Italy certainly has an abundance of amazing destinations, and I have been fortunate to spend some time in Venice, Florence, Cinque Terra, Rome, Naples, Amalfi, and Capri. Selecting a favorite Italian destination is no easy choice with each city or region offering a unique experience. If I was forced to pick a favorite, it would have to be Venice. Most Italian cities have rich history, but it is the addition of architecture, absence of cars, vibrant colors, and canals around every corner that make Venice an experience like no other.
Stepping off the train in Venice, I bid farewell to motorized land travel. I’ll spend the remainder of my time in Venice traveling by foot, water taxi, or gondola.
I know there will be a lot of spectacular sights to see, but the first thing I want to do is to understand how this city come to be? It looks as if the Venetians built a floating city in the middle of a bay. There is no shoreline. No, these buildings seem to go straight down into the water. How deep are the canals? How did the Venetians do this? Why did they do it?
Venice, located in northeast Italy, is situated in a lagoon – the Venetian Lagoon – formed by rivers meeting with the Adriatic Sea. The city is built on roughly 100 small islands with 400 connecting bridges and, if stretched out in a line, 30 miles of canals. The use of the word “island” is a stretch and doesn’t give enough credit to the incredible engineering feats that gave rise to Venice.
The so-called “islands” of Venice consist of silt mixed with clay and decomposing organic material. Over the course of thousands of years, this sediment gathered into marshy plots with a loose, muddy and soggy base – not great for building. Looking around though, I can see very clearly that the Venetians did indeed build numerous and very impressive structures on this mushy soil.
How did they do it? The Venetians cut trees from the local forest to create wood piles that were driven into the soggy ground. Millions of these wooden posts, spaced six inches apart provide the stable base supporting Venice. On top of these wooden piles, the Venetians laid down wooden planks and limestone. From this foundation, the great buildings of Venice rose.
There is one significant challenge with this design that buildings, especially those on the waterfront edge of canals, will face and that challenge is erosion. Water flowing through the canals weakens the soil walls of the canal. As that area erodes, buildings on the edge are in imminent danger of collapsing into the canal. To overcome this the Venetians created as series of damns and drained the canals. Along the canal edges, they again drove in wooden piles in a step-like manner, covered those in brick, the covered the water-facing side of those bricks with water resistant stone, and then allowed the canals to refill. The stone and brick bases at the bottom of every building lining each canal actually do reach the canal floor. Most of canals range from 10-15 feet in depth.
Using lightweight brick rather than stones for buildings helped to lighten the weight of the buildings. The Venetians also made liberal use of archways which further reduced a building’s weight. The brick were then covered with stucco and painted. I found the vibrant colors throughout Venice along with the peeling stucco that revealed aged bricks absolutely mesmerizing.
I now have a sense for “how” the Venetians built this city, but it seems like such an intense endeavor when mainland Italy seemed to have plenty of land available when Venice was being settled in the 5th century CE. This part of Venice’s origin is a bit contested. I’m going to be a little loose with the dates from general memory but there are several compelling forces are play.
The Roman Empire had split itself into two Empires – Eastern with Rome as its capital and the Western Empire with Constantinople as its capital. The Eastern Empire had reached its zenith of European domination. After 1,000 years of Roman rule, the Barbarians (native, non-Roman Europeans) were finally turning the tides of war and now overtaking the Eastern Roman Empire by the 5th century CE. Rome is sacked by the Barbarians and soon after the Eastern Roman Empire collapses.
Altinum, a Roman coastal city built around canals and located a few miles from what is now Venice, suffers the same fate as Rome and is destroyed by Barbarians.
Altinum was about the size of Pompeii and had become one of the richest cities in the Roman Empire before its destruction. Archeologists believe Altinum’s citizens, after fleeing Barbarian invasion, returned to practically disassemble Altinum and use the building material for new structures in Venice. What began as a place of refuge from Barbarian attacks would grow to become one of the most iconic cities in the world.
Venice would also become one of the richest cities in the world with merchants ships visiting from around the world. Venice’s primary export was, of all things, salt. Salt was a prized commodity in this period and Venice was the epicenter for salt trade. The salty Venetian Lagoon, with its relatively low depth was ideal for harvesting salt. Silk, spices, art, banking, and glass making would also emerge as economic drivers.
It is during this period of incredible wealth that Venice also developed into one of the world’s great naval powers. In a period where ships all over the world were still being built one at a time, Venice invented assembly line production methods for ship building. What once took months, now could be accomplished in only days at the Venice Arsenal as ships moved from dock to dock for each step of the building process. The city-state, Republic of Venice would eventually rule territories as far away as Greece and Cyprus.
Sadly, there is a connection between Venice and the Parthenon which sits in ruins atop the Acropolis of Athens. By the mid 1600s, the Ottoman Turks were in control of Athens, Greece. Believing the monumental history of the Greek architecture on the Acropolis would prevent enemy bombardment, the Turks stored gunpowder in the Propylaea (the majestic entrance to the Acropolis) and in the Parthenon which, almost 2000 years since being built, was still in relatively good condition. An accidental gunpowder explosion by the Turkish troops destroyed the Propylaea. Then, a fateful cannon shot from a Venetian ship hit the Parthenon causing a massive gunpowder explosion which practically destroyed the Parthenon.
Venice also has an interesting connection to something we have experienced in our time with COVID-19. Bubonic plaque swept across much of the world in the 15th and 16th centuries, CE. About 20 years ago, workers on an island called Lazzaretto Vecchio, a couple miles southwest of Venice, uncovered mass graveyards. This prompted a deeper investigation into the historical archives of Venice where researchers discovered this island had been used as a place of quarantine for those exhibiting plague symptoms. During periods of outbreak, merchants traveling to Venice had to go through 40 days of quarantine before entering the city which helped Venice recover more quickly during devastating outbreaks than other European cities. As the mass graves attest, thousands would never leave that island.
I have more to share from Venice with a focus on buildings and locations of note that you will want to visit. I always appreciate a sense of history before visiting a location and hope this left you with some historical context that will enrich your visit to Venice.