The Construction of Venice: A Masterpiece of Engineering

The Russian writer Alexander Herzen wrote “To build a city where it is impossible to build a city is madness in itself, but to build there one of the most elegant and grandest of cities is the madness of genius”. Indeed, it is. Venice really is a miracle of engineering since it was built on the water more than 1600 years ago and still keeps afloat. Do you know why?

How was Venice built?

The story of Venice began more or less in the 5th century when the barbarian invasions forced the inhabitants of the mainland to leave their cities, especially Padua, Treviso and Portogruaro, and search refuge on the silent, poor but safer islands of the lagoon. There they established and founded, with the passing of time, a powerful republic known as Serenissima, which reached the peak of its splendor in the 16th century.

But before becoming a strong commercial and maritime power, Venice was only a cluster of about 124 marshy islands, immersed in the shallow water of the Venetian lagoon. The city was built through land reclamation and its foundations consist of thousands of timber piles driven into the sandy and clayey bottom of the lagoon. Larches and oaks were chosen because of their resistance and flexibility and carried from Cadore, the northernmost part of Italy, to Venice via the rivers. 

The rafts used by carpenters to transport timbers, docked at the riverbank called Fondamenta delle Zattere (English: Street of Rafts) that stretches from Punta Della Dogana to San Basilio. Along that street there were also salt warehouses. They were important to store great quantities of salt – which was the main source of trading profits in Venice - produced in the lagoon or imported from other parts of the Mediterranean.

Piling Foundations in Venice

Due to the lack of oxygen, the pilings petrified throughout the centuries becoming even stronger. Stones and rocks were thrown as well between the piles to strengthen the foundations. Some other layers of wood and then water-proof Istrian stones were put on top of these piles and this is where the masonry starts.  

At the Correr Museum in St. Mark’s Square you can see a watercolor painting by the Italian painter Giovanni Grevenbroch (Venice, 1731-1807), who represented the Venetians driving piles into the ground of the lagoon to build Venice foundations.

The canals

To drain the islands of the lagoon and start building on, the Venetians dug canals and lined them with bricks. The more islands they created for building, the more channels they dug.

Canals were once the main routes in Venice and gondolas the main means of transport used by the Venetians to move through the city. Except the Grand Canal which is 16,40 ft (5 meters) deep and the Canale della Giudecca which reaches a depth of 55,77 ft (17 metres), the other canals are about 4,92 or 6,56 ft (1.5 or 2 metres) deep. They were deepened and widened in the course of the centuries and sometimes even filled in to build new streets. This is the case of our alleyway that leads to Calle della Mandola. Once this lane was a canal called Rio della Mandola and it was filled in the second half of 1800. 

Canals need to be constantly drained, cleaned and strengthened because saltwater corrodes the bricks which must be replaced with new ones. 

Thousands of Alleyways but Only One Square

The maze of alleyways of Venice is the result of the narrow space left between the buildings. They were not the main circulatory routes of the city in ancient times and had different names according to their characteristics. Generally, these footways are called “calli” and in ancient times they were not paved. The first alleyways to be paved were called “salizade”. If these alleyways are lined with stores they are called “rughe”, if they were built in a swampy ground filled in, they are called “piscine”, if they have a dead end they are called “rami” and “fondamenta” refers to larger footways that skirt a canal. 

These footways can be very narrow and if you are curious to walk down the narrowest lane in Venice take a stroll in the area of Cannaregio: near Campo Widmann there is a footway called Calle Varisco which is only 20,86 inches (53 cm) wide!  

In Venice there are more than 200 squares but only one is really called “piazza” which means “square”: Saint Mark’s Square.

Saint Mark’s Square is the biggest and the most beautiful square of the city and also the first to be paved. The other smaller squares are mainly called “campi” or “campielli” which means “fields” because once they were real cultivated fields and were also dedicated to the grazing of animals.

Rain Collection Wells

Each campo has at least one rain collection well which was very important to get drinking water since “Venice is on the water but does not have water” as written by the historian Marin Sanudo in the 15th century.

The construction of these wells was complicated and very expensive therefore it was noble families who financed this work. Sometimes rich merchants or noblemen had these wells built and gave them to the city to polish their reputation and help the poor. 

The well heads are real works of art. They are all different and engraved with the coat of arms of the family who had financed them. Some of them are decorated with festoons of fruits and flowers or dolphins and similar patterns referring to Venice as a maritime power.

Bridges

Each small island is connected to the other by a bridge. Today there are more than 400 bridges and four of them stretch over the Grand Canal but once they were not so many. Until the 16th century they were completely different: flat, made of wood, with no railings and no steps in order to allow horses and carriages to cross them.

Like streets, bridges have their own name too and an interesting story usually connected to the events which took place there. Some examples? The “Ponte dei Pugni” (Bridge of Fists), the “Ponte del Diavolo” (Devil’s Bridge) or the ancient “Ponte dei Assassini” (Bridge of the Murders)… but we will tell you about them next time.

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