Happy Birthday Venice! Or maybe I should say tantissimi auguri! March 25th is the official birth date of Venice, although there is no documentation for when the city on the water actually started. This date was chosen because at noon on the 25th of March in 421 A.D the first church of Venice was dedicated. This was the Church of San Giacomo on what was then the tiny islet of Rialto.
How Venice Started
Do you know how Venice got started? After the fall of the Roman Empire the Barbarians (Huns and Longobards) invaded Italy, looting and pillaging and destroying everything in their path. Some of the Veneti (people from the Veneto) escaped by hiding out in the marshy lagoon that lay between the mouths of the Po and Piave rivers, and the Adriatic Sea. This swamp was full of raised mud mounds or mini islands (islets)
They couldn’t build their town on the silt and mud so they had to come up with a clever idea. The end result was an engineering marvel that not only built the floating city but has kept it going for 1600 years! Those original buildings are mostly gone but there are buildings in Venice still standing after 1000 years.
They devised a system where they took huge wooden poles – essentially tree trunks, up to 10 meters long, and drove them down through the silt and mud of the marshy islands until they hit the hard clay way down below. The put these poles or pilings side by side so they were touching, then filled any space between with rocks and stones. The pilings were of water resistant wood like oak and larch, and they didn’t rot because in order for rot to set in you need both water and oxygen. Not only was there no oxygen below the water level, but the lagoon was full of silt and mud that absorbed into the wood and then over time became petrified and hard as stone.
Two layers of wood went over the pilings, then a layer of stone or marble upon which the houses and then palaces were built. Brilliant, no?
Venice By The Numbers
Venice is full of secrets along with some pretty fascinating facts and figures. So let’s look at some of the numbers.
Venice is a really small city, broken up into 6 neighborhoods or sestieri. There are 3 neighborhoods on either side of the Grand Canal. The first three are: Cannaregio (by the train station)which is also the most populated one, San Marco, in the middle and where perhaps the most famous tourist sites are, and Castello, the largest of the six.
On the far side of the Grand Canal there is the Dorsoduro at the top, roughly opposite San Marco. This is where the huge white church, Santa Maria della Salute watches over the canal. Next is the smallest sestiere, San Polo, amongst other things home to the Rialto fish market. Lastly curving around the bottom is beautiful Santa Croce.
Three islands immediately off of Venice each belong to a different sestiere. Giudecca is considered part of Dorsoduro, San Giorgio Maggiore is part of San Marco and the cemetery island of San Michele is part of Cannaregio.
Venice has 3 canals, the most famous of which is the Grand Canal. The two other canals are the Cannaregio Canal which until the train line was built was the main route to Venice from the mainland, and the Giudecca Canal which is also the throroughfare for the cruise ships.
The little waterways throughout the city are not actually canals, they are called rii. (One rio, two rii). There are 150 rios or rii in Venice. As Venice needed more terra firma some of the rii were filled in and became rio tera’. Which essentially means earth filled rio. There are 53 rio tera’ in Venice. There are two types of rio tera’, the rio terra tombati which are completely filled in and the rio tera’ con volti, which still have water flowing beneath them.
Gondolas and Gondoliers
You will fall in love with the gentle swish (not even a spash) sound of the gondola in Venice. A ride on a gondola should be on your list of things to do while there, just stay away from the main tourist areas. Ask your gondolier to take you down some side canals/rios to get away from the traffic and the tourists, and get him to tell you about the things you are seeing. Most tourists seem to try and squash as many people as possible onto their gondola to try and save some money, then spend the whole time taking selfies and getting instagram fodder. Your best experience is to only have a couple of you on board, relax back into the cushions and let your gondolier tell you his story.
There are currently only 400 gondolas in Venice. At the height of the 17th and 18th centuries it is estimated there were as many as 10,000 gondolas! Custom made for the shallow lagoon, each gondola is made from 8 types of wood: lime, larch, oak, fir, cherry, walnut, elm and mahogany. Or 9 if you count the oar which is made from beech. Gondolas have been around for nearly 1000 years, with the first documentation of them dating back to 1094.
The gondola’s S shaped iron prow represents the bends in the Grand Canal, the 6 teeth represent the sestieri or districts of Venice, the curved top is the doge’s cap and the 1 ‘tooth’ sticking out the back represents the island of Giudecca. If you look closely you will notice that gondolas are lopsided. This is to balance out the gondolier’s weight.
Gondoliers have incredible posture. Watch them and you’ll see that along with their oar they are maneuvering the boat with their feet, hips and shoulders. It’s not easy to become a gondolier. The training alone takes more than 400 hours, the exam is difficult and even if you pass it there are only 3 or 4 new licenses issued per year!
My favorite gondolier move? Watch the way they slip a leg out and gently push off from any wall they come too close to. It’s almost like a ballet.
