Unsure which makes glass and which makes lace? The way I remember is that ‘M’ is for millefiori (multicoloured glass) as in my gorgeous little jug pictured here. I might have associated ‘B’ with bobbins for lace, except that traditional Burano lace is embroidered only with needle and thread, not woven with bobbins. So let’s visit them; like I did last time, with a season ticket for the vaporetti so we can go back every day if we wish – it’s hard not to. The seven tiny islands of Murano, all joined by footbridges, are the nearest to Venice – less than 2km. First settled by the Romans as a trading port exporting fish and salt, its prosperity is evident in the 7th century church of Santa Maria e San Donato – the oldest in the Lagoon – rebuilt several times, most recently around 1140.
The founding, even earlier, of the monastery of San Michele di Murano by the reclusive Camaldolese Order, brought the island fame as a centre of scholarship, and later, of printing and cartography, until Napoleon ravaged Italy and expelled the monks. The monastery is now the main cemetery for Venice. But it was the banishing of glass foundries from Venice in 1291 – a fire prevention measure – that began Murano’s destiny as a world famous centre of glassmaking.
Blowing air into molten glass to make three dimensional shapes, as opposed to casting, or layering from a core was practised by the Phoenicians as early as 50 BC/BCE and soon spread to other trading and manufacturing nations, especially Italy. But glassblowers on Murano invented and refined special techniques, including smalto (enamelling), aventurine (threading with gold), and millefiori, enabling them to make high quality, unique designs in glass and crystal, which they still do – everything from chandeliers to ashtrays. To protect the industry from fakes, authentic Murano glassware is officially registered: look for the trademark ‘Vetro Artistico Murano’, and visit the Murano Glass Museum in the Palazzo Giustinian to see the whole history of glassmaking and Murano’s role within it. And for holiday reading, what better than Daphne du Maurier’s historical novel The GlassBlowers (1963) – based on the lives of her own 18th century ancestors, the Busson family of French glassblowers weathering the Revolution.
It is a great pity that Mark Twain ventured no further than mainland Venice, which he found disappointing, describing it in The Innocents Abroad (1869) as having fallen so far from its former glory, as to be merely “…a peddler of glass beads for women, and trifling toys and trinkets for school-girls and children,” and best seen in moon light. Had he trusted a boatman to take him to Burano – 7km from the city – he might have enjoyed more vivid surroundings.
And perhaps he would have found buying fruit and vegetables from a canal barge a quaint experience better fitted to his “uncouth sentiments”. These veggies were probably not grown on Burano; it is too densely built over: nearly 3,000 people inhabit the four islands that comprise its 52 acres (21 hectares).
Burano found its fortune later than its neighbour: not until women started making needle lace (Point de Venice) in the 16th century did the island find its special role in the Veneto Region’s cultural trade. In the story of how the art of embroidering lace first came to Italy, Leonardo di Vinci visits the lacemaking town of Lefkara in Cyprus – then ruled by Venice – buys a lace altar cloth for the Duomo di Milano and its beauty and fame spreads from there. Leonardo was certainly in Venice in 1500, and took a keen interest in the experimental technology of copper-plate engraving in the city. A scholar of immense curiosity, I like to imagine him visiting the ladies of Burano to show them needle point embroidery. However they were learned, the traditional methods and floral motifs of Lefkara lace became a booming home industry on Burano.
(This piece was made in Bruges in Belgium, using the same techniques). The best lace is made from the finest yarns – silk, cotton or wool – but the process is so laborious, and would result in such high prices, that few women now produce traditional needle lace. The quality of modern lace and embroidery varies, but delicate and lovely hand-made treasures can still be found in handkerchiefs, table cloths, runners, shawls and even blouses – the browsing is half the fun. A visit beforehand to the Museum and School of Lacemaking shows what to look for. And Burano has its own leaning tower: the campanile of the 16th century church of San Martino, and inside, hanging straight, is Giambattista Tiepolo’s Crucifixion, painted in 1720.
If you enjoy reading about other places and cultures, try my two travelogues: Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon, (ebook for all formats available from your favourite supplier), and in print as well as and ebook , Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals.,
And if the challenges of personal travel adventures through history is your interest, you will love Passionate Travellers: Around the World on 21 Incredible Journeys in History Spanning 2,000 years of history, in oceans, mountains, jungles and deserts, these are true stories of daring adventure, courage, cunning, even murder and, above everything, the sheer determination of these eight women and thirteen men to complete their journeys against all odds.
Reviewers comments: “A fantastic read, and gives colour to every period of history it covers” (Sam Law, It’s Good to Read)
“Absolutely wonderful! One of the most fascinating books I’ve read in years.” (Valerie Poore, travel writer)