Lace, the delicate fabric of thread meticulously crafted into complex, web-like patterns, has its origins in Italy sometime in the 13th century. It is divided into two main categories, needle lace, which is made by hand and bobbin lace, made using a machine. While needle lace preceded the manufacture of bobbin lace by more than a century, both were produced in Italy during the Renaissance. The documentation of lace in Italy in the 15th century comes from the list of fine laces from the collection of Beatrice d’Este, who became the Duchess of Milan in 1493. But it was first mentioned in writings almost two centuries earlier by Dante Alighieri in a social commentary piece written while living in Verona in the early 14th century, when he commented about the use of fine linen lace in the clothing of the nobility. Dante was not a fan of the fashion trend and predicted that the Republic of Venice would no doubt fill its coffers with taxation of the handmade articles. He was partially correct. Not only did Venice tax the exports, but numerous Italian States imposed heavy duties on the imports, which led to reduced demand. As a result, in the mid-1400s some lacemakers turned to using less expensive threads such as flax, while others migrated, bringing the industry to other countries.
In Venice, lace making then became the provenance of leisured noblewomen, who used it as a pastime. Some of the wives of the Doges also supported lacemaking in the Republic. Giovanna Malipiero Dandolo, promoted a law in 1457 protecting lacemakers. The Dogaressa came to play a very public role, acting as the protector of trades and individual artists. She also supported the newly introduced art of book printing in Venice and was referred to as the ‘Empress of Printing’ and the ‘Queen of Lace’ due to her role as the benefactor of these trades.
By the early 1500s, the production of lace was again a profitable activity, accomplished by young girls working in the houses of noblewomen, creating lace for household use and in convents. Today, the island of Burano is known for its beautiful, colorful houses. In 1595, Dogaressa Morosina Morosini became the patron of the lace-making industry in Burano and established a committee to promote and popularize the craft among the upper class women of Venice. She also founded a lace workshop for 130 women and soon Venetian needle lace was truly elevated to an art form. The bobbin lace became semi-industrialized in other areas of Italy by the 17th century.
Other European nations struggled to emulate the women of Burano’s intricate designs and their signature stitches were recognized in the banquet halls and courts across the continent. The largest and most intricate pieces of Venetian lace became ruffs and collars for members of the nobility and aristocrats. Lace was also used by the clergy of the Catholic Church as part of vestments in religious ceremonies. When the Church first started to use lace and through the 16th century, much of the lace was made using gold, silver and silk threads. During this era, wealthy families began to use such expensive lace in clothing trimmings and furnishings such as cushion covers.
The Venetian art of lace making grew to become very popular in France in the 16th century, thanks to Caterina de Medici. Some lacemakers moved from Burano to the royal factories of Remis in France, where the traditional Burano lace, known as Punto in aria, became known as Point de France. This began a period of fierce competition with Burano. Despite this, Point de France was never able to equal the quality of Burano. A century later, Baroque lagoon lace in the Venetian Gros point embossed leaf design was so beautiful and highly sought after that the court of King Louis XIV in France employed several Venetian lace makers to teach their skill and facilitate its production.
Even as France attempted to take over the market, lace remained a strong and profitable Venetian export throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Its demand remained strong in Europe, even as the export of other items during this period slumped. Both needle and bobbin lace became dominant in both fashion and as home décor across the continent.
In 1797, with the fall of the Republic of Venice, lace production also met with an untimely end. From that time forward, it evolved into an exclusively family-run business. The future decades were a difficult time in Burano and the economy shifted from lace making to fishing. Women, who for generations turned out breathtaking lacework, instead fashioned and repaired the nets of the fishermen. In 1872, Venice experienced a particularly cold winter which devastated its fishing trade; tragedy and famine followed. It was due to Countess Andriana Marcello and the patronage of Margherita of Savoy that a project to re-launch Venetian lace-making was initiated by opening schools to teach the handmade art. The first school opened in Burano in 1872, where one elderly woman was retained as a teacher. Soon others were enlisted from Venice, along the coast and on the mainland. The style and manner of decoration was taken from works produced during the preceding two centuries. The school often produced lace with higher technical precision than the originals. These efforts reinvigorated production in Burano, but in the 20th century it once again fell victim to a change in trends, as lace fell out of favor as a fashionable item following the Second World War.
In the post-war era, lace production in Burano lived on as a cherished, traditional art form, rather than as a viable commercial trade product, with tourism providing the primary market. Burano’s lace school flourished for nearly 100 years, creating traditional Venetian needle laces with considerable success. New designs were introduced during the 20th century, but in the late 1970s, the school was forced to close. There was simply too much competition from cheaper and far inferior imported lace from Asia. Nevertheless, lace is still made on the island and the school building survives, just as does the determined spirit of the women of Burano. In 1981, a series of successful lace exhibitions and the organization of courses teaching Burano lace-making rekindled enthusiasm and respect for the centuries-old art form. This led to the creation of the Museo del Merletto, which is located in the original lace school building. The museum, devoted to Venetian lace, will ensure that the intricacies and technique of lace craft will never be forgotten.
Today, lace made on the island of Burano is most often created using an ecru cotton thread, although linen and silk threads are still available. Additionally, there are artisans on the island that create masterpieces using finely drawn copper or silver wire instead of thread. Burano lace remains internationally esteemed and many tourists visiting Venice make a point of stopping on the island to shop. Despite the fact that the vast majority of lace sold is machine produced, the handmade items created exclusively by the islands’ residents will always have a niche market. These artisans are exclusively women and proudly produce items as they have been for more than 500 years.