The orange-striped sun-shade flaps lazily over the door of the magenta-pink house. Next door, potted geraniums peek out between dark green shutters set into bright yellow walls. For all the singing colours, the scene is silent, save for the gentle lap of water and the occasional word muttered between two fishermen who sit repairing a vivid blue boat, their faces and forearms mahogany-brown from years in the sun.
I’m on Burano, a small round island in the Venetian lagoon, six miles from Venice itself. It’s a popular daytrip destination, like its neighbour Murano. Tourists set sail for both little islands to escape the stifling crowds of central Venice, to see a different lifestyle to that of the gilded city, and simply to enjoy the novelty of travelling round the wider lagoon. On Murano, they can also marvel at the centuries-old tradition of decorative glass-making. On Burano, they just revel in madcap colour.
As soon as you board the public boat to Burano, swaying patiently beside the sombre Fondamente Nuove on Venice’s northern shore, you start to enter a different world. The atmosphere on board isn’t like the city-centre waterbuses; it’s intimate and relaxed, like stepping into a village square. Around you sit shoppers, commuters, schoolkids – placid-faced and thoroughly familiar with the route. They are Burano natives, or Buranelli, on their way home. They all have something in common: a fierce attachment to a tiny island with a 1,400-year history. An island that has always been peripheral, sitting more than literally on the margins of the lagoon.
With no land fit for cultivation, and reliant on the precarious trades of fishing and lace-making, previous generations of Buranelli endured centuries of hardship, and were often lampooned as backward hicks by the urbane Venetians. But the Buranelli always had – and still have today, in financially happier times – an unshakeable and sustaining sense of community. They often say they’re ‘all one big family’. (And indeed blood-relation can be a thorny issue. Prospective marriage partners always ask the local priest to do a proava, a genealogical check to ensure they’re not too closely related!) Burano shopkeepers know all their customers by name. Everyone knows everyone’s business. Neighbour looks after neighbour. Whatever else there might be, there isn’t much loneliness on this little round island.
Close and self-contained, the Buranelli don’t appear to need or encourage outsiders into their 2,500-strong community. Tellingly, there is very little overnight accommodation on the island – no hotel, a few private rooms, nothing more. They seem to want to keep their tranquil multi-coloured homeland all to themselves, unspoilt and undiluted. Perhaps they’ve learnt a salutary lesson watching Venice across the water, where sixty thousand citizens are swamped by twelve million visitors every year.
As a first-time visitor to Burano, you’re unlikely to wander round pondering the finer points of the local psyche like this. You’ll be too dazzled by the brightly-coloured houses. Like Venice, Burano is full of tiny canals and bridges, with public spaces and narrow passageways creating a townscape alternately expansive and intimate, open and secretive. But Burano’s crazy colours give it a very different atmosphere to the big island across the water. The fresh, zingy paintwork is a world away from the elegantly crumbling plaster and stately aged patina of Venetian walls.
Cheerful as the rainbow-effect first appears, Burano’s onslaught of brightness can become a bit unsettling. You start to feel, for a paranoid second, that all those bold colours are trying to hide something. This island doesn’t have the murky Don’t Look Now menace of back-street Venice, it has the disturbing air of a fairground funhouse. There’s something just a touch sinister in the brightly saturated cheer of it all. With the sun beating down on your tired and faintly travel-fried little head, Burano can start to feel like a joke that no one’s let you in on.
Why the colours? Why? Well of course no one knows for sure. The tradition of daubing the walls in vivid hues is certainly many centuries old. Some say it began in the Middle Ages as a way of celebrating that a household had been spared from bubonic plague. Plague-stricken houses were disinfected inside and out with quicklime, you see, leaving them ghostly white. Brightly-coloured paint was a way of trumpeting “No Black Death here!” Others say the colours of each house originally matched the colours of the fishing boat owned by its family, like cattle-branding. Some suggest that luminously painted dwellings enabled fishermen out on a foggy lagoon to more easily find their way back to their own home. Turn left at the big blue house, paddle past the maroon and the green, and yours is the little orange one at the end.
Another theory sometimes trotted out by Buranelli is that long ago their island was one big isolation hospital. Families from all around the lagoon were sent to Burano in times of cholera, they say. Like in the bubonic plague story, white quicklimed houses were covered in rich colours to celebrate when occupants were declared free from infection. This isolation-hospital theory is undoubtedly a muddled historical memory, based on the fact that the nearby island of Lazzaretto Nuovo was indeed once a place of quarantine. But it’s interesting that the Buranelli, with their enduring sense of marginality and exclusion, seem so ready to conceive of their beloved island as a place of exile!
It’s a funny thing, marginality. At first people resent it, then they take pride in it. Buranelli love to emphasize their difference from people living in Venice or on other islands. Some even propose that they all originally came from an entirely different ethnic stock with, predictably, exotic origins. Naturally they speak with a different accent to that of the Venetians just six miles away. And sometimes use different words for things too. They are Buranelli consciously speaking like Buranelli.
Snug in the warm bosom of their community, the proud Buranelli quietly get on with life on their distinct and vivid island. Its paintwork continues to blaze intense in the bright sun and the tree-dappled shade, throwing wriggly rainbows onto the ripples of the dainty canals. Burano’s colours have put the island on the map. In recent times those colours have ensured tourist interest, but since time immemorial they have bolstered the island’s identity. They have enhanced the locals’ sense of being different from others living in the lagoon. Whatever else they might once have signified, those dazzling colours keep on reminding the Buranelli who they are.
©Fleur Kinson 2011
Burano is chiefly a place to wander and soak up the atmosphere, but if you’d like to tick off specific sights, look out for:
• The church of San Martino, on Fondamente dei Assassini. A tilting campanile outside and a crucifixion painting by Tiepolo inside – what more could you want from a little church?
• The Lace School and Museum (Scuola dei Merletti), in Piazza Galuppi. Run by nuns who were said to be harsh task-masters, Burano’s 19th-century lace school went out of existence in the 1970s. It re-opened as a showcase in the 1980s, incorporating a museum with a permanent exhibition.
• Burano’s main street, the Via Baldassare Galuppi. This pedestrian thoroughfare used to be a broad canal, the island’s mini version of Venice’s Grand Canal. In 1885 it was filled in, and now it sports lively cafés, restaurants and tourist shops.
• Trattoria Da Romano, on Via Baldassare Galuppi. Burano’s largest, oldest and arguably best restaurant, Romano has nourished the Buranelli for more than a century. Today’s clientele are a mix of locals and daytrippers.
You can’t fail to notice the abundant shops decked in lace, linen and embroidery all over the main streets of the island. Since the late 1400s, Burano lace has been well-known and valued throughout Europe, and the craft remains a fixture of the island’s identity.
Lace-making reached its zenith here in the 16th to 18th centuries, then began to decline. In the 1960s there were 800 full-time lace-makers on Burano, together with 80 master-teachers and 30 specialist embroiderers. Twenty years later, there were just 300 workers, nine master-teachers, and one embroiderer. Full-time lace-making by hand has now been largely abandoned on Burano, but lace itself is still big in the island’s tradition.
Making lace was always a low-paying craft, damaging to the eyesight and terrible for the posture. Attitudes to lace-making on Burano today are ambivalent and contradictory. Young women resent how their mothers and grandmothers suffered in making the stuff, but they still admire the beauty of the craft and the fact that poor Buranelli could make something so delicate and precious. Most of the lace you might buy in the shops here now is made by machine rather than by hand – which has to be considered progress!