by Eliot Stein
Traditions come and go, like the tides.
There exists an inherent sorrow in the Italian culture—the kind that drives you towards theatrical hand motions, delicate flicks of the tongue, and designer fashion instead of prescription drugs. It is grief channeled in its most artistic form. Were it not for Italians’ emotional fragility, there would have been no Renaissance, opera, or Versace.
You pick up on these things when you’re half-naked and stranded at sea. Somewhere during the 40-minute ferry ride between Venice and Burano our vaporetto sputtered to a float. Marco, our captain, is busy slashing his hands to conduct an orchestrated overture in Venetian curses, turning to blame any inanimate objects he can find for his luck; the sky, his dead cell phone, the steering wheel, the sky again. He interrupts this opus just long enough to mention that he forgot to add gas before we left. As he peels off his shirt and reclines against the life preservers, he says all we can do now is wait for help, and work on our tans.
The Romans who fled the mainland for fear of the Goths were left with few options. While Burano’s location in a pocket of the Adriatic is far-flung enough that no land-flung spear could reach it, the island itself is best measured from end to end in human steps. Because fishing was the island’s only sustainable industry, the male Buranelli spent much of the year at sea, leaving the female Buranelle at home to repair their husband’s nets and anxiously await their return.
According to legend, one such 16th century Buranella awoke each morning clutching the only tangible memory her young lover had given her: a piece of algae. He promised he would return before the ephemeral being died, and she passed each day shedding heartbroken tears, waiting for him on the dock. In her grief, she began to take a needle and stitch the algae’s design into her father’s fishing net to preserve it. Her love eventually did return to the dock, but only months after the algae had died. In this romantic marriage of fact and fable, the lace of Burano was born.
As other lonesome Buranelle soon shifted their focus from fishing nets to lace production, a unique style emerged from the Lagoon known as the “Burano Air Stitch.” Trademarked by a fine needlepoint pattern embroidered entirely by hand with delicate oval motifs at the base of the design, the lace’s international demand soared, extending throughout Europe and into Asia. From the mid-16th to the end of the 18th century, Burano’s lace sleeves, collars, and bedspreads had also reached a distinctly privileged clientele of royalty—including Louis XIV who, at his crowning, asked for a “bed of white hair” to conceal his bed of no hair.
But when the Venetian Republic fell in 1797, Burano’s lace industry fell with it. Without their reputable ally’s sponsorship to facilitate international trade, the elderly Buranelle who continued to practice the craft did so only for pleasure. And as they themselves neared extinction, so did the secret of the Air Stitch.
By 1872 the practice of lace in Burano had vanished, and a frigid winter threatened the island’s fishing industry. With the entire lagoon covered by ice, the Buranelli were left without a viable means to provide for those who patiently awaited their return. In a desperate attempt to revive the island’s economy, a primary school teacher convinced an 80-year-old Buranella who had tightly guarded the patterns and points of the island’s golden age of lace to disclose the secrets of the Air Stitch. The teacher opened up a school of apprenticeship to reintroduce the lost art of lacemaking to the island’s young women. Starting from the teacher’s daughters and their friends, the school soon expanded, training over 700 apprentices by the turn of the 20th century. As the quantity of international orders increased, the Buranelle not only saved the island’s population, but reestablished the quaint fishing settlement as the unlikely benchmark of worldwide lace production—once again stitching beauty from sorrow.
I opt for the usual tourist itinerary and load my camera before winding through Burano’s rows of vibrant homes, divided by canals and arched bridges. Though humble in size, each house is baked in a coat of warm tones with white trim, following a precise sequence that, when presented together, becomes a testament to civic beauty and a varied palette. The color scheme originated in the 16th century and is maintained so closely that any resident who wishes to repaint his home must appeal to the local government which will specify the permitted shades for each lot. In effect, the island is the essence of Italy on a 0.21 square kilometer scale: seemingly random charm springing from hundreds of years of meticulous detail mixed with bureaucracy.
Despite Burano’s proximity to its theme-parked neighbor, the island remains much as it always has: a self-reliant fishing village. Its diminutive size has helped sustain its culture. The island’s few thousand residents are so densely populated that it cannot physically accommodate a significant tourist industry, let alone a high school (teenagers have to commute by ferry to Venice). The trickle of day-trippers is relatively new to the Buranelli who haven’t learned to treat tourists with the same insolence exhibited in other parts of the Lagoon. There are no gondoliers prepared to bellow opera lyrics for tips. Nor do waiters line canals to reassure those with backpacks or cameras that their trattorias offer spaghetti and pizza in fluent English. Instead, I am left alone to absorb the island’s serenity and am welcomed in a morphed dialect of Italian and elongated consonants that would leave Dante scratching his head.
