Venice is located on a group of 118 small islands separated by canals and connected by bridges. The city is renowned for the beauty of its setting, its whimsical architecture and its artwork and is considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Along with its unique architecture, Venice sounds like no other city in the world. With absolutely no cars or any other motorized vehicles, Venice enjoys the absence of traffic, sirens, subways, leaving the city with the combination of human voices, cooing pigeons and occasional violins played at nearby restaurants.
By Katie N. @bambinnio
January 3, 2016
Historically, the buildings of Venice have been constructed on closely spaced wooden piles. Most of the piles are still intact after the centuries of submersion, as the wood doesn’t decay under the water as rapidly as in oxygen-rich conditions.
During the 20th century, Venice began to subside. Studies indicate that the city continues sinking at a relatively slow rate of 1-2 mm per year, therefore the state of alert has not been announced yet. However, the city is still threatened by the floods. Given that the city is visited by an average of more than 50,000 tourists every day, Venice is overcrowded and needs to strike a balance between tourism revenue and the protection of the city’s fragile canals. Nowadays, all Venice tourists are charged a city tax of up to 5 euros per person per night.
Grand Canal (Canal Grande)
Grand Canal forms one of the major water-traffic corridors of Venice. The banks of the Grand Canal are lined with more than 170 buildings dating back to the period between 13th to 18th centuries. The noble Venetian families spent fortunes on the palazzos built at the Grand Canal to show off their welfare.
Santa Maria della Salute basilica is one of the most beautiful churches in Venice and a symbol of Grand Canal. The church was built as a votive offering for the city’s deliverance of plague. The construction began in 1631 right after an outbreak of plague in the summer of 1630 that killed nearly a third of population of Venice by 1631. Since then, on November 21 the Festa della Madonna della Salute is celebrated as a token of gratitude for the deliverance from the plague.
Another big celebration at the Grand Canal: every first Sunday of September takes place the Historical Regatta, or Regata Storica, a competition of the Venetian boats attracting thousands of tourists.
For centuries the gondola was the principal means of transportation and most common watercraft in Venice. According to the estimates, there were eight to ten thousand gondolas during the 17th and 18th century. Currently, there are slightly over 400 gondolas in active service, virtually all of them are used for entertaining the tourists.
Gondolas are handmade using 8 different types of wood (oak, fir, walnut, cherry, lime, mahogany, elm, and larch) and are composed of 280 pieces. Even in the rough waters, the gondola is always tilted to the left due to its asymmetrical construction: the gondola’s hull is curved to the right, away from the gondolier, to resist the boat’s tendency to turn left when gondolier rows on the right side. Every gondola in Venice has a metal ornament on the front. It’s the only metal piece on a gondola – called ferro di prua – the iron prow, needed to balance the weight of the gondolier at the stern. The ferro’s curved shaped represents the twists of the Grand Canal, its six teeth standing for the six sestieri or districts of Venice. The curved top signifies the stylized headpiece of the Venetian doge.
Venice – The city of Masks
Every year the Carnival of Venice is held in the city. The Venetian carnival tradition is most famous for its beautiful distinctive masks. Today, approximately 3 million visitors come to Venice every year for the Carnival.
There is little evidence explaining why the Venetians wore the masks during the carnival. One of the theories suggests that masks were a response to one of most rigid class hierarchies in Europe.
There are different types of Venetian masks, however Medico della peste, or The Plague Doctor mask with its long beak is the most recognizable among the Venetian masks.
It did not start out as a carnival mask, but was intended to prevent the spread of the disease and was worn mostly by the doctors while treating plague victims.
Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square)
Napoleon once referred to St. Mark’s Square as “the drawing room of Europe”.
Riva degli Schiavoni built in the 9th century from dredged silt is a beautiful promenade with numerous market stalls that sits on the waterfront and leads to St. Mark’s Square through the gateway, where piazza meets the sea.
The official gateway to the city of Venice had also been used for public executions up until the 18th century. The gateway is represented by the two columns. Atop one of them there is a statue of St. Theodore with his slain dragon. Atop the second column there is the winged lion – the ubiquitous symbol of Venice. The lion’s paw rests proudly on an open book bearing the Latin inscription “Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus” (May Peace Be with You, Mark, My Evangelist).
The legend has it, upon St. Mark’s arrival in Venice, the angel spoke those words along with the prediction that one day St. Mark’s body will be buried in the city. Venetians used the legend to justify stealing St. Mark’s bones from Alexandria to rebury them in St. Mark’s Basilica. To this day, the winged lion remains the city’s symbol and is depicted everywhere. The piazza is shaped in the form of letter L, which was very unusual for European squares of that time. The shorter leg, called the piazetta, or small piazza, links St. Mark’s Basilica with the ocean. After the Basilica, the piazza makes a ninety-degree left turn to its larger leg, running toward the Museo Correr.
Strangely enough, the square is an irregular trapezoid, narrowing at one end, as opposed to being rectilinear. This design creates an illusion, making piazza look longer than it is. The illusionary effect is accentuated even more by the grid of tiles whose patterns were supposed to outline the market stalls of 15th century street merchants.
