Life in the lagoon: Burano island

Pearly and melting into the bright sky, Venice's lagoon is one of the city's wonders: desolate, melancholic and strange, it's a beautiful and seductive landscape with a hundred personalities.

Life in the lagoon: Burano island

Beach Essentials

Where: Burano, Laguna Veneta, Adriatic Sea, near Venice, Veneto, Northern Italy
When: Late spring or early autumn
Activities: Explore Burano’s rich history of fishing, lace making, multi-coloured architecture, and 20th century art

Background to Laguna Veneta

Venice spreads well beyond the city’s six sestieri; the shallow waters of the Laguna Veneta are dotted with a crumbling mosaic of islands including Murano, Burano, andTorcello. Pearly and melting into the bright sky, Venice’s lagoon is one of the city’s wonders: desolate, melancholic and strange, it’s a beautiful and seductive landscape with a hundred personalities. The lagoon is 38 miles long and averages over five miles across. To navigate this treacherous sea, the Venetians developed an intricate network of channels marked by bricole – wooden posts topped by orange lamps – that kept their crafts from running aground. When threatened they only had to pull out the bricole to confound the enemy. The lagoon was therefore well known as ‘the sacred walls of the nation’.

History of the island of Burano

At one time the 39 largest lagoon islands were densely inhabited, each having a town or at least a monastery. Now all but a few have been abandoned. Burano is a 40-minute six-mile boat ride to the north of the lagoon. It has a population of 7,000.

Like the other islands in the lagoon, Burano has probably been inhabited since Roman times, well before the Lombards established themselves on the mainland cities during the sixth century. For years it remained subordinate to Torcello, however it began to gain importance in the sixteenth century when it became a centre for lace making. Its inhabitants were spared the ravages of malaria because of it being situated in the path of the wind and well away from stagnant waters. The island had a period of glory which lasted until the end of the eighteenth century. With the collapse of the Venetian Republic, Burano, along with the other lagoon islands, fell into decline. Named as the capital of the islands in the northern part of the lagoon in the nineteenth century, it finally became an integral part of Venice in 1923.

Fishing traditions in Burano

Fishermen have lived in Burano since the seventh century. The marshland was no good for farming so the early lagoon settlers fished. They ate the fish but it was also their currency which they could trade for wood, wheat, and wine. Fish – in particular anchovies, sardines, and mackerel – was for centuries the staple food of most inhabitants of theAdriatic Coast. For the people of the lagoon the tide brought in daily swarms of these fish as well as mullet, gilthead, sole, sea bass, and eel. Only a few species remain within the confines of the lagoon during summer months, notably eel and mullet. The astonishing variety of fishing techniques and fishing vessels generated by Venice is the result of many centuries of experience in managing the lagoon and its resources.

Traditional practices still take place today. In the lagoon, reed cages are fastened to the bottom of the canal with poles and the tide sweeps fish into their labyrinthine nets. The same system is used for eels in the autumn which are coaxed into large round wooden tubs known as vieri; these are also used for keeping moeche – soft-shelled crabs that eat one another to survive. Restrictions on fishing practices are not just confined to the long arm of the modern day European Union – an ancient stone inscription, marking the minimum lengths of which different kinds of fish can be sold so as not to endanger their reproductive capacity, can still be seen in Rialto Market in Venice.

Burano, view from Mazzorbo by Unofeld781

Burano, view from Mazzorbo by Unofeld781

Things to see and do in Burano today

Today, Burano is a marvellous island, a heaven that enchants the tourists, not only for its history but also for its charm, for the unreal silence of its mornings, contrasted with the evenings with the happy bawling of the peculiar local dialect. Burano offers a different pace of life to Venice – this is the life of the lagoon. There is only one modest guest house on the island and islanders treat the streets like their front rooms and can be seen outside doing such activities as ironing, making lace, and frying fish.

Colourful houses

Burano is the Legoland of the lagoon, where everything is in brightly coloured miniature – the canals, the bridges, the leaning tower and the houses painted in the deepest colours. Tradition has it that fishermen painted their houses bright, contrasting colours so they could identify their houses on the way home in the misty lagoon. The island’s most brightly painted house – an eclectic, constantly changing mishmash of diamonds, triangles and bars – is found in a courtyard opposite the Galuppi Restaurant and is owned by a guy called Bepe.

St. Martin’s Church

Almost all the island’s historic preserves are contained in the ample sixteenth century church devoted to St. Martin. The most important work of art in the church is theCrocifissione, a 1727 painting by G.B.Tiepolo. The big square in front of the church is dedicated to Baldassarre Galuppi (1706 to 1785), who was the famous musician know as “the Buranello“(pride of Burano). Galuppi as librettist, along with Goldoni, invented theopera comica (comic opera) music theatre form.


Take time out to wander into the quietest corners and shady parks, over the wooden bridge in neighbouring Mazzorbo – a larger island with little more than a few houses, a couple of trattorie, and open green space.

Lace making

While the men of Burano fish, the women uphold the island’s lace making traditions. Nowadays, real Burano lace is a phenomenally expensive luxury and a dying art since it takes three years for ten women to make a single tablecloth. Choose carefully if you plan to buy lace on Burano as these days much of the cheaper stuff is imported from China. You can still occasionally see women working away at their lacy creations in the shade of their homes and in the parks. The Museo del Merletto explores the craft and history of Burano lace.

Fan from Burano Island,_Venice,_late_1800s,_batiste,_lace,_paint,_from_the_collection of Princess Viktoria Luise of Prussia, Braunschweigisches, Landesmuseum

Fan from Burano Island, Venice, late 1800’s, batiste, lace, paint, from the collection of Princess Viktoria Luise of Prussia, Braunschweigisches, Landesmuseum

Restaurant Da Romano

The Burano school of painting evolved before the First World War. Its members combined a grainy surface and a strong use of colour with a complete lack of respect for the academic rules of painting. Many of their paintings hang in one of Venice’s more unusual art gallery, Restaurant Da Romano, owned by the Barbaro family. This celebrated trattoria first instigated the Burano art prize which was inaugurated in 1947.

In 1910, the first painters landed on the island and became fascinated by its magical atmosphere, including Gino Rossi, Umberto Moggioli, Pio Semeghini, Arturo Martini, andLuigi Scopnich. Very soon, the restaurant was filled with paintings, which, still now, are as densely hung on the walls as stamps on the pages of an album alongside superb contemporary artists. Over the years, Burano’s colorful scenery has attracted many artists; presently the designer Philippe Starck has several houses there.

Here you can also enjoy tasting Burano’s local dishes, all made with fish, particularly risotto with “nero di seppia” (black cuttlefish), schie (shrimps of the lagoon with polenta) or “sarde in saor” – sardines marinated with onion and sultanas. This dish was traditionally taken out to sea by fishermen as it would keep for several days.


By Nicole Dudley



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