Venetian islands revamp traditions to counter depopulation

Colleen Barry

VENICE, ITALY (AP) — The Venetian island of Burano’s charms are rooted in its fishing legacy: the colourful fishermen’s cottages, the traditional butter cookies that kept fishermen going at sea and the delicate lace hand-stitched by their women.

But as the island’s population dwindles, like that of Venice itself a 40-minute boat ride away, so do the numbers of skilled artisans who keep the traditions and economy alive.

To counter the trend, Venezia Nativa, an association of entrepreneurs on Burano and two neighbouring islands, is trying to breathe fresh life into old trades to attract new residents and persuade young islanders to stay.

Domenico Rossi, 49, is a crab fisherman, like his ancestors back to the glory days of the Venetian Republic.

But that way of life is dying. When Rossi was a boy, about 100 fishermen plied the northern Venetian lagoon for soft-shell crabs.

An overview of the Burano island, Italy. A trio of islands in Venice’s northern lagoon are revamping traditions to counter depopulation. PHOTOS: AP
Manager Federica Molin at the Palmisano bakery that sells Bussolai, a kind of local traditional biscuits, talks with a customer
An elderly woman works a ‘merletto’ at a traditional lace shop at the Burano island
People stand on a bridge at the Burano island, Italy on January 16

Now, he’s the youngest of the 20 still operating, and he figures in a couple of decades there will be none left.

“Once we disappear, Venice disappears,’’ the Burano native said.

Still, he has forbidden his 18-year-old son to take up the trade, seeking to protect him from long hours, uncertain profits and the threat of tightening fishing regulations.

His son is training to be a chef. And Rossi is transforming his own work into a tourist attraction, bringing small groups on boat tours in the off-season.

Venice has long sounded the alarm about being reduced to a living museum, as tourism mushrooms and population levels shrink, threatening the city’s viability.

Permanent residents in the historic centre — which includes St Mark’s Square and the Grand Canal — have sunk to 53,000, down by a third in one generation.

About 1,000 people leave each year for cheaper, easier living in the city’s mainland districts.

With them, the social fabric of the city wears, the number of neighbourhood stores offering staples dwindles — as do public services.

On Burano and its two neighbouring islands of Mazzorbo and Torcello, the impact of depopulation is even more evident.

Residents currently number 2,700, dropping by 60 a year.

Just 40 years ago, there were two elementary schools with about 120 children in each grade. Each now has no more than a dozen.

About 30 island business owners are trying to secure the northern lagoon’s future by relaunching local trades and encouraging sustainable tourism. Whereas Venice suffers under the pressure of some 30 million visitors a year, only about 1.5 million of those continue on to Burano.

‘’We want these three islands in the northern lagoon to become a tourist destination apart from Venice,’’ said association vice president Roberto Pugliese. That means offering activities like fishing or boating and promoting the allure of the quiet lagoon life, beyond the existing tourist draws of lace shops, Instagrammable backdrops of brightly coloured fishing cottages and the quiet Byzantine cathedral on Torcello.

Across a footbridge from Burano, on the neighbouring island of Mazzorbo, an entrepreneur from the prosecco region north of Venice has relaunched a long-dormant vineyard, Venissa, opening a Michelin-starred restaurant and hotel along with it.

A decade on, most of its 30 employees live on the islands.

Makers of the traditional Burano lace also are looking to revitalise their sector, mostly by moving from traditional decorative uses such as tablecloths or wall hangings into creating works of art or fashion.

At dalla Lidia, a Burano lace shop, Japanese textile-maker Yuka Miyagishima is spending three months to learn the craft practised today by no more than 100 women, most of them elderly. It’s painstaking work, using a thread and needle to create intricate stitches and knots on paper that is later torn away.

Pugliese said it would be ideal for her to remain on the island and work – but Miyagishima said she intends to return home and practise the tradition there.

Getting outsiders to move to Burano is complicated not only by the convenience factor, but also by its peculiar housing stock. About 80 per cent of the island’s housing is picturesque fishing cottages. They’re adored by tourists for their colourful facades – but less so by residents long restricted by preservation laws on how they can renovate the two-storey structures, each level just 20 square metres. In a sign of the times, many are for sale.

Officials have recently given tentative approval to changes that will make it easier, for example, to combine adjoining houses into a single abode. Pugliese is also hoping that Venice will allow hotels to operate with rooms dispersed throughout the island. At the moment there are fewer than 20 hotel rooms on the island, limiting overnight stays.

It’s just as complicated to get Burano’s young people to stay on the island.

Federica Molin and her husband run a bakery that makes the famed bussolai cookies, traditionally shaped in big Os so fishermen could hang them on their mast and nibble away during long turns at sea.

Their eldest child lives in Milan, studying to be a veterinarian, and is unlikely to resettle on the island any time soon. Molin is happy for her but hopes she’ll come back some day.

“When I hear about young couples that come back … I get excited,” Molin said. “Then when we see blue or pink ribbons around Burano announcing a birth, it gives the sensation that yes, we can repopulate the island!”