St. Mark’s Basilica
St. Mark’s Basilica is also known as Chiesa d’Oro (Church of gold) as a symbol of Venetian wealth and power from 11th century for its whimsical design and gold mosaics. The shape of the church has a mixture of Italian and Byzantine features. The Basilica was first built as the private chapel of the Doge, however, during the 13th century its functions changed to that of a “state church”. Atop the central peak of the church there is a statue of St. Mark. Right beneath his feet, the golden winged lion of Venice stands as a shimmering mascot of the city of Venice.
If you want to know more about St. Mark’s Basilica, check out post about its horses, treasuries and legends.
Around 1254 the Horses of St. Mark were installed on the balcony of the basilica. The antique horses were long displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople until they were captured in 1204 during the Crusades and carried to Venice as a trophy. Another famous work of art taken from Constantinople in 1204, the Four Tetrarchs are set beneath the horses in the southwest corner of the basilica. The statue is well known for its missing foot, broken off when it was plundered. Miraculously, in the 1960s, the foot was discovered in Istanbul. Venice asked the Turkish authorities to return the missing piece of the statue, but received a simple reply: You stole the statue—we’re keeping our foot.
Campanile di San Marco (Bell Tower of St. Mark’s Basilica)
Campanile di San Marco is the bell tower of St. Mark’s Basilica, atop which a golden Archangel Gabriel peers down from over 300 feet.
Initially, the bell tower was used as a watchtower and navigational beacon to all who would get lost in Venice’s maze of canals and passageways, as well as the lighthouse for the dock. The massive tower was completed in 1514. On July 14, 1902, the campanile collapsed leaving an enormous pile of bricks and rubble on St. Mark’s Square. Remarkably, the only casualty in the disaster was the caretaker’s cat. In 1912 the bell tower was rebuilt exactly as it was.
Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale)
Adjacent to Saint Mark’s Basilica is the Doges’ Palace, the headquarters of the Doges, the supreme authority of the former Republic of Venice. Currently, it is one of the 11 museums run by the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia.
A perfect example of the Venetian Gothic architecture, Doges’ Palace was conceived in 1340 as a vast rectangular prism, which provided the largest possible amount of space for the doge’s government and supporting staff.
Since 1567 one of the entrances to the Doges’ Palace, Scala dei Giganti, or the Giants’ Staircase has been guarded by the two colossal statues of Mars and Neptune, which represent Venice’s power by land and by sea.
St. Mark’s Clock Tower
The Clock Tower was built in the last decade of the 15th century so that it would be visible from the waters of the lagoon and showcase the wealth and glory of Venice. At the top of the tower two bronze figures strike the hours on the bell. The symbol of Venice – the winged lion with the open book – is located right below the bell. Originally, there was a statue of the Doge Agostino Barbarigo kneeling before the lion. However, after the city surrendered to Napoleon in 1797, all the symbols of the old regime were removed by the French.
One level below, there is a gallery with the statues of seated Virgin and Child. Twice a year, at Epiphany (January 6) and on Ascension Day, the three Magi led by an angel with a trumpet emerge from one of the doorways with the numbers and pass round the gallery bowing to the Virgin and Child before disappearing in the opposite doorway.
Fun fact: James Bond had thrown a villain through the astronomical clock in the movie Moonraker.
The Bridge of Sighs
The legend has it that if two lovers kissed beneath Il Ponte dei Sospiri, or the Bridge of Sighs, at sunset while the bells of St. Mark’s Basilica were ringing, they would love each other forever.
However, the Bridge of Sigh has its name from a different story. The bridge served as the connector between the Doge’s Palace and the doge’s prison, where the convicts suffered and died, their moans of anguish echoing along the narrow canal. The most terrifying cells were not located at the water level, which were often flooded, but the ones on the top floor, called piombi. Those cells were extremely hot in the summer and terribly cold in the winter. The great lover Giacomo Casanova was once a prisoner in the piombi, incarcerated by the Inquisition for adultery and spying. He had survived 15 months of the imprisonment before he escaped after having deceived his guard.
Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto)
The Rialto Bridge is one of the four bridges and the oldest bridge across the Grand Canal located in the Rialto district, financial and commercial district of Venice.
The first dry crossing of the Grand Canal was built in 1181 and represented a pontoon bridge. However, the development and commercial importance of the Rialto market increased the traffic and the bridge had to be replaced in 1255 by a wooden bridge. The central section of the wooden bridge was movable, allowing the passage of tall ships under the bridge. Later on, the rows of shops were built along the sides of the bridge. The wooden bridge collapsed twice under the weight of the crowd and was rebuilt shortly after the collapse: in 1444 and in 1524. The present stone bridge carrying rows of shops was completed in 1591. Some architects predicted the future collapse of the bridge given the audacious engineering. Despite the predictions, Rialto remains on its place nowadays and is one of Venice’s architectural icons.
Before you go to Venice, read Dan Brown’s Inferno. The book has become an inspiration for this post: Mr. Brown tells tons of amazing anecdotal stories about Florence and Venice as well as the cities’ history and prominent figures along Robert Langdon’s adventures.