[URBANTH-L] REV: A Venetian Island: Environment, History and Change in Burano_

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Sun Sep 25 18:09:44 EDT 2005

Cross-posted from H-Environment at h-net.msu.edu (August, 2005)

Lidia D. Sciama. _A Venetian Island: Environment, History and Change in
Burano_. New Directions in Anthropology Series. New York and Oxford:
Berghahn, 2003. xix + 250 pp. Figures, maps, tables, notes, bibliography,
index. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 1-5718-1920-7. 

Reviewed for H-Environment by Paola Filippucci, Department of Social
Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Hanging from a Thread: Marginality and Identity in an Island of

The tiny island of Burano, in the northern reaches of the Venetian lagoon,
has long been economically, politically, and socially marginal in relation
to the city of Venice, of which it has been a dependency since the
thirteenth century. At the same time, at least since the sixteenth
century, Burano has found worldwide fame for the exceptional and unique
quality and beauty of its lace, made by the island's women. This rather
special place is the focus of Lidia Sciama's _A Venetian Island_, an
anthropological study of Burano based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted
in the 1980s as well as on historical sources and local memory. The aim of
the book is to document islanders' perception of their own community in
relation to Venice and the world beyond, and also in relation to its past.
More broadly the local setting of the island is for Sciama a vantage point
for analyzing relations between center and periphery in the Venetian
lagoon. The city of Venice and its lagoon form a unique configuration with
a unique history, that now has unique problems of "conservation and
change" both environmental and cultural (p. xvii). Much has been written
about Burano, but this book is significant in being perhaps the first
English-language account (and certainly the first anthropological account
in English) of the views and perceptions of some of those who inhabit it.

The book offers a comprehensive view of island life, with chapters devoted
to local history, social structure, kinship, religion, and politics. These
form the context for the discussion of lace-making that, in my view, is
the most compelling part of the book. This shows how this humble (though
exceptionally skilled) craft, carried out by poor girls and women in their
modest houses, in fact mediated the island's relations with Venice and the
outside world; the islanders with the Catholic Church and the dominant
classes in Venetian society; and the genders within the island and in the
wider society. So too, the decline of lace-making in the twentieth century
is convincingly related to changing relations of the island with the wider
world and of women with the wider society. This discussion of lace-making
will interest students of gender, material culture, and heritage. More
broadly, along with anthropologists, the book will interest geographers
and Italianists. In spite of its sub-title, the book has less to offer to
those interested in environment and landscape, themes that underlie the
whole account but are not discussed in any sustained way.

The book opens with an account of the problems in island life in the
late-twentieth century, including environmental pollution (which severely
threatens one of the island's main sources of income, fishing) and the
decay of the urban fabric, both of which contribute to the other
significant trend, depopulation. These trends are common to the whole
lagoon including the city of Venice, and center on the contradiction
between preserving ancient buildings and the fragile ecosystem of the
lagoon, and accommodating modern expectations of comfort and living
standards. In Burano, the problem of reconciling the two is complicated by
the island's distance from the city center, which discourages tourists and
underpins the neglect of local authorities who are based in Venice and are
apparently reluctant to invest efforts and resources in what they perceive
as a remote periphery.

Burano's marginality is not new: as a chapter on "A Sense of History"
shows, the island's history is little documented and little known, a
striking silence when compared with the mass of documents and historical
works about Venice. This silence is filled by islanders' oral versions of
the island's origins linked to the earliest settlement of the lagoon
before the foundation of Venice. Stories also abound about the islanders'
fierce independence and their cunning and volatile character. Sciama
documents these stereotypes in Renaissance and early modern documents, and
sees both their origin and their persistence in local consciousness as a
response to the perceived abuses and humiliations inflicted on Burano by
Venice, that ground the islanders' sense of otherness and independence.

Burano's difficult relations with Venice are also attributed to its
religious history. Sciama suggests that the Venetian Republic resented the
presence on Burano of several religious houses and churches as well as the
island's strong religious identity, because it saw the Catholic Church as
a rival political power and at different times made efforts to limit its
power within the Venetian territories. The chapter on religion also
documents the decline of the Church's influence in more recent times, as
islanders have become less devout and have come to criticize the Church's
moral authority. This has not, however, weakened the islanders' sense of
independence that, for Sciama, is also tied to their traditional economic
specialization in fishing. Fishing was historically and is now considered
a form of entrepreneurship in contrast to the farming, dominant in the
Venetian mainland, that entailed the subjection of peasants to landlords.
Autonomy in employment continues to be a core value in Burano in today's
more favorable economic climate, underpinning individual and familial
efforts for economic and social advancement. Sciama links this outlook
with a tenacious egalitarian ethos in the island, rooted in its past of
poverty and marginality but persisting in new conditions.

