'I can barely survive'

An Italian glassblower endeavours to continue her family’s 600-year-old glassmaking tradition, even as her dream of home ownership fades.

An illustration of a woman blowing glass
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

What's your money worth? series from the front line of the cost of living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.

Name: Lucia Santini

Age: 63

Occupation: Glassblower

Lives with: A cat named Bella

Lives in: A two-bedroom apartment on the Venetian island of Murano, Italy. Lucia’s first-floor apartment sits above her studio, which doubles as a shop. Lucia does not pay rent because the two-storey building is owned by her mother.

Murano, historically important for its glassmaking, is home to more than 100 glassmaking studios and factories. The factories are called “fornaci” after the glass-producing furnaces they house. The island is a 20-minute ferry ride from Venice, making it a popular destination for tourists.

Monthly household income: Varies between 200 euros ($225) and 1,200 euros ($1,349) depending on her commissions. The median income in the Veneto region is 4,130 euros ($4,642) for self-employed people, according to 2023 figures from the Italian National Institute of Statistics.

Total expenses for the month: 1,105 euros ($1,242). Lucia often has to dip into her savings, earned while working for bigger glassmaking studios, to pay her expenses each month.

A woman holds up glass chalices
Lucia holds up two of her glass chalices [Michela Moscufo/Al Jazeera]
Lucia holds up two of her glass chalices [Michela Moscufo/Al Jazeera]

It is early on a warm Sunday evening and the sky is a soft blue as Murano’s shopkeepers close for the day. Grandparents amble through the streets with their grandchildren, and the last of the big groups of tourists leave by ferry.

Towards the back of her shop, where her studio is tucked away, Lucia Santini fires up her stone kiln, roughly the size of a desktop computer, and lights the standalone torch she will use to melt and blow glass into striped and dotted sewing thimbles for the next several hours.

Lucia, who chats animatedly, has wide hazel eyes behind her glasses and wears maroon lipstick.

She picks out a thin, hollow, amber-coloured rod the size of a skewer and raises the small bubble at the centre to the torch. As it reaches a temperature of about 1,200C (2,200F), it begins to glow red.

“With these glasses I can’t see well,” she sighs, pushing the black sunglasses she uses to protect her eyes from the glare of the flame onto her head.

She blows into one end of the rod like a straw so the bubble grows, then lengthens it into a thimble shape by pulling the two ends apart. Twirling the rod in one hand, she uses the other to decorate the thimble by melting the tip of a thin red glass stick in the flame and “drawing” on it.

She works quickly, using a rock to break off one rod, then the other, and a tool to widen the thimble opening.

Tonight, Lucia will make about a dozen thimbles, half of an order worth 130 euros ($146). These days, it is a big order for her. Commissions are few and far between. The last was weeks ago.

She has four main clients, but orders have become less reliable since the pandemic. Between all the lockdowns, she was closed for a year and a half, and her commissions dwindled. They are now about a third of what they were, she estimates.

A woman blows glass in Murano
Lucia blows molten glass in her atelier [Michela Moscufo/Al Jazeera]

‘I want to make beautiful things’

When Lucia is not working on orders, she makes pieces to sell in her shop. Since her studio is on a side street, hidden away from the regular streams of tourists that fill the island like a tide, she gets few walk-in customers. Over one week in May, she sold just one miniature glass vase to a tourist for 10 euros ($11).

For the past year, Lucia has tried unsuccessfully to secure new clients by taking samples to stores around the island. Meanwhile, the cost of gas, electricity, food and glassmaking materials such as decorative gold leaf and coloured glass rods has increased.

Recently, Lucia has been thinking about quitting, joking that opening a mobile phone store would be a more lucrative endeavour on an island with so many glassblowers.

“I get sad. I feel like giving up,” she admits. “I put so much time and passion into this craft, but I think maybe I should do something else.”

With her reduced income and depleted savings, Lucia has already given up on something else: her dream of owning her own home, a place that would give her the security of always having a roof over her head. “Even if it were a little home … at least it would be mine,” she says.