I reach for my camera when I am hit by a wafting draft of lemon and pepper. The aroma lures my nose over a bridge, my feet following. On the far side of the canal I come upon a woman bent over an open coal stove fanning three decapitated fish with the bottom of a broom. Her head is wrapped in a scarf that does its best to keep its long, haphazardly dyed contents from the smoke. She turns, showing a profile that reveals considerable age before shooting a round of vowels and a smile into a violet house a few feet away. Rotating slowly at the neck, she greets me with the same congenial grin. I match her smile, and try to match her vowels.
“Che tipo di pesce è quello?” I ask, curious about the type of fish I’m smelling.
“Cefalo,” she beams, exposing a set of natural teeth that belie her age.
We’re onto each other. My crimson sunburn and Reef sandals advertise my foreign passport well before my accent can. But I understand her perfectly. She’s not from Burano either. Curiosity leads her to upturn a washing basin, and offer me a seat.
After a year in Italy, I have found that when you first reveal you are American, many Italians react in one of two distinct ways: while Italian youth often see America as a nation of corporations, capitalism, control and other definitively “uncool” c-words, they will acknowledge the merit of “Scarface,” Michael Jordan, and alternative music, and their interest leads to interview. Yet, many older Italians remember the America from years past. Americans are not only liberators, but descendants of Italians themselves—either by way of Ellis Island, or at least Columbus—and are met with genuine affection.
The broom gains momentum as the woman fans the cefalo excitedly. She’s never been to America, but her friends Enzo Pisano and Paola Lazzarino have. And, it’s possible her second cousin, Annamaria, has too. She turns towards the violet house again to announce to the other side of a striped curtain hanging from the doorway that they have a visitor from America.
When I ask what brought her to Burano, she proudly states that she is actually Buranella, born and raised, but that any lingering traces of the island’s dialect have been left in nearby Maestre, were she has lived for the past 45 years. She points the broom towards the violet house and leans over the stove, speaking from a cloud of fish and coal. She was born in the kitchen, just like her mother was. I’m interrupted before I can even respond, as she follows with something far more unexpected. “Mamma, è pronto il cefalo.”
Just then a woman pushes through the striped curtain holding a watering jug. She feels for the wall before emptying the jug evenly onto two batches of potted perennials hanging from windowsills on opposite sides of the door. Her thick, hoary hair is coiled with a bobbin and glows in the June sun, contrasting with a plain blue dress that hovers around her shins. She is blind.
“Ecco l’americano, mamma,” the daughter calls.
Mamma’s response is in dialect and unfamiliar to me. The daughter translates with her standard smile into standard Italian. “Go make a 90-year-old woman happy.”
I meet Mamma’s extended hand with delicacy, which she returns with a firm grip. She releases me only to pass her fingers across my forehead, nose, and three-days worth of razor neglect. She again states something in doubled-consonants, and her daughter explains that she finds my face “sweet.”
Mamma’s five-foot frame stands upright with shoulders back, displaying a silent dignity. Her olive features are preserved in the kind of deep, creased frames that come from living on a wind-swept island for nine centuries. She exudes a certain lucidity, even as she stares at me from behind a cataract glaze. While I need her daughter to decipher much of her dialect, Mamma bridges the gap between us fluently. She instructs her daughter to take the cefalo inside as she grabs my arm and leads me towards the house. I suppose I’m staying for lunch.
Without thinking, I ease into the American ritual of “courteous” questioning when presented with an offer of accommodation by a friend, which translates to “ungraciousness” in Italian culture; “Are you sure I won’t be imposing?” “Will I disturb you?” “Do you really think there’s enough foo—.” I am interrupted at the curtain by Mamma who turns towards the questions, raising her voice and her hand in response. For the first time, I understand her clearly. “Of course there is! I caught three fish, didn’t I?”
The curtain is pushed aside, illuminating a substantial wooden table separating a refinished kitchen from a larger living room. Tiles cover a spotless floor and a hint of potpourri sweeps away any lingering dirt Mamma couldn’t find with a broom. A suffering Christ is tacked to the walls in various poses and a black and white television broadcasts mass from the Vatican in a soothing, German accent. Mamma eases her way forward, towing me by the wrist to the back wall where a jigsaw puzzle of white patterns hangs, softening the dark oak. As I approach, the designs seem to expand from their frames, presenting astonishing three-dimensionality and detailed texture. I am drawn to a man stitched from lace who returns my stare from behind an 18” x 11” frame. He is handsomely rendered in his old age, and his downcast eyes and thick moustache weighing down his top lip present a hauntingly pained fatigue. At the base of the oval motif, “Il Pescatore” is written—“The Fisherman.” Mamma tells me it was her husband.
