At the height of Venice’s glory, the city's textile shops were so much in demand that they were open 24/7. These days, they keep more regular hours, but they are still hugely popular
When Richard III was crowned king of England in 1483, his robes were swathed in exquisite Venetian lace. Such was the fame by then not only of Venetian lace but of the city’s silk and brocades too, that they were shipped in immense quantities to the rest of Europe, and to Russia and the Orient.
If the half-day trip to multi-coloured Burano to see the lace – hardly any of which is still made there – remains a classic Venetian must-do, the textile angle is often overlooked. Yet significantly more fabric is produced in Venice today than lace – a secret that some of the world’s most sought-after interior designers choose to keep to themselves.
With its technicolour houses and pretty backstreets where fishing nets are still stretched out to dry in the sun, Burano is definitely an island to visit. Its lace-making museum (Museo del Merletto, Burano, Piazza Galuppi 187; +39 041 73003; www.museiciviciveneziani.it), with examples of Venetian work from the 15th to the 20th centuries, shows just how talented the island’s lace-making ladies were. The few locals who still wield a needle are grouped in the Associazione ‘Il Merletto Veneziano’ (www.ilmerlettoveneziano.org); they may become a regular feature at the lace museum when it reopens in spring 2010 after restoration.
The route from the vaporetto stop to central Piazza Galuppi throngs with lace stalls. Most of it is tack; some of it is not bad. None of it is made here. For that, you’d do better to hop back of the vaporetto and visit Martinuzzi (Piazza San Marco, San Marco 67A; +39 041 5225068), reputedly Venice’s oldest lace shop. There’s a wonderful variety of lace and lace-edged goods on display, but if you have an outsized bed or table, Martinuzzi will make you up sheets and covers to fit. At a price.
The Mercerie shopping district
North and west of Piazza San Marco, the Mercerie shopping district has for centuries been the area where merchants touted their wares (merci). At the height of Venice’s glory, the textile shops were so much in demand that they were open 24/7. These days, they keep more regular hours, but they are still hugely popular.
Venetia Studium (Calle Larga XXII Marzo, San Marco 2403, +39 041 5229281; www.venetiastudium.com) produces its own silks and brocades, inspired by Renaissance sumptuousness, and fashions them into pillows and curtains, clothing and accessories. In Campo Santa Maria del Giglio, Bevilacqua (Campo Santa Maria del Giglio, San Marco 2520; +39 041 2410662; www.bevilacquatessuti. com) still weaves most of its luxurious brocades on the same wooden looms the family-owned firm has been using since 1875. Trois (Campo San Maurizio, San Marco 2666; +39 041 5222905) has some antique fabrics, some beads and some discounted (though still expensive) textiles designed by the Spaniard Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo, whose legacy is inescapable in this, his adopted home.
A stopover at the delightful 15th-century Palazzo Fortuny (Campo San Beneto, San Marco 3780; +39 041 5200995; www.museiciviciveneziani.it ; closed for restoration until spring 2010) gives an idea of the creative genius of this designer who moved to Venice in 1889. His twirly hanging lamps and his gorgeous textile designs are immediately recognisable as part and parcel of Belle Epoque Europe.
In nearby Calle delle Botteghe Emma Gaggio’s hand-printed brushed velvets carry on a tradition created by her forebears at about the same time that Fortuny was at work (Gaggio – Calle delle Botteghe, San Marco 3441; +39 041 5228574; www.gaggio.it). The richest of colours adorned with Venetian motifs in gold, silver and black are used by this fourth Gaggio generation for decorating official residences, private jets and of course private homes. Buy them made up into cushions, hats, wall hangings and slippers.
After this surfeit of riches, the simple, calm-coloured hand-woven linens and cottons in Chiarastella Cattana’s tiny boutique come almost as a breath of fresh air (Chiarastella Cattana – Salizada San Samuele, San Marco 3357, +39 041 5224369, www.chiarastellacattana.com).
A short stroll away, Rubelli (Campiello del Teatro, San Marco 3877, +39 041 5236110. www.rubelli.com) is now a major international producer of high-end fabrics and furniture but it still clings to its Venetian roots, both in its typically lush designs and motifs, and in this flagship showroom in Palazzo Corner Spinelli on the Grand Canal.
Rubelli overlooks the Sant’Angelo vaporetto stop. Upstream (right) near the San Stae stop is Palazzo Mocenigo (Salizada San Stae, Santa Croce 1992; +39 041 721798; www.museiciviciveneziani.it; closed Mon), the city’s tribute to its magnificent history of costume and fabric-making. Not a major site, it’s a delight if you have the time, with its over-the-top bustles and spectacular ruches. For anyone with a passion for costume history (and a letter of introduction explaining your academic credentials), however, it’s a must. In the museum’s study centre are thousands of textile samples from Venice and further afield, and many many more fragile costumes which are only rarely – if ever – brought out for an airing in the public rooms above.
One last, true, Venetian textile treasure trove beckons. It involves a longish vaporetto ride, to the Palanca stop, and a bit of a hike. At the far western end of the northern shore of the Giudecca island, a tall gateway is the entrance to a Dickensian-looking factory where Fortuny’s splendid fabrics are still produced. Fortuny designed the factory spaces himself, to accommodate the particular machinery needed to weave his unique designs. The factory is closed to the public. But there’s a garden you can visit and, to the left of the main gate, there’s a showroom where bolt after bolt of materials in every imaginable colour and pattern are piled up almost to the hugely high ceiling (Fortuny Tessuti Artistici – Fondamenta San Biasio, Giudecca 805, +39 041 5224078, www.fortuny.com). The effect is of tumbling, glowing gems: it’s almost overwhelming. Restoration work was due to begin on this showroom, however: put in a call and make an appointment before you embark on the trip.
Where to stay
And then reward yourself afterwards right next door at the Molino Stucky Hilton: the hotel’s rooftop Skyline Bar offers one of the city’s most breath-taking views.
More expert advice on Venice
For more suggestions on where to stay in Venice, see my list of recommended hotels.
Read my overview on Shopping in Venice.