Still, she is not ready to give up her craft, which she sees as both a curse and a mission. “I want to make beautiful things,” she muses. “I think they’re good for the world.”

A woman holds up her phone with a picture of her father
Lucia shows a photo of her father, Marco Santini, blowing glass in his 90s [Michela Moscufo/Al Jazeera]

A tradition

Lucia was about four or five years old when she first fell in love with glassblowing. She remembers watching her father make a glass swan and thinking it was “pure magic”.

Lucia’s family has been blowing glass for more than 600 years in Murano, which was once the centre of luxury glass production in Europe, reaching its height in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Santini family crest adorns the frescoes of Murano’s Glass Museum along with 67 others, bestowed by the city of Venice in the early 1600s to prominent glassmaking families.

When Lucia was 15, her father taught her how to make glass animals. The work was difficult and nerve-wracking. She would constantly drop the dolphins and ducks she made.

At 18, Lucia started working in glass factories and studios, cleaning the floors. Glassmaking has long been a male-dominated profession in Murano, and factories are historically run and staffed by men.

“I asked to work with glass, to learn the technique, but the men wouldn’t even respond,” she recalls angrily. “They would turn their backs to me and laugh.”

She remembers one time arriving at work to find her gloves filled with glue, a prank played on her by male colleagues.

She'd frequently return home to her parents in tears.

After a decade, Lucia decided to work in theatre and film. She worked as an extra on sets, as a seamstress and make-up artist. The industry was extremely competitive, she says, and after two decades she grew tired of it. So she called her father and told him she wanted to join him in his studio.

She worked alongside her father and mother, who had learned to blow glass from her husband.

In 2016, Lucia got her parents’ permission to open her own studio on the ground floor of the building they own. Her father, who passed away the following year, had always hoped to turn the space into a family atelier.

In an industry where the number of glassmakers continues to decline, Lucia is proud to be a female glassblower and to run her own shop despite the financial hardships.

But she resents how the local industry is still unwelcoming to women.

“Unless you’ve had a massive international success, you’re always viewed as lesser,” she says.

A graphic comparing 2022 to 2023 inflation in Italy
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Some extra money

Lucia punctuates her speech with curse words and phrases in Venetian dialect. Whenever she sees someone she knows passing by the shop, she will stop everything to run outside and greet them. “Ciao caro,” or “bye, dear,” she yells after them once they’ve finished chatting

During the day, more friends than customers pop by. One afternoon, a metalsmith drops off some of her father’s restored tools. She tries to pay him, but he shrugs her off. This island of 4,000 residents is like a village, a community where almost everybody knows each other, where payment often comes in the form of exchanged goods or services and a walk around the corner usually means stopping to talk to three or four people. As a way of illustrating how safe it is for children to walk around alone, Lucia jokes that there is no need for the police because there are always the elderly women sitting on their balconies.

But the usually lively Lucia grows downcast when talking about her finances. Although she lives simply, the past year has been particularly difficult. She says she can’t afford to get a pizza with friends whereas she would have gone a couple times a year before the pandemic. “I try not to do it,” she says. “Even if it’s 15, 20 euros ($17-$22), I can’t really afford it.”

The uncertainty around her housing situation is a huge source of anxiety. “My biggest fear is not having a home where I can live,” she says.

Lucia’s mother, Anna Maria, is 91 and has dementia. Lucia worries that when her mother dies, her siblings will decide to sell both the building where Lucia lives and the family house where their mother lives, and, after dividing the proceeds between four families, her portion would not be enough to buy a place, and she worries about finding somewhere affordable to rent.

In May, Lucia started making a little extra money helping tourists check in and out of rental apartments. She gets 20 euros ($22) for each check-in and 45 ($51) if it is late at night. She doesn’t mind the late-night ones. In fact, she wishes there were more because she could do with the extra money.

“I can barely survive,” she says. “It depresses me.”

