Venice is an incredible and truly unique city that draws millions of people to it every year.
A city built on a swampy lagoon in a bid to evade barbarian invaders, it is incredible to believe that it was made by hand in the 5th Century AD, and without any benefit of modern machinery (or the mass importation of slaves for that matter!).
On the mainland the Venetians were constantly caught up between invaders and armies, moving to the water gave them an opportunity to not only survive, but thrive and become one of the most powerful cities in the world.
The Building of Venice
Venice is built across 117 low lying islands in the middle of the once swampy lagoon. In order to create strong bases for buildings, early Venetians had to come up with a unique construction method. So, they created larchwood rafts and intricate timber piles, driven deep in the soil and the compressed clay beneath.
These rafts and piles had to be strong enough to support stone and marble buildings, which they miraculously have! Most Venetian buildings are at least 400 years old and are still standing strong.
Creating the Canals
Before the islands could be constructed, canals had to be constructed to form pathways. So parts of the lagoon were drained, then canals were dug and lined with piles (tightly packed wooden stakes).
Wood had to be harvested and shipped in from Northern Veneto, Croatia, Montenegro and Slovia as there were no forests near the lagoon.
The canals vary in depth, which changes depending on the tide levels and maintenance work (dredging to remove soil build up). The shallowest canals are about 1.5 – 2 metres deep and the Grand Canal is approximately 5 metres.
The Layers of Venice
There are several layers to the foundations of Venice:
- The base is made from layers of compacted clay and sand called Caranto
- Tightly packed oak piles are driven into the caranto to create a solid base
- The piles do not rot because the subsoil and clay are waterlogged, preventing oxygen in which causes decay
- Istrian stone, a type of marble, was used for foundations as it damp-proof
- Water grilles are found throughout the city, channelling rainwater into cisterns beneath the city
Sadly, the city is slowly sinking approximately two millimetres every year and could potentially be permanently flooded by 2100.
There is an incredible array of architecture found across Venice, with much of the buildings influenced by the countries linked through trade with Venice. Every style of architecture is found here, from Medieval to Neo-Classical styles, Gothic and Palladian structures.
There are also clear influences from the Eastern Mediterranean countries, Byzantine and Egyptian inspiration, and incredible Islamic tilework found across many Palazzos.
The role of Campos
Campos, or squares, were originally the centre of little self-contained communities. Each of the ‘islands’ that makes up Venice were essentially small communities, all with their own water supply, church and bell tower right in the centre of the Campo. From there the palazzos, shops, warehouses and homes stretched out in the laneways.
Leaning Towers abound
You might notice that all the campiles (towers) have a slight lean to them, this is simply due to the subsoil beneath slightly sinking.
There was no real way to judge the maximum height a tower or building could be in the medieval ages, so builders simply kept building until the towers would collapse.
The height of the Campanile in San Marco Square was increased several times, until it collapsed from the sheer weight in 1902. So, when it was rebuilt to its current form, larger timber foundations were used and they also knew their height limit!
Risky (Bridge) Business
Many of the bridges which connected the islands were also privately owned. Which meant you had to pay a toll each time you needed to cross one… even more concerning was that none of the original bridges had rails on them, making bridge crossing a risky journey at night!
Now, the original bridges are long gone, replaced by iron, stone and wooden marvels. The two most famous being the Bridge of Sighs and the Rialto Bridge. Did you know the reason it was called the Bridge of Sighs, was because prisoners would sigh while crossing?
The best way to truly admire the opulence and scale of the city is of course by water. The Palazzos which line the canals have the most lavish facades (first impressions matter!). While faded from wear and time, the gold leaf and intricate detailing is still awe-inspiring to see. Jump on the Vaporetto’s (water buses) for the most affordable scenic tours of the city.
Find out More
If you are curious and want to discover more about the history of the architecture of Venice, Google Arts & Culture are showcasing a photographic virtual tour of Venice. This is part of the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale which is happening this year (2021).