and their history, explains it all.  They put their whole hearts into their work, and those hearts are made of glass.

Now that I've seen the workshop, my next quest is to travel across Umbria to see some of their masterpieces in situ.

Don’t miss the opportunity to see one of the most fascinating historical artisan workshops in Umbria, which is open to visitors upon appointment.  The Studio continues to produce hand painted glass windows and panels, hand etched glass, and Tiffany glass, and also offers day workshops and longer courses in the art of painted and stained glass.

These photographs were used with kind permission of the Studio Moretti Caselli, who hold the copyrights.


  1. Robert Driscoll |

    Men, too, can have a couple (or more) personalities doing battle.
    Great article on the stained glass. Thanks for sharing it.