To keep her spirits up, she watches political satire talk shows while she works and reads Greek philosophy, an interest she picked up from her father.

Getting back to work, she picks up another glass rod and holds it to the flame, waiting for it to turn red to start the process once again.

Over the course of a month, from May 12 to June 9, as part of a collaborative project, Lucia Santini tracked her monthly expenses with reporter Michela Moscufo. Here are the expenses that tested her finances the most.

Expenses over a month

A glassblower walks with her purchases in Murano
Lucia uses a cart to take glass rods that she bought to the ferry [Michela Moscufo/Al Jazeera]
Lucia uses a cart to take glass rods that she bought to the ferry [Michela Moscufo/Al Jazeera]

Studio electricity

Lucia spends six hours a day, six days a week in her studio. Her mornings and free time are spent taking care of and running errands for her mother, especially when her live-in carer has her daily break.

“I don’t even realise that I don’t have time off like other people,” she admits.

When Lucia is working, she keeps a small electric kiln burning at 500C (930F).

Lucia is known for her glass decoration technique, her signature intricate flower designs featuring lilies of the valley. She makes a mixture of powdered glass and resin to paint on glass that later binds to it at high temperatures in the kiln.

Lucia has a special rate on her energy bills that allows her to pay a base rate of 40 euros ($45) a month instead of 80 euros ($90), but she can only use three kilowatts of energy at a time.

A graphic depicting how costs have risen in Italy over one year
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

She is able to do this because she has an energy-efficient kiln which she bought in California nearly two decades ago. Nevertheless, she has to be careful not to turn on all the lights while she is working and uses only neon lights to illuminate her work.

In addition to the base rate, she is charged according to how much energy she uses during the month.

“Without this expense, I can’t work,” she says. “I couldn’t make glass. There’s no other way.”

This past year, Lucia has seen the electricity bills for her studio and her home increase by 30 percent.

“The increase swept me away,” she says. “Even if I worked 30 percent more, my expenses would increase. I would have to increase my prices, but it would be dramatic for my clients.”

Last year: 105.46 euros ($119) per month*
Today: 175.77 euros ($198) per month*

A woman holds up her striped cat
Lucia holds Bella in front of her store [Michela Moscufo/Al Jazeera]

Cat food

Lucia lives with her striped brown cat Bella, who used to belong to her mother until two years ago when she stopped being able to care for the pet due to her deteriorating health.

Bella starts meowing for food at 8am and eats a can of tuna in the morning and one at night.

“I can’t imagine life without her,” Lucia says. “She is my baby.” The cat roams freely throughout the shop, naps in the windowsill and strolls outside onto the street, where she lies down or wanders up to passersby.

In the past year, the cost of cat food has steadily gone up, much to Lucia’s dismay.

“Every few months, the tin of tuna would increase by 10 cents,” she says. “I thought I was hallucinating. How could it be going up like that from one day to the next?”

Last year: 1.10 euros ($1.20) for a tin, 61.60 euros ($69.23) a month*
Today: 1.45 euros ($1.63) for a tin, 81.20 euros ($91.26) a month*

Groceries on a table
Groceries bought by Lucia for Anna Maria, who sits in her home [Courtesy of Lucia Santini]

Live-in carer for Anna Maria

For the past seven years, Lucia and her two siblings have split the cost of a live-in carer for their mother, who requires constant attention. “You can’t leave her alone even for 10 minutes,” Lucia says. “If she finds a door open, she will escape, or I’m worried she will fall.”

The siblings pay the carer a minimum wage as well as her taxes. This year, the labour union representing live-in aids negotiated an increase in wages, based on inflation, which this year meant a sharper than usual increase.

Each family member now pays an additional 30 euros ($34) a month. “Obviously they work hard, but I got angry about the price increase,” Lucia says. “We can only afford it because it’s split between a lot of us.”

