THE FLOATING CITY
Venice, the ‘Floating City’ in northern Italy’s Veneto region, is built on more than 118 small islands in the Gulf of Venice. What makes its unique appeal is the mix of canals and palaces coupled with history. For around a millennium, the city was considered one of the most important political and economic powers. Today’s capital of Veneto, with its historic center of around 7 km2, is not a place like any other, because it has no streets, but 177 winding canals that meander throughout the city. All traffic here takes place on the canals that connect the six districts, called sestieri, with each other.
The largest and most significant canal is the Canal Grande, which divides the city into two parts through a 4 km long S-shaped line. On the one hand the sestieri of San Polo, Santa Croce, and Dorsoduro and on the other San Marco, Cannaregio and Castello. The city’s main street is lined on both sides with imposing facades from the Venetian Gothic and early Renaissance periods. Every year, millions of visitors are taken through the canals in one of the 350 gondolas to view the historic buildings and splendor of bygone eras.
However, Venice does not only refer to the historic center, the district also includes a number of inhabited islands, among which Murano, Burano and Torcello count as the most beautiful. The glassblowing island of Murano, known for its glass art, began to flourish towards the end of the 13th century when the glass furnaces were transferred here, not only to avoid the risk of fire in the city, but also to keep the art of glassblowing secret and under control.
Burano is said to be the most vibrant island, with its many colorful fishermen’s cottages lining the canals. Lacework is now considered the preeminent craft, and Torcello is best known for the very old Cathedral of Santa Maria Dell’Assunta, built in 639. Other important islands include Mazzorbo, once an important trading center, now known for its vineyards and orchards. The vegetable islands of the Sant’Erasmo region, long known as the Garden of Venice, Vignole also called the island of the seven vineyards, and San Michele where the cemetery is located.
The first settlement of Venice began in the 5th century. A multitude of almost inaccessible islands offered the fleeing inhabitants of the Venetian mainland protection from the invasions of the Visigoths and Huns. They hid in the approximately 550 km2 lagoon where they first found protection and finally a new home, as some stayed even after the danger was over, and developed a new settlement. In order to make the islands habitable, however, the land first had to be prepared where areas of the lagoon were drained, canals were dug, and the banks were supported with piles.
The first buildings were then built on wooden poles driven into various layers of clay and sand. On these, they laid wooden platforms and then stones to base the buildings on. The individual islands were initially connected by a few simple wooden bridges, which has increased to 444 today. The old town is connect- ed to the mainland by the 3.6 km long Ponte della Libertà, which runs parallel to the Ponte Vecchio, the railway bridge. Only four bridges span the Grand Canal. The Ponte di Rialto is considered the oldest and is located in the San Marco district. It marked the site of the first settlement and was rebuilt in 1588, some 150 years after the collapse of an earli- er wooden structure. Today, it has become one of the city’s most popular landmarks, where tourists happily pose for photos.
Here, in the San Marco district, is the homonymous Piazza San Marco, with an area of 14,500 square meters, which was once considered the political and religious center of the Republic and is the only square to be named a Piazza. It was used for announcements, state acts, swearing-in ceremonies, victory celebrations and the Venice Carnival also took place here. At the east end of the square is the Basilica di San Marco. Richly decorated and tiled with Byzantine mosaics, the Duomo was Venice’s most important religious temple and was considered the symbol of the republic. In 828, Venetian merchants brought the relics of the Evangelist Mark from Alexandria to Venice and gave them to the Doge for the then new chapel.
Since then, San Marco has been considered the patron saint of the city. The freestanding 12th-century Campanile di San Marco was also constructed here. The bell tower with its 98.6 meters is the tallest building in the city. It collapsed in 1902 but was rebuilt in 1912 and has since fascinated countless visitors who climb the 323 steps for a breathtaking 360-degree panoramic view of the city and bustling St. Mark’s Square below.
Read the full article in Issue 16