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Italy’s Finest Glass Protecting the New MFA

Article originally published in the Boston Post-Gazette, November 19, 2010

From left to right: Gianni Schapira (Business Development Manager, Goppion Museum Workshop), Alessandro Goppion, Italy General Consul Giuseppe Pastorelli (photo by Nicola Orichuia)

Museum curators have recurring nightmares: a disfigured painting, a stolen artifact, a blazing fire. Luckily, there’s one man who can keep the world’s best art — including Leonardo’s Mona Lisa — out of harm’s way: Alessandro Goppion. The Italian entrepreneur has been producing glass casings for museums since the late 1970s, when he took over his father’s commercial glassworks business and slowly transformed it into one of the world’s most renowned producers of museum showcases. “I chose this job because I love history,” he says. “I love culture.”

During a recent trip to Boston to inaugurate the new “Art of the Americas” wing at the Museum of Fine Arts alongside Italy Consul General Giuseppe Pastorelli, Goppion took some time off to talk about the story of his workshop, the philosophy behind every commission and the challenge of being in a small and competitive field.

Goppion’s father first opened the workshop in 1952, producing mostly commercial glass casings. It wasn’t until the late-1970s, when Goppion took over the workshop from his ailing father, that the attention turned to museum showcases. “After I finished my studies in Political Science my father was not feeling well, so I had to enter the family business,” says Goppion. “I told him I’d accept this mission, but I wanted to work in museums.”

The first successful project was the 1977 Alva, a small glass showcase that became a staple in many museums around Europe. “When I was in university, I once went on a class trip to see an exposition on the Deutscher Werkbund — a German artistic movement that took place at the turn of the 20th century. I fell in love with the concept of combining objects with political ideas, and so I went ahead and designed Alva.” The design became so popular it sold 15,000 units, convincing Goppion to change the workshop’s focus once and for all. After a decade of work and experimentation, the workshop started making a name for itself, producing the glass fence surrounding Michelangelo’s David in Florence, the casings for the British Crown jewels in the London Tower and, in 2005, the indestructible display for Leonardo’s Mona Lisa in the Louvre museum in Paris.

But working with museums is much more than just a job, says Goppion. “I think in my industry, the cultural industry, you set a price, but that has nothing to do with the job. Participating in the challenge of building a museum has cultural, moral, social and artistic implications that you have to accept as a condition of your involvement in the project.” What Goppion seeks from each project is something new that can help him deepen his passion for culture. “There is something I ask all my clients, without writing it in the contract: If you let me know or learn something new, I’ll give back even more work.”

From Boston’s MFA, Goppion learned about U.S. history and the American business model that has made this country the engine of the world for the past several decades. “I had the opportunity to touch and work next to works that are symbolic, artistic and political. From the pre-Columbian communities to Pollock, this new exhibit is a story expressed by Americans for Americans, and it has all the authenticity that is necessary to learn and understand the art and culture of this country.”

Goppion particularly enjoys working in the United States, and jokes about looking for a possible home in Boston, a city that reminds him of his hometown Milan. “I can see myself living here,” he says. “Boston is a beautiful city. But there is also something else: People here have a better understanding of the project management process than in Europe, where bureaucracy weighs you down. Clients in the United States are at an advantage, because they get better quality at a better price. They ask you for commitment, asking people to be involved in every aspect of the work process.” But getting contracts is proving to be a greater challenge nowadays, as rival workshops in Germany, Great Britain and Belgium are beefing up the competition. “We were recently commissioned to work on a new gallery in the Louvre, but it was a hard fought battle,” says Goppion.

After visiting Boston, Goppion continued his U.S. trip stopping in Washington D.C., where in 2008 he delivered a number of glass showcases for the capital’s Newseum, and New York City, where the exhibit “Infinity of Nations” at the Smithsonian features artwork overlooked by his signature glass casings.

About Nicola Orichuia

Nicola is an Italian journalist and media enthusiast living in the United States. He keeps an eye on the Italian-American communities across the country and is always looking for positive stories to highlight.