I press my curiosity and receive translated answers from the daughter who stands a few steps away garnishing the cefalo with parsley and butter. Everything I see hung on the wall was stitched, point-by-point, by Mamma’s hands. She is one of the last remaining Buranella to have produced the Air Stitch before Burano’s lace industry deteriorated. As a child, she attended the local trade school and was chosen to be the personal apprentice of a Cencia—one of the great embroiderers—before teaching at the school herself until it closed in 1972. The school has since transformed into the Museum and School of Lacemaking and Burano lace exists today as a mere framed artifact for display.
As I move to inspect another piece, Mamma moves with me. A series of bridges shoot out from behind one another, taking the viewer on a deep, stitched tour of Venetian canals. A gondolier is portrayed in impossibly tight points under the second bridge, using the wooden masts that line the canals to moor. Mamma asks me what I see. I tell her, as best I can. She then asks me if I like it and presses her fingers to my cheek just in time to feel me smile.
When the daughter calls us to the table, Mamma disappears down a flight of steps. She reemerges with a clear jug of red wine. The daughter explains that her brother made the wine and had given it to Mamma when he last visited, and that she had been saving it for a long time.
Mamma leads me to a single bed in a corner by the television. An unfinished warping of a woman crouching over stitching a piece of lace lies next to the pillow. I recognize the design from a finished version hanging on the wall and ask her who has been working on it. She responds with a raised voice and furrowed eyebrows, “Ma chi altro?” tapping two fingers to her chest. I look to the daughter in utter confusion, and ask Mamma, in so many words, how exactly a 90-year-old blind woman stitches lace. The daughter explains that, after 75 years of practice, her mother can reproduce all the patterns by memory. Mamma’s hands are still as agile as they ever were. Since cancer stole her husband and cataracts stole her sight, she often passes her days stitching lace as a way to ignore her solitude. The unfinished image is a self-portrait. The daughter then reminds us that the cefalo are getting cold.
The mass remains on during grace. Mamma sits close to me and I ask her why the lace school closed on the island. She responds by asking me how I like the fish before wiping my mouth with her napkin. She eventually replies that the younger girls didn’t have the same patience as her generation did. They found lace too time consuming and didn’t understand the importance and culture of the Air Stitch. As machines started replacing hands, and competition from third-world markets increased, the Air Stitch has been mass-produced in faux facsimiles. Fewer and fewer buranelle continued the trade, until it virtually died out. The few embroiderers on the island who still know the Air Stitch create the patterns, like she does, as a hobby, and most of the lace for sale by the docks is either machine-woven or imported.
She dissects the cefalo like a surgeon; stripping each piece of smoked, white flesh from the spine cleanly before delegating it neatly to the side of her plate with her knife. She asks me if I’m putting the meat on bread or not. There is a correct answer, but I don’t know which it is. I tell her I’m not using the bread. She blames her daughter for this oversight and scoops her cefalo’s remains onto my plate.
After her daughter clears the plates, Mamma shows me her most cherished pieces. She explains the work behind each Air Stitch’s evolution in great detail; from its birth as a drawing on paper, maturing into to a warped design, and finishing as an ironed collection of points. Each pattern captures its subject with such dramatic delicacy and detail—be it the Last Supper, a Greek Goddess, or her son—that its soul seems to jump from the lace’s points and land on my skin in goose bumps.
The mass finished hours ago. I’m almost hungry again. I check the kitchen clock and suddenly realize that the last vaporetto leaves Burano in five minutes. How do you say goodbye to a 90-year-old woman who has confided in you her life’s work? I apologize profusely, but confess I must go. Four minutes. Mamma passes her hand over my face again, telling me I remind her of her son. Her misty eyes show a tear before her daughter assures me that her mother gets very emotional. Three minutes. I explain that there is no way I could ever repay their hospitality. I am on the other side of the curtain when Mamma offers me a piece of lace. She insists that I take it to remember her and that, when I return, I can give her something from my home, far, far away. Two minutes. I am speechless. I can only offer Mamma a final kiss on the cheek and a whisper of gratitude. I leave for the docks, unable to accept her offer, or promise a return—knowing that some things really are ephemeral.
Eliot Stein graduated from Emory University with a dual-degree in Italian studies and journalism and left for Rome the next morning. He has studied sociolinguistics at the University of Siena, hosted an Italian-language radio show, and led tour groups throughout Italy. He currently lives in Sardinia where he teaches English and is a contributing editor for The American magazine. His writing has appeared in Creative Loafing, Budget Travel, and in weekly e-mails home to his grandmother. She thought he should have taken the lace. This story won the Gold Award for Doing Good or the Kindness of Strangers in the Second Annual Solas Awards.
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