Streets and Such
Venice only has 1 strada (street), the Strada Nuova in Cannaregio. Those other streets and walkways? These are called calli (one calle/two calli) and there are roughly 3000 of them. Then there are 367 rami, the small streets or ‘branches’ connecting the bigger ones. There are 10 rughe, streets lined with shops and named after the French rue, and 42 salizade, the first paved streets in Venice. These were important streets and were paved with a stone specific to Venice called masegni.
Islands, Bridges and Wells
Venice is actually a series of 118 mini islands, connected by 435 bridges. There are only 4 bridges crossing the Grand Canal. From the top down they are the Accademia Bridge, the Rialto Bridge, The Scalzi Bridge and the new guy, the Constitution Bridge, also known as the Calatrava. (Calatrava is the Spanish architect who built it.) There is only 1 bridge that has no railings, the Ponte Chiodo in Cannaregio. This bridge is also interesting because it dead ends into a house. Which by the way is now a bed and breakfast. (There is another railing free bridge on the island of Torcello, known as the devil’s bridge.)
Ever wonder how they got fresh water in Venice before it was eventually piped in, in 1884? If you keep an eye out you will notice that in every campo (piazza) except for Piazza San Marco, and in all the courtyards there is a well. Look a little closer and you’ll see the ground isn’t quite flat – it dips toward the well. This is because through another completely genius feat of engineering the (very) early Venetians devised a plan to capture rainwater, filter it and keep it in these wells. This blog post from Venezia Autentica explains how they did it. It’s worth checking out because did I mention – it’s brilliant!
In 1858 a census of Venice’s wells found there were 180 public wells, 6046 private wells and 556 wells that had been closed or removed. Although no longer a source of water, an estimated 600 of these beautiful and decorative wells are still scattered in the campi of Venice.
I always think of them as poles or tree trunks, but the pilings have their own story to tell. If you look around you’ll notice there are no forests around Venice. The wood for the pilings mostly came from 3 places: Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro. And of course they came across the Adriatic on boat and barges, centuries before boat motors were invented. Lots of them. There are more than 10 million pilings below the city of Venice. The Rialto bridge sits on 30,000 of them and the church of Santa Maria della Salute has more than 1 million pilings underneath it!
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There are 159 churches in Venice, which basically means there is one every few meters. 27 are desconsecrated, there is 1 Anglican church and 1 Greek Orthodox.
Mass Tourism and Cruise Statistics
Little Venice (it really is small) has the hideous ranking of being the 7th busiest cruise port in Europe and the 22nd busiest cruise port in the world. Had covid not shut down the travel industry a minimum of 56 ships would have made 518 port calls in 2020, each dumping an average of 3360 passengers. The estimated number of cruise ship passengers in 2020 that were expected to disembark in Venice (a very small, very fragile city) was 1.23 million. Despite news reports that cruise ships would no longer be allowed into the lagoon in reality the cruise ship traffic growth for Venice for 2020 was projected at 18%.
Cruise ships not only destroy the view for anyone trying to enjoy Venice and make life a nightmare for local Venetians, they also cause catastrophic damage to the environment and the city.
The average depth of the Venice lagoon is 10.5 meters (34 feet) with a maximum depth of 21 meters (74 feet). The displacement of a the cruise ship pictured above is 154,000 tons according to the MSC website, and the gross tonnage is 95, 128 GT. These ships cause damage not only in wave damage but also with their wake and undertow eroding and destroying the city’s wooden piling foundations. On top of that the Venetian Port Authority had to dredge a 10 meter (33 feet) deep canal across the lagoon to accommodate the below water depth of them. This in turn allows the Adriatic to pour more water into the lagoon at high tide, causing even more flooding. Although not the sole source of the increased flooding in Venice it is a huge contributor. You can read more about it here and in this 2011 article from the Telegraph.
Venice’s Population Counter
Mass tourism is destructive on many levels but one of the worst (along with the staggering environmental damage it causes) is the effect it has on the local population. It makes living in that place almost untenable. Imagine your neighborhood suddenly getting 5 cruise ships worth of people (as many as 20,000) dumped on it each day ~ it would be a nightmare. As such between the impossibility of functioning in daily life (think doing groceries, taking kids to school, going to and from work, going to the dentist etc) and their home city being turned into a cruise ship Disneyland, local Venetians started being forced to move to the mainland.
A pharmacy on Strada Nova has a digital counter that keeps details of the locla population count. In 1973 the population of Venice was roughly 148,000. This is the count of Venetians born and bred living in their home city. As of February 6th 2021 it was down to just over 52,000.
You can read Cecilia Staiano’s article about the depopulation of Venice here. The photo above is hers taken from her Feb 6th 2021 article.
Venice’s main income source is tourism. The city needs you to come and visit, stay a few nights and enjoy her beauty, her artisans, her cuisine. Fall in love with her buildings, the magic quality of light and her gorgeous ambience. Just please don’t come on a cruise….