This is a story of an Italian man who was a radiotelegraph operator, a bank cashier and a manual labourer extracting oils from wood. But then one day he became fascinated with a physical phenomenon of vitrifying and decided to set off for a journey of glass-making. But since he had no idea about art, he decided to invite the most renown artists of his time like Picasso, Cocteau, Braque, Arp, Chagall, Fontana and Le Corbusier to help him. And they did.
The revelation happened when he worked in the wood distillery. After one of the furnaces had cooled, the walls vitrified, gaining a fascinating green and blue crystallisation. Inspired by this view, Egidio moved to Murano island in the Venetian lagoon and began working as a salesman of glass. In the meantime, he experimented with glass-making but realised he would never make a vital contribution to the glass world without the help of professional designers who would provide him with fresh artistic ideas. So he wrote over 50 letters to various artists and the first one to respond was the Surrealist painter Gino Krayer, who introduced Egidio to the elitist circle of Surrealists.
The meeting with Oskar Kokoschka in 1952 began the snowball effect: Egidio made friends with Le Corbusier, Alexander Calder, Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau. The poet and painter André Verdet described the meeting between Picasso and Costantini:
When he (Picasso) saw Costantini’s work, his immense curiosity was simulated right away and they started working together almost immediately. (…) Between Picasso, who sensed the flame, and Egidio, who senses the molten glass, the bubble, the glass becoming opaque, becoming denser or becoming clearer… Their complicity was complete and Egidio knows this; he’s a magician too.
It was Cocteau to come up with the name for the newly founded artists’ cooperative. When Egidio told him he needed a name for his workshop, Cocteau pondered for three hours producing the weirdest names. Finally, he suggested ‘the Angels’ Kitchen’, the name of a work by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo in the Louvre, and the title of an opera and an American comedy film, but Egidio thought it was more suitable for a restaurant than a glass studio. Then Cocteau concluded to make it the Angels’ Forge and a while later Jean Arp designed for it a star which were to become the emblem of the place.
In 1955 they held an exhibition in Germany and although it was a success with the public, they barely sold anything and Costantini was ruined. He paused the activity of his workshop and everything would have ended there had not for the help of a sponsor Peggy Guggenheim, who at that time had already lived in Venice and had heard of Costantini’s collaborations. Her patronage meant for the Forge the best period of activity, starting with a show in her house at the Grand Canal in 1964 and a later exhibition in MoMA in New York.
Another blow to Costantini came with big water: on November 6, 1966 Venice was submerged by the biggest flood of the century. The drawings, designs, and works stored in the Forge all turned into mud. Yet, Egidio didn’t give up and decided to make true the dream of Max Ernst: to produce a giant glass set of chess. Despite suffering a heart attack, he would go to the furnaces every day to finally make a masterpiece measuring 4m by 4m. He called it the Immortal, which I think is a perfect title for a work which summed the paradoxical nature of both the material and the Angels’ Forge.