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Meet the people keeping Venice's traditions alive, from paper marblers to winemakers

Discover the city’s long-held culinary and artisan traditions, doggedly preserved by a cast of characters, from vineyard-owners to glassblowers, even as overtourism threatens to eclipse ancient ways of life on the lagoon.

Photographs By Francesco Lastrucci
Published 28 Apr 2021, 11:17 BST
A street scene in Dorsoduro, one of the six main districts of central Venice.

A street scene in Dorsoduro, one of the six main districts of central Venice.

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

From the top of the bell tower at San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice looks different. Hidden are the bridges straddling cutesy canals. Instead, all I see is a single, man-made mass, squeezed by the water all around. Terracotta roofs play Tetris with the skyline; hangar-sized churches erupt upward; bell towers thrust towards the sky. 

Hidden, also, are the outré waterside mansions whose pastel-marbled, hand-sculpted facades were once signifiers of wealth and status — the Porsches of the past. Hidden is the elegant squiggle of the Grand Canal. Hidden, even, is St Mark’s Square, its Byzantine basilica obscured by the candy-pink Doge’s Palace. Also gone are the 30 million tourists who flood this city of 50,000 every year. Up here, humankind is negligible.

Read more: Italy travel guide

From on high, Venice is all about the shimmering, shape-shifting lagoon: flashing silver in the sun near the Lido; a deep blue along the Giudecca Canal as a vaporetto (water bus) chugs silently along; a petrol-sheened pink near Murano as the sun sinks.

Life for Venetians has always revolved around the water — ever since the fifth century, when inhabitants of nearby Altino, fleeing enemy invaders, took to their boats and settled on the mudflats offshore. Today, although that water can feel designed for tourists — gondolas sliding up and down canals, the photogenic fish market at Rialto — the lagoon is still the city’s pulse. 

Paolo Pelosin marbles paper, a tradition that arrived in Venice in the 15th century.

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

To the east lie islands — some abandoned, others now home to high-end hotels; one was even used as a renaissance quarantine facility. (The idea of isolating the infectious? That was first implemented here to tackle 15th-century plagues.) To the north are some of the city’s most popular day-trip destinations — the isles of Murano, Burano and Torcello, all assailed by Venice’s 21st-century plague: overtourism. And yet, a trip to this part of the lagoon — where locals seem intent on preserving tradition amid the souvenir shops — can still transport you back to the city’s roots.

“People have been fishing here for 2,500 years,” says restaurateur Matteo Bisol, on Mazzorbo island. Famed for its agriculture, the sleepy island is severed from bustling Burano by a thin canal and connected by a bridge. “The Romans knew the lagoon, even before the Venetians. They fished, made wine and developed techniques that are still in use. But this culture risks being lost.”

It’s just steps away from Mazzorbo but, like Venice’s city centre, Burano’s economy caters to tourists; its multicoloured cottages reflected in the glassy canals make it an Instagram dream. For centuries, the island was a popular spot for fishing, but today it makes its money from souvenirs, and its fading traditions need stewards.

That’s why the Bisol family — who first made their name inland, producing Prosecco — built Venissa, a Michelin-starred restaurant with rooms. There’s a vineyard here where they grow the Dorona grape: native to the lagoon and popular with the doges (the rulers of the Venetian Republic from the eighth to the 18th century). It was on the brink of extinction when Matteo’s father revived a withered local plant.

Venice's Grand Canal at dusk. From on high, the city is all about the shimmering, shape-shifting lagoon: flashing silver in the sun near the Lido; a deep blue along the Giudecca Canal as a vaporetto (water bus) chugs silently along; a petrol-sheened pink near Murano as the sun sinks. 

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

At Venissa — which has an osteria (a laid-back wine bar serving simple meals) as well as a main restaurant — the focus is on lagoon food. In a high-beamed dining room, I feast on soft octopus in a sweet-sour saor marinade, velvety baccàla (creamed salt cod) on polenta, and juicy, almost jellified anchovies. 

