21 July, 2006

57. 'Venetian' colours?

Forty minutes by Vaporetto from the Fondamente Nuove in Canareggio brings you to the island of Burano, smallish as islands go, but surprisingly, home to about 7000 people. As the island of Murano is famous for its glass manufacturing, Burano is famous for its lace, which is why so many tourists make the extra trip across the lagoon.

Lace from the Venetian lagoon has been famous since the fifteenth century, and there is a record of King Richard III of England (yes, "'a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" THAT King Richard) wearing a 'triumph of laces' from Venice at his coronation in 1483.

What makes Burano lace special is that it is needle-worked rather than created with bobbins like most other places that are renowned for the art.

What makes Burano itself special you can see a small example of in this picture. Unlike the main city of Venice, what strikes the visitor to Burano most is the exuberant colour of the buildings. No colour, no matter how lurid, is off-limits to the Buranesi. Bright pink, fluorescent orange, baby blue, peach, purple, and puce, everywhere the residents have indulged their most vivid preferences for the chromatic dramatic.

It's a pleasant surprise when you get off the ferry for the first time. It makes you smile and point. It makes you feel good, refreshed, irreverent, and you know just by looking at the place that the Buranesi don't take themselves or their historic little island all that seriously.

Then it makes you ask the obvious question: What stops the residents of Venice doing the same as the residents of Burano? Has it never occurred to any of them to say, "I'm tired of all those different shades of earthy reds and pinks and browns, I think I'll paint my house…mmm…turquoise instead"? I'm sure it must have, but I never saw any bright blue or lilac or heliotrope houses in San Marco or San Polo or Dorsoduro.

I love the warm subtle colours of Venice, the city has a chromatic cohesion like no other, but I don't think that kind of conformity can be easily imposed. There has to be something more than Heritage Commission regulation driving it. I think it has to be a combination of habit, and cultural respect. To step violently away from the normal range of Venetian colours would be almost unthinkable in the main city, an act of vandalism, an exercise of a freedom that only the Buranesi in this lagoon seem to be able to enjoy.

I once asked an Italian friend in Tuscany, "why are all the shutters in your town painted green?", expecting him to explain that it was a local heritage bylaw. He looked at me strangely, like it was a really stupid question. "Because when you need to paint your shutters, you go to the hardware store and buy Shutter Paint, and Shutter Paint is green". He didn't say "Duh!", but I heard it all the same.

Maybe all the bright colours go to the hardware store on Burano and they don't sell any other colour paint in Venice, apart from 'Venetian' colours.


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