Last year: 200 euros ($225) a month for wages*
Today: 230 euros ($258) a month*

A glassblower turns on her propane tank
Lucia releases propane, which mixes with oxygen to produce a flame more than 1,200C (2,200F) [Michela Moscufo/Al Jazeera]

Propane gas

When the gas crisis hit Europe this past winter, due in part to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the 60 or so large glass factories were hit especially hard by the price increases.

Most factory furnaces use methane, a natural gas. A local consortium of glassblowers called Promovetro, which represents 45 businesses on the island, said a quarter of their businesses remained closed through the autumn last year because of the cost of gas alone.

They have all since reopened, a representative told Al Jazeera, in part due to municipal and national government financial assistance.

Lucia’s production is small, so she has not been as severely impacted by gas prices, particularly because her kiln runs on electricity. But she uses tanks of propane gas for her torch and has noticed that her bills have been substantially higher in the past year.

“I try to work only on orders that I already have, which I know I will make money on,” she says. “In the past, I could have experimented more and tried to make new things.”

“Now, I can’t afford to do that,” she says, “so the sacrifice is my creativity.”

Last year: 66.99 euros ($75) for 25kg (55lb) of propane gas*, which lasts two months
Today: 111.65 euros ($125)*

A photo of glassblown chalices
Lucia uses oxygen and propane gas to raise the torch flame to temperatures high enough to make glass chalices [Michela Moscufo/Al Jazeera]


To melt Murano glass, it must be brought to a very high temperature. To do that, Lucia relies on a combination of propane gas and pure oxygen, which she feeds into the torch flame to bring it from 100C (212F) to 1,200C (2,200F).

She uses about 40ml (1.4oz) of oxygen a month, but it could be more or less depending on her workload.

To conserve oxygen, Lucia uses a medical-grade oxygen concentrator, which runs on electricity. She bought it nearly a decade ago for 150 euros ($169) on eBay.

“It was a big investment,” she says, “but it saved me.”

The concentrator sucks and purifies oxygen from the air and can be used for small items like rings, animals and thimbles. But it is noisy, and since it delivers lower air pressure than an oxygen tank, it is not efficient or appropriate for larger projects.

“If I can get away with using the concentrator for smaller projects, I use that,” she says. “It’s something that I experimented with, and that has paid off.”

Last year: 13 euros ($15) for one 40-litre tank plus a 10 euro ($11) delivery charge. Total: 23 euros ($26)**
Today: 20 euros ($22) for one 40-litre tank plus a 15 euro ($17) delivery charge. Total: 35 euros ($39)*

*Prices were provided by Lucia

**Based on Lucia’s estimates

A glassblower examines some glass rods
Lucia examines coloured glass rods that she buys to turn into objects like chalices and thimbles [Michela Moscufo/Al Jazeera]

Five quick questions for Lucia

1. What's one thing you had to forgo this month? I need to go to the dentist to get an implant, but it is expensive, around 3,500 euros ($3,933), so I delayed it.

2. What’s the hardest financial decision you had to make this month? I postponed the purchase of a small temperature controller for my kiln. You can’t be entirely sure that your work is safe without it. You risk making the work and it breaks because the temperature is not exact. My friend can sell one to me for 600 or 700 euros ($674 or $787) but I will certainly have to wait until autumn when I hopefully have a bit more money saved to buy it.

3. Which is the most worthwhile expense from this month? I spent 169 euros ($190) on 15kg (33lb) of turquoise-coloured glass rods that I ran out of. I am happy because I got a good deal and they will last a couple months. Turquoise, along with blue, is a highly desirable colour in glassworks, maybe because it’s the colour of the surrounding lagoon.

4. When finances get tough, what gets you through the difficult times? My fellow glassblowing friends and I exchange supplies and tools. We did it before, but it became really important during the pandemic. It’s a bit like a barter system from the olden days. So, I would say, creating a collective spirit. Also, humour.

5. What’s the saving hack you are proudest of? I try to save on everything. I take warm showers in the winter, buy used clothes and try to use as little electricity as possible. I even learned how to do my own plumbing.

Read more stories from the series: What's your money worth?

Source: Al Jazeera