Venice’s glassblowers scorched by soaring energy costs

The blown glass creations forged in the furnaces on Venice's Murano island are prized around the world - but a recent sharp rise in gas prices is threatening the centuries-old craft.

Venice's glassblowers scorched by soaring energy costs
A Venetian glass blower shapes a glass stone at his workshop in Murano. Photo: Tiziana FABI / AFP

“It’s a huge problem… A hurricane has hit the economy,” Luciano Gambaro, head of the Promovetro glass association, told AFP, describing bills that have risen a whopping 600 percent.

Murano’s artisans fashion everything from tiny, coloured animals to majestic chandeliers, seven days a week. To do so, they need one key thing: heat.

Energy is their second biggest expense, after labour costs, and they are suffering amid the record rise in gas prices seen worldwide.

They were paying 20 cents ($0.23) per cubic metre until September.

“On the December bill, the price was 1.27 euros, a rise of over 600 percent,” said Gambaro, who employs six people and is feeling the strain.

READ ALSO: Rising energy prices: How to save money on your bills in Italy

There have been glassmakers on Murano – a series of islands linked by bridges – since the 13th century, when they were moved from Venice proper after devastating fires which began in their furnaces.

Venetian glass blowers create “murrine”, small cylindrical elements with a characteristic floral motif, on the island of Murano. Photo: ANDREA PATTARO / AFP

Some have kept their creations in vogue by partnering with renowned designers. Others have seen their glass included in art displayed in major museums.

In a bid to stave off a crisis, the Veneto region forked out three million euros in November to help compensate for the glassmakers’ spiralling energy costs.

“Unfortunately, that will all be used up by the end of February,” said Gambaro, who admitted to being “very worried” about the prospect of “paying the full price from March”.

It is “a bigger problem than Covid”, he said, in reference to the coronavirus pandemic forcing a series of financially-punishing lockdowns, emptying Venice of tourists.

Cristiano Ferro, whose company Effetre Murano employs 32 people and makes semi-finished products — brightly coloured blocks, rods and sheets to be shaped and crafted by glassmakers — in 16 kilns, says gas prices are “just the tip of the iceberg”.

“All the raw materials have increased by 20, 30, 40, 50 percent: sand, soda and all the mineral oxides used to colour the glass,” he said.

READ ALSO: Why Italy’s fuel prices are among the highest in Europe – and rising

Glass products for sale along the canals on the island of Murano, Venice. Photo: Tiziana FABI / AFP

Companies like his have few solutions, apart from upping their own prices.

“We have increased the costs by 15 to 30 percent, now we’ll see how the market reacts,” Gambaro said.

There is no quick fix, he explained: it is very costly to shut down and restart the furnaces.

Instead, he said European countries need to put pressure on supply countries — in this case Russia — with jointly-agreed countermeasures.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi has said many of the reasons for the energy price increases are temporary but called for long-term action, including at a European level, to address the problem, including through diversifying supplies.

Italy is highly dependent on imports and consumes a large amount of gas.

Some 40 percent of its primary energy consumption is gas, compared with about 15 percent in France, according to official statistics for both countries.

Manufacturers and consumers across Italy have been repeatedly hit by soaring gas and electricity bills over the past year, and the government has so far pledged 5.5 billion euros in financial support which has limited – but not prevented – the steep increases.

Despite the threat to Murano and its glassmakers, Gambaro refuses to despair.

“We have a problem, but we will overcome it,” he said. “We have been here for a thousand years.”

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How long will it take Italy to wean itself off Russian gas?

Italy's government has repeatedly said it plans to end its dependence on Russia for gas supplies following the invasion of Ukraine. But as the timeline keeps changing, when and how could this happen?

How long will it take Italy to wean itself off Russian gas?

Italy is heavily dependent on Russian gas, but has been seeking new sources since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine as part of an effort to end this reliance in the coming years.

But it remains unclear whether Italy can really end its dependence on Russia for its gas supply – or when this might be feasible.

READ ALSO: What does Italy’s Algerian gas deal mean for energy supplies?

The government has been seeking new sources since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, including with a recent deal to boost supplies from Algeria.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi said last week the country could be independent of Russian gas by the second half of 2024 – the latest in a series of changing estimates.

“Government estimates indicate that we can make ourselves independent from Russian gas in the second half of 2024,” Draghi told the Senate, while adding that the “first effects” of this plan would be felt by the end of this year.

He said his government was also seeking to boost its production of renewable energy, including by “destroying bureaucratic barriers” to investment, saying it was the “only way” to free Italy from having to import fossil fuels.

Explained: Why and how Italy will pay for Russian gas in rubles

In April, Italy‘s Ecological Transition Minister Roberto Cingolani estimated the country would no longer need Russian gas within 18 months, following an earlier prediction that it could take until 2025.

Italy is one of Europe’s biggest users and importers of natural gas, importing 90 percent of its gas supply with 45 percent of that coming from Russia – up from 27 percent ten years ago.

Italy now imports 29 billion cubic metres of Russian gas a year, which Cingolani said in March “must be replaced” – but he didn’t specify with what.

Analysts have said there are “a lot of questions” about how helpful Italy’s gas deal with Algeria will be.

Despite its vast natural gas reserves, Algeria is already exporting at close to full capacity.

Draghi repeated his strong support for EU sanctions on Moscow last week, including a proposed ban on imports of Russian oil, although this is currently being blocked by Hungary.

“We must continue to keep up the pressure on Russia through sanctions, because we must bring Moscow to the negotiating table,” he said.

But for now, Italian energy giant Eni says it plans to pay for Russian gas supplies in rubles, meeting a demand from Vladimir Putin.

It was not immediately clear whether the plan would fall foul of European Union sanctions, although Eni said it was “not incompatible”.

The company said its decision to open the accounts was “taken in compliance with the current international sanctions framework” and that Italian authorities had been informed.