This same outlook is manifested in the context of kinship, that combines
emphasis on the independence of individuals and nuclear families from the
wider universe of kin with a strong attachment to close kin. So, for
instance, young couples now want a separate dwelling, but typically want
one close to the parents of one or both. The old pattern of cohabitation
of young couples with the man's parents under their authority, related to
the transmission of property from father to son (including houses and
fishing equipment and expertise), is now universally rejected, along with
former patterns of familial transmission and patriarchal authority. At the
same time, Sciama shows convincingly that in the 1980s the family remained
the main reference point in islanders' life trajectories, so that, for
instance, few young people opted to leave the island or even commute in
order to get higher education, preferring to leave school at fourteen and
seek employment in glass factories in nearby Murano. Women especially
appeared to marry early, seemingly satisfied by a destiny defined by
marriage and motherhood. However Sciama also documents island women's
rejection of notions of womanhood centered on modesty, sexual restraint
and subjection to authority. In line with other parts of Italy and the
Veneto, this rejection occurs at the level of familial and sexual mores,
with the growing acceptability of sex outside marriage, divorce and
abortion, but in a uniquely local way this rejection was also associated
with the rejection of lace-making.

Sciama's argument is that lace-making developed and flourished in Burano
as part of an organized operation of social and moral control over poor
unmarried women on the part of the Catholic Church, assisted by upper
class "benefactors." Both saw lower-class young women as prone to sinning
and moral and sexual misconduct, and from the sixteenth century identified
lace-making as an activity that would keep their bodies and minds properly
occupied and controlled. The choice of lace-making is linked by Sciama not
only with the level of focus and concentration required by the work but
also with the symbolic connotations of textile work in Christian and other
Mediterranean (notably Hebrew) traditions, that link it with female sexual
purity, chastity, and humility. So too in Burano at the so-called "Lace
School," lace-making was taught to girls and women as a form of discipline
and a way to keep them away from sin. Sciama also sees it as an instance
of male power exerted over women through the concept of "shame," enforced
by the Church but incorporating wider societal notions about gender and
gendered morality as documented in other parts of Southern Europe by
anthropological studies of "honor and shame", to a critical discussion of
which Sciama devotes a chapter of the book.  Lace-making also put Burano
in direct touch with the rich and powerful who commissioned and purchased
the lace, but the workers received a minimal share of the wealth
generated, as they were paid a pittance and only received that once they
reached eighteen years of age. Exploitation and harsh discipline dominate
the memories of women who worked for the school before it closed in the
1970s, and they were the reason why women left the school once attitudes
changed in the wider society, leading to its demise. The same memories
made women unenthusiastic about the reopening of a Lace School partly as a
tourist attraction in the 1980s, with most active lace-makers preferring
to work independently and sell lace informally, or in their words to be
"free" to work, voicing the same bid for self-determination and autonomy
found among men.

The themes of freedom and autonomy are also shown to be central for the
community as a whole in the chapter devoted to Burano's interaction with
municipal authorities in the 1980s. This chapter examines debates about
environmental degradation and health provision on the island. In relation
to the former, Sciama shows that islanders claim superior understanding
and knowledge of the lagoon's environment against the ignorance of public
policy-makers. In practice, however, they tend to demand immediate
solutions to problems that threaten their livelihood and well-being, such
as lagoon water pollution and flooding, dismissing longer-term, more
environmentally sound solutions. This suggests that the notion of
environmental degradation is appropriated by islanders to express a more
general grievance, the perceived neglect of local interests by the center.
Buranelli's emphatic defense of local interests against public authorities
echoes autonomistic and regionalist ideas that took hold in the Veneto and
Northern Italy in the 1980s, but Sciama attributes islanders' strong sense
of independence to the local past as a marginal and excluded community.
This relative lack of comparative scope is at once the main strength and
the principal weakness of this account.

An almost exclusively local focus is a strength because it allows for a
high level of detail both about life in the island in the 1980s and about
other historical periods that is a significant contribution to the
anthropology of the lagoon, previously not studied in English-language
anthropology. The careful and fascinating account of lace-making is also
an important contribution to the study of craft and skill, particularly
gendered skill, that remains underdeveloped in the English-language
anthropology of Italy and indeed of Europe. More broadly, this book
successfully offers a poignant portrait of a tiny community that is at
once proud of its unique skills and achievements, and dismayed and
humiliated by its continuing exclusion from the wealth and power of the
city, with "a deep-rooted sense of [its] own marginality" (p. 6).

What this local emphasis prevents is a comparison of Burano's case with
developments in mainland Veneto in the late-twentieth century. By the
1980s the Veneto was one of the wealthiest regions in Europe as a result
of massive participation in the global economy through export
manufacturing. At the same time, notions of local belonging echoing those
found in Burano and referring to tradition, autonomy and independence
founded on hard work and on skill were widespread, animating localistic,
anti-state and xenophobic politics. The anthropological questions that
this scenario raises concern the politics of identity and specifically the
issue of whether globalization is pushing people to return defensively to
older foci of identity (locality, territory), or whether, in response to
globalization, these old ideas are used to express completely new notions
of place and belonging. These are key questions in the anthropology of
Italy and of Europe that Sciama's study could have helped to illuminate.
As she mentions in the conclusion, Buranelli is now "very dynamic in
participating in the local economy" by marketing in their shops "Burano"
lace made to specification in the Far East (p. 227). This is a new twist
in the island's history of being suspended between local obscurity and
global renown, and it could have been discussed more fully in a wider
comparative frame to broaden the scope of an otherwise evocative and
interesting study.

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