A Venetian Island: Environment, History, and Change in Burano

A Venetian Island: Environment, History, and Change in Burano

A Venetian Island: Environment, History, and Change in Burano

A Venetian Island: Environment, History, and Change in Burano


Since the extensive floods of 1966, inhabitants of Venice's laguna areas have come to share in, and reflect upon, concerns over pressing environmental problems. Evidence of damage caused by industrial pollution has contributed to the need to recover a common culture and establish a sense of continuity with "truly Venetian traditions."

Based on ethnographic and archival data, this in-depth study of the Venetian island of Burano shows how its inhabitants develop their sense of a distinct identity on the basis of their notions of gender, honor and kinship relations, their common memories, their knowledge and love of their environment and their special skills in fishing and lace making.

Lidia Sciama is a former Director of the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research on Women, University of Oxford, where she is currently a Research Associate.


This book is based on long-term fieldwork in Venice and in areas of the northern lagoon, mainly the island of Burano. My initial proposal, when I began my research for a D. Phil. thesis in 1980, was to conduct participant observation in Burano, while also maintaining a strong focus on Venice as the urban centre of which it is an integral part. in particular, I planned to analyse environmental problems in the lagoon and to examine ways in which inhabitants of Venice and Burano were affected by them and involved in their solution. Proposals put forward to repair ecological damage would illustrate relations between communities living in the island periphery and the city’s politicians and administrators at the centre.

At that time my choice was undoubtedly influenced by changes and debates in anthropology, and especially critiques of structuralist studies. in particular, since the mid-1970s, critics of Mediterranean ethnographies have pointed out that attempts to describe societies as isolated and self-contained wholes had led to a proliferation of village studies in which little attention was paid to the dynamic relations of the areas observed with larger social contexts, whether cities, regions or nation states. the resulting overall picture was one of static social systems, hardly touched by change and modernity. Such concentration on village ethnographies, it was observed, was particularly surprising for a country like Italy, where urban values were pervasive and where migration from the countryside had been quite massive, especially since the Second World War (Boissevain 1975: 11; Crump 1975: 21–22; Davis 1977: 7–20; Gilmore 1980: 3; Macdonald 1993: 5–6, and see Just 2000: 20–28).

An initial theoretical problem was, therefore, the validity and usefulness of an urban/rural dichotomy – one as firmly rooted in anthropological tradition as it is in Italian culture. As we shall see, such dichotomous description did not fit my understanding of Burano, in some ways part of Venice, but in many other respects – and most importantly in its inhabitants’ view – a village, separate and different from it. At any rate, as emerges from recent anthropological studies in cities, too clear-cut a distinction between urban and rural settings does not always fit ethnographic observations. For example, as Hirschon has shown in her path-

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