Many of the vegetables are grown on allotments bordering Venissa’s vineyard. Open to the public, this walled, mid-lagoon mini farm-cum-park is tended by Burano’s pensioners. One of them, Patrizia Rossi, shows me Mazzorbo’s famous violet artichokes. Patrizia and her husband, Moreno d’Este, and a friend, Giorgio dei Rossi, grow them on their shared allotment. It’s a misty, grey morning, but in summer they’re out with their trowels at 6am. “You breathe better, feel better,” Patrizia says. This is the city’s countryside. 

It doesn’t feel like Venice, I remark. That, they swiftly tell me, is because it isn’t. “We’re not Venetian,” they chorus. Mazzorbo may be just 33 minutes by ferry from the city, but “if you row, it’s four hours — that’s like Venice to Milan today”. Venice was built by merchants and nobles, but the islands were born from agriculture, they explain. “We’ve always lived in symbiosis with nature here,” say Giorgio and Moreno. Matteo agrees. “This part of the lagoon is totally different,” he adds. In contrast to neighbouring tourist honeypots, where vaporetto queues can be hundreds-deep, on Mazzorbo, the island’s heritage is tangible, still woven into the present. 

On Burano is another restaurant striving to maintain tradition: Trattoria al Gatto Nero, founded 56 years ago by Ruggero and Lucia Bovo. Today, they still toil away in the kitchen (“I create, she judges,” grins Ruggero). Meanwhile, son Massimiliano runs the show, buying supplies from local fishermen. 

As visitor numbers continue to climb, Massimiliano tells me, Venice risks losing some of its soul. While the headlines are full of Airbnbs displacing locals (it’s thought that 70% of Venetians have vacated their homes in the past 70 years to make space for visitors) and the council postponing its tax on day-trippers until 2022, nobody, he says, talks about the city’s endangered culinary heritage. 

The historic Rialto Bridge, crossing the Grand Canal.

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

So, like their neighbours at Venissa, the Bovos are taking a stand: the canals outside may be heaving with travellers, but in this chandelier-hung, terrazzo-floored room, the walls are plastered in local art. Everything, right down to the pasta, is homemade, and the fish is lagoon-netted. Not only do they feed their ritzy clientele local food, but they also introduce them to the people who made it. 

“When Tom Cruise was in, they called me over,” says Andrea Rossi, one of Burano’s fishermen. “Massimiliano likes celebrities to meet the people who caught their fish.” 

Venice’s top restaurants often call on Andrea, a fourth-generation fisherman, when they’re seeking sea bass worthy of an A-lister. But his main goal in life is keeping the lagoon’s traditions afloat — whether that’s collating lists of edible herbs from the barene (mudflats) or fishing with centuries-old techniques. In the summer, he dabbles in tour guiding, taking inquisitive visitors out into the barene to fish and to the islands for birding. Later, on a tiny boat, where the lagoon starts melting into the Adriatic, I’ll watch him and boatmate Michele Vitturi meticulously unfurl their nets and catch grey mullet, one by one. 

But right now, we’re in his hide on sparsely populated Torcello. We’re here for the squawking partridges landing in next door’s artichoke plot; wood pigeons settling in the fruit trees; ducks flying towards Burano, and, finally, a dun-coloured hawk swooping across the barene. So far, so mundane, but it’s that mundanity that feels so outlandish in this city of visual and cultural excess.

Cultural capital

Of course, that excess is everywhere — even out here. To the left of the hide, swirling out of the mist, is the 11th-century tower of the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, its insides covered in glittering gold mosaics, whose almond-eyed figures are older than those that adorn St Mark’s Basilica. 

And on the way back to central Venice, I stop at Murano — not for its famous glassmakers, but for the church of San Pietro Martire. Back in town, at the Doge’s Palace, people queue for hours to see works by Tintoretto, Venice’s 16th-century painter extraordinaire; here, one hangs, frame-less, on the wall. There’s no placard, but its slightly doughy Jesus bends towards me, getting baptised. Beside it is the whopping great Madonna and Child with Saints, by Bellini, another Venetian superstar. Mary’s modelesque face and lagoon-blue cloak, cascading around her, are up there with his works in Florence’s esteemed Accademia Gallery, which pulls in the big crowds. But here, it’s just me and the hand-blown chandeliers slung from the arches. 

