Sure, the City of Venice gets all the glowing attention, fawning press, crush of tourists, and irksome cruise ship traffic. It’s understandable – who wouldn’t want a romantic ride in a gondola, or a selfie that includes a background of the Rialto Bridge, or St. Mark’s Square? But if you leave Venice and take a short water bus ride you’ll arrive at the tiny island of Burano. There you will find brightly colored buildings, narrow canals, and a rich history of lace-making.
It’s a delightful day trip option. Burano is a very small place, just over eight-tenths of a square mile, and has a population of less than 2,800 residents. While the true reason for Burano’s renown for lacemaking has been lost to history, there may be a common thread between the fishermen of Burano and the island’s lace making.
Burano has long been home to fishermen who make a living harvesting the water’s bounty. One theory connecting fishermen and lace is that a seaman, smitten by a pretty girl, gifted her an aquatic plant that resembled lace. She in turn created a piece out of needle and thread to memorialize her affections for him. Another story suggests that an extremely poor fishing season early in the 17th Century prompted women on the island to turn to lace making as a way to make ends meet. Both tales are fanciful and either one might be true – or not.
What is known is that lace making caught on in Burano and thrived from about 1620 until the first decade of the 18th Century. During the 18th Century lace makers in other countries began to thrive, but eventually the desire to have clothing, linens and other products made with lace began to wane in popularity. The development of machine-made lace in the 19th Century drove down the cost and time required to create lace products. Handmade lace is extremely labor intensive, time consuming and expensive luxury item, and it has become a fashion style that has fallen out of favor.
But lace makers still ply their trade at some shops on Burano and there is also a lace museum that showcases some excellent examples of hand-crafted pieces. Shopkeepers are happy to show their wares, and if asked politely, the women who make lace will permit photos. But in reality, the practice is diminishing because the majority of the lace makers on Burano are older women and younger women don’t seem as interested in carrying on the tradition.
One Burano tradition that remains popular is the brightly painted houses that line the streets. Tradition has it that fisherman would paint the exterior of their home a bright color so they could find them more easily on foggy mornings after a long night on the water. The practice continues, and home owners must submit their color choices to an administrative council to gain approval. Burano, like other islands within the cluster of islands in the Venice Lagoon, is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Visitors can get to and from Burano from Venice by taking a water bus, or if they prefer, a more expensive water taxi. But regardless of how you get there, Burano offers a festive display of bright colors and a chance to appreciate the Old World craft of fine lace making. Enjoy a meal of fresh fish, sit at a café and linger over a cup of espresso, savor a delicious glass of wine, or stoll through the warren of picturesque streets and take in the ambience that is Burano.
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