The island of Burano near Venice is famous for its vividly coloured houses and its strong sense of local identity – both unfading even during centuries of poverty.
By Fleur Kinson
The orange-striped sunshade 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, apart from 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 for tourists, like its neighbouring island Murano. Visitors come to both islands to escape the stifling crowds of central Venice, to see a different lifestyle to that of the gilded city, or simply to enjoy the novelty of travelling round the wider lagoon. On Murano, they might also come to admire the centuries-old tradition of decorative glass-making. On Burano, they come to admire something more abstract, colour and community, tradition and mystery.
As soon as you board the boat to Burano, swaying patiently beside the sombre Fondamenta Nuove on Venice’s northern shore, you begin 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 sits 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 1400 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 ever 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 that they’re “all one big family” (indeed blood relation can sometimes 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 island.
Close and self-contained, the Buranelli don’t appear to need or encourage outsiders into their 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 to think of much else. Like Venice, Burano is full of tiny canals and bridges, with a series of public spaces and narrow passageways alternately opening out and constricting to create a sense of constantly fluctuating light and dark. But Burano’s psychedelic colours give it a completely different atmosphere to the big island across the water. The fresh, zingy paintwork here is a world away from the elegantly crumbling plaster and aged patina of Venetian walls.
Cheerful as it first seems, Burano soon starts to unsettle you with its onslaught of brightness. You begin to wonder just what all those colours might be trying to hide. Burano doesn’t have the murky don’t look now menace of back-street Venice, it has the disturbing air of a fairground funhouse. The island feels like a sophisticated joke that no one’s let you in on. There’s something ever so slightly sinister in the brightly saturated cheer of it all, something not fully explained.
Why the colours? Well of course no one knows for sure. The tradition of daubing Burano’s 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 the bubonic 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, in a system akin to cattle branding. Some even suggest that luminously coloured dwellings enabled fishermen out at sea to more easily find their way back to their own house when the lagoon filled with dense fog. Turn left at the big blue house, paddle past the maroon and the green and yours is the little orange one at the end.
At home in exile
Another theory sometimes cited 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 painted in bright colours to celebrate when inhabitants were declared free from infection. This isolation-hospital theory is almost certainly a muddled historical memory, based on the fact that the nearby island of Lazzaretto Nuovo was indeed once such a place of quarantine. Interesting that the Buranelli, with their enduring sense of marginality and exclusion, seem ready to believe that their beloved island was perhaps once a place of exile!
It’s a funny thing, marginality. At first people resent it, then they take pride in it. Buranelli love to emphasise their difference from people living in Venice or on other islands. Some of them even propose that they all originally came from an entirely different ethnic stock with, predictably, exotic origins. Naturally the Buranelli speak with a different accent to that of the Venetians just six miles away. They sometimes even have different words for things too.
Snug in the bosom of their community, the proud Buranelli quietly get on with life on their distinct and vivid island. Its colours blaze intense in the bright sun and tree-dappled shade, throwing wriggly rainbows onto the ripples of the dainty canals. The colours have put Burano on the map. They have ensured tourist interest in recent times, but since time immemorial the colours have secured the island’s identity. They have bolstered the inhabitants’ sense of being different to others living in the lagoon. Whatever else they might once have signified, those dazzling colours just keep on reminding the Buranelli who they are.