Domenico Rossi lives on the picturesque island of Burano in the northern lagoon of Venice. The captivating charm of this place is deeply rooted in fishing – from the colorful fishermen’s houses to the traditional butter biscuits as provisions for the fishermen to the fine lace embroidery of their women.
Rossi himself is a crab fisherman – a family tradition that goes back to the proud days of the Venetian Republic. But a lot has changed in the recent past.
When Domenico Rossi, 49 years old, was a boy, 100 crab fishermen were still romping in the local waters. Now there are only 20 left and he is the youngest of them. So Rossi assumes that in a few decades no one will pursue this business.
Venice is becoming a kind of museum
The slow extinction of the traditional profession is part of a trend. Burano’s population is shrinking – similar to that of Venice, which is 40 minutes away by boat. And with that, the number of inhabitants who have kept the traditions and the economy of the island alive with their handicrafts is disappearing.
This is what brought Venezia Nativa, an association of entrepreneurs on Burano and two neighboring islands, to life. It tries to breathe new life into old handicrafts in order to attract new residents and to encourage young islanders to stay. At the same time, it promotes sustainable tourism.
Venice has long warned that it is in the process of being reduced to a kind of museum, a place that attracts crowds of tourists but where fewer and fewer people live. The number of residents who live permanently in the historic center with St. Mark’s Square and the Grand Canal has dropped to 53,000 – by a third within a single generation.
Every year, about 1,000 residents move to the mainland districts, where it is cheaper and easier to live. This changes the social fabric of the city, there are fewer neighborhood shops with local products and fewer public services.
Burano is said to become a tourist attraction
The effects of the population decline are even more visible on Burano and its two neighboring islands, Mazzorbo and Torcello. The population is currently around 2,700, and is decreasing by 60 people each year. 40 years ago there were two primary schools with about 120 children in each year, now there are only up to twelve each.
Around 30 business owners on the islands are now betting on a revival of local trade and tourism that is steeped in old traditions. While Venice suffers from the burden of around 30 million visitors a year, only 1.5 million of them travel to Burano.
“We want to make these three islands in the northern lagoon a tourist attraction independent of Venice,” said Roberto Pugliese, Vice President of Venezia Nativa. This includes an offer that includes activities such as fishing or boat trips.
The attraction of a peaceful life in the lagoon away from the places that have been attracting tourists so far should also be advertised. They include shops with lace embroidery, the Instagram-compatible backdrop of colorfully painted houses and the Byzantine cathedral on Torcello.
Islands reflect on their tradition
On the island of Mazzorbo, a winegrower from the Prosecco region north of Venice has reopened a long-standing vineyard – including a restaurant and hotel. Most of the 30 employees live on the islands.
Manufacturers of traditional Burano lace also want to breathe new life into their sector, mostly by focusing more on fashion items or art instead of decorative goods such as tablecloths or wall hangings as in the past.
Yuka Miyagishima is a Japanese textile manufacturer. She is currently spending three months in a top embroidery shop in Burano to learn the handicrafts that are now only practiced by up to 100 women – most of them at an advanced age. However, Miyagishima does not want to stay on the island, but want to return home and practice the tradition there.
The fact that it is difficult to get people to move to Burano has a lot to do with the housing supply. Approximately 80 percent of the homes are picturesque fishermen’s houses that are admired by tourists for their bright colors, but are less popular with residents.
There are strict regulations regarding the extent to which the two-story buildings can be renovated. And it’s really just a house: each floor is just 20 square meters. So many of the buildings are for sale.
In the future, it should also be possible to combine neighboring houses into a single residence. That would be better for families. However, it remains to be seen whether this will encourage young residents to stay.
Federica Mohn and her husband run a bakery where they make the famous Bussolai biscuits. The biscuits are traditionally ring-shaped – so fishermen could hang them on their boat masts and nibble on them during long stays on the water.
Mohn’s daughter studies in Milan and wants to become a veterinarian. Her mother grants her that, but she hopes that one day her offspring will live on the island again. “When I hear about a young couple coming back, I’m happy,” she says. “And when I see blue or pink ribbons on Burano that herald a birth, it gives me the feeling that yes, we can repopulate the island!”