Fisherman Andrea Rossi at work with his nets in the lagoon. Venice’s top restaurants often call on the fourth-generation fisherman when they’re seeking sea bass worthy of an A-lister. “When Tom Cruise was in, they called me over,” he says. “Massimiliano likes celebrities to meet the people who caught their fish.” 

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

Venice has been known for its artisans for centuries, and while the city’s great painters have died out, these creators held on. But today, rising rents combined with modern tourists’ penchant for cheap souvenirs is putting their craft in jeopardy. 

Leaving Murano, I head to Giudecca, the croissant-shaped island just south of Venice proper, heading to the Artisti Artigiani del Chiostro, a 15th-century cloister converted into artisan studios. One of them belongs to Murano-born maestro Stefano Morasso and his wife, Nicoletta Viola. He blows the glass into beakers, shot glasses and bowls the colour of sunsets, rainbows and the greens and blues of the lagoon. “I was born with glass in my veins,” Stefano likes to say. Nicoletta, meanwhile, turns his offcuts and smaller pieces into sinuous jewellery. 

“Glass-working on Murano goes back a thousand years — it’s our history,” says Nicoletta. “We have to keep these traditions going because they mark the story of mankind.” There are plenty of well-trodden museums in Venice, she says, cataloguing its history and art, and dozens of churches that double as galleries, too, but it’s Venice’s living history that’s so special and underexplored.

Back on the tourist trail in San Polo, near the much-photographed Rialto Bridge, I visit Paolo Pelosin, a paper marbler. He’s not sure where this tradition for creating flowing patterns came from — perhaps from the medieval Japanese technique of suminagashi (‘floating ink’), or from the Turkish and Persian art of ebru. Either way, marbling had made its way to multicultural Venice by the 15th century.  

In his workshop, Il Pavone, Paolo keeps the tradition going: flicking splodges of colour in a pan of glue, then using metal combs to swirl them into fan- or cloud-shaped patterns, before setting the paper down. Drying on racks are sheets and sheets of the stuff: yellow, red, even black, but mostly jades, cobalts, lapis lazulis and eau de nil — the colours of the water. “I just experiment with colours,” he says. “Artisan work is about spontaneity, and I use colours that spring to mind.” 

Coming out, I’m drawn into the current of tourists, heading en masse for the Rialto. But Venice, the real one, is always just beneath the surface — and from the top of the bridge, instead of the mass of gliding gondolas, I’m looking down into the colours of the lagoon.

A gondola passes through a quiet canal near St Mark’s Square. A boat trip down the city's canals is an essential Venice activity, but this is a compact city and in most circumstances it’s quicker — and less hassle — to walk. 

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

ESSENTIALS


Getting there and around
Venice is easy to reach by train from the UK, with changes at Paris and Turin (spending one night in either). For more information on planning a rail journey to Venice, visit eurostar.com or raileurope.com.

Direct regional flights with EasyJet depart from Manchester, Glasgow and Bristol, and with Ryanair from Edinburgh, Stansted and East Midlands, while British Airways flies from Gatwick and Heathrow. Average flight time: 2h15m.

From the airport, the Alilaguna boat (€15/£13.50) is the most atmospheric way to arrive into town. Vaporetto tickets cost €7.50 (£6.80) for 75 minutes; a pass (two days €30/£27, three days €40/£36) is better value, although the centre is walkable. For more information on the city's local transport, visit actv.avmspa.it.

When to go
Tourist season runs from March to October, and summers can be humid and crowded. Visit off-season in the spring or autumn. Temperatures can hit the mid-30Cs in summer and just above freezing in winter.

Where to stay
Hotel San Cassiano, from £229, B&B
Casa Burano, from £162, B&B

How to do it
Citalia offers three nights at Hotel San Cassiano, B&B, including flights and transfers in Venice from £675 per person. 

Published in the April 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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