The island of Burano beyond lace and colourful houses
Burano is a little island in the northern part of the Venetian lagoon. At the moment around 4000 residents live there. Especially in the summer many tourists visit the island, often passing by the island of Murano and sometimes reaching out to the island of Torcello. As a child, the three islands, Murano, Burano and Torcello seemed to be the classical school trip.
I distinctively recall the holy relics of Santa Fosca and San Mauro on the island of Torcello: our young minds felt attracted and terrified at the same time at the view of those human remains. Of course, there’s no need to tell you the cathedral and its mosaics were not interesting. I wonder if we ever visited the cathedral. Now as a tourist guide, I changed my perspective, but I didn’t forget what it was like when I was a child 🙂
As for Murano, I came back home every year with a new glass horse that broke after I played with it in a short time. One year I bought a glass crocodile. My sister also went on her trip to Murano with her school and brought home another crocodile. And my brother too. So we had three glass crocodiles to play with. By the way, while horses keep on being offered to tourists today, after 40 years, I wondered what happened to the crocodiles…
And Burano? As a child, although visiting Burano almost every year, no particular memory arises. And I wonder what impression this little island leaves to the millions of travellers now.
Almost everyone I have met goes to Burano because of the lace tradition and the colourful houses. Shopping and photography. The tourists flow in the central part of the island, stop by the several shops, maybe taste the cookies, called “bussolà” shaped like a circle and, made of the same dough, the “esse” cookies because they have an “s” shape… aha, really? And take photos. Reflections of the colours in the water. Contrasting blue and yellow. The leaning bell tower.
The island is indeed interesting because of its urban plan. Borders between public and private space are very negotiable. The washing hangs in the streets, simple curtains prevent curious eyes from peeping in the homes as the door is often left open to allow for air circulation. Meadows lie around the borders of the urbanised part of the island, like a moat sorrounding a medieval castle. In Burano you enjoy beautiful views of the lagoon, the other islands and the Dolomites or the city of Venice in the distance. By these meadows you may see boats lying dry for maintenance. A marina with fishing boats is there, too. And nets collected in large boxes wait to be fixed or are simply let dry in the sun.
You will also notice an important square, featuring the church of San Martino, the statue of a notable musician from the island, Baldassarre Galuppi, and the cute museum of lace. Funny thing, the square is quiet and often left empty, while the main street is busy. Tourists during the day, residents in the evening.
But not many seem to be aware the island was very famous for some painters, around a century ago when a change occurred.
The fishing town of Chioggia that used to be the favourite town for painters became less fashionable. Painters from all over Europe had come to Chioggia. From England, from Austria or Germany. Life there was very cheap. Lagoon life was the classical motif: sails of the bragozzi fishing boats, canals, girls with the black shawl with fringes. But Burano was cheaper and it was an island of fishermen and young ladies that made lace. In fact, lace had been an art developed in the “ospedali” in Venice or in the homes of the aristocratic ladies in Venice. But Queen Margherita promoted a lace school in 1872 on the island of Burano because she viewed it as a source of income for the poor girls on the island. So, a hundred years ago some artists, the poor ones, moved to Burano and their painted views of the lagoon and the island replaced Chioggia as the innovative art cradle.
Burano was not colourful then. Or rather, not the brilliant and violent colours you see today. The houses had soft and tender colours. Pastel. Very poetical.
Pio Semeghini, Gino Rossi, Arturo Martini and Umberto Moggioli: these were the artists that from different cities in Italy moved to Burano in the early 1900s. A journalist described them as “rifiutatissimi e poverissimi” (very much refused and extremely poor). “Refused” at the Biennale exhibitions and by the Academic world that preferred the traditional, official art. “Poor, very poor”. These artists had travelled to Paris or had engaged themselves with humble jobs — Arturo Martini had been a milkman, too — but they found some refuge on this island, where life cost nothing and in exchange for little money or their own art works, they could eat some polenta and fried fish while discussing about art. Umberto Moggioli’s wife Anna seemed to be the one that gave them a home and some warmth.
While some of these works can be found in the museum Ca’ Pesaro in Venice, you can see many interesting paintings in Burano, too. But the art galleries are the restaurants. An inn keeper, Romano Barbaro, was a great collector of their art works. Hundreds of paintings still hang on the walls of his restaurant to show that Burano didn’t just become the island of the painters, but set up the beginning of a new art, beyond metaphysical art and futurism, but just as innovative and rebellious.
That incredible season ended after the first world war. Some of the artists died too young, but the memory has not faded, as, hidden among the more touristic views of the island, there hide interesting painters and events promoting art and creativity still today.