Things to see and do - Venice
Unmissable tourist sites
Venice Leisure tips
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It seems reasonable to turn to Homer when tracing the very ancient and uncertain origins of the Venetians. In the Iliad they arrived from Paflagonia to aid Priam. They were called the Enetii . Having abandoned their native land, these people arrived in the territory occupied by the Eugeneans, whom they put to flight. They founded the future Altino, from where they left for Torcello.
1000–700 BC — The Venetian civilisation known as atestino is founded around the city of Este.
530 BC — Etruscan colony of Spina established.
181 BC — Colony of Aquileia is founded.
42 AD — First dated documentation regarding the port of Altino.
400 — From Padua, Altino, Concordia Sagittaria, Aquileia and Oderzo, the future inhabitants of Venice visit the lagoon solely for its provisions of salt and fish. In the 6C Cassiodoro (c.490–583) requests these watermen, fishermen and salt-workers to help supply Ravenna.
568 — The Lombards descend into Italy. The Roman-Byzantine province of Venetia is gradually conquered.
639 — Oderzo, the capital of Venetia, falls. The Byzantine governor moves to Cittanova, which takes the name Heracleia , from Emperor Heraclius. The Church of Santa Maria Assunta is built on the island of Torcello.
697 — Paoluccio Anafesto is named the first doge.
742 — Transfer of the ducal seat from Cittanova to Malamocco.
775 — Olivolo, the present-day San Pietro di Castello, becomes a bishop’s see. It is accountable to the patriarchate of Gradi until 1451, when Lorenzo Giustinian is appointed First Patriarch of Venice.
810 — Pepin, son of Charlemagne, is defeated after an attempted invasion of Dalmatia and the lagoon. Many inhabitants of the lagoon move to the Realtine Islands, where the dogate is established. In 811 Agnello Partecipazio or “Particiaco” is elected doge. Venice is born .
During the 9C, when the dogeship was transferred, and for the three following centuries, Venice was made up of dozens of islands. The city was considerably smaller than it is today, however, because most of the land was below sea level.
The independent city, ruler of the Adriatic
814 — With the Pax Nicephori (Treaty of Nicephorus) , Charlemagne cedes his claims to the lagoon, and Venice guarantees her neutrality throughout the political struggles that were to rage in Italy during the eras of feudalism and the inter-city state rivalry.
828 — The body of St Mark is stolen from Alexandria in Egypt and brought to Venice, where work begins on the construction of the first basilica the following year.
829 — In his will Doge Giustiniano Particiaco calls for the construction of San Marco , which was to become the ducal chapel.
840 — In the Pactum Lotarii (Peace of Lothar) the Byzantine ruler confirms the autonomy of Venice and assures her navy the control of the seas.
946 or 948 — Narentine Slav pirates carry out the legendary abduction of the maidens.
976 — The Venetians rebel against the repressive Doge Pietro Candiano IV , who chooses to ignore the maritime power base of Venice and instead engages foreign troops to conquer territories on the mainland, in order to enhance his own political standing and reputation. This provokes a fierce popular revolt culminating in the murder of the Doge. Fire damages St Mark’s, the Doges’ Palace and San Teodoro, destroying more than 300 houses, at the time built almost exclusively of wood.
Pietro Orseolo I is elected doge at San Pietro di Castello .
1000 — After defeating the Croats and the Narentines, Venice assumes her role as ruler and protector of Dalmatia with the title dux Dalmatinorum (Duke of Dalmatia).
1032 — The Venetians’ strong spirit of independence precipitated a dislike for any government that resembled a monarchy and so, to avoid such a danger, the power of the doge is “split” between two ducal councillors, each one responsible for half of the city, with the Grand Canal as the dividing line.
11C — In the second half of the century the new Basilica of St Mark is built, modelled upon the Basilica of the Apostles at Constantinople.
1081 — Venice defends Byzantium from attack by the Norman Robert Guiscard.
The following year, the Crisobollo issued by the Byzantine Emperor, Alessio I Comneno, allows Venetians to trade freely throughout the empire and to open shops in Constantinople without having to pay duty on their goods.
1099 — Venice defeats the Pisans near Rhodes, where the Venetian and Pisan fleets are taking part in the Crusades. The released Pisan prisoners undertake not to haunt the waters of Byzantium.
1104 — The first nucleus of the Arsenal is created.
The following year the city is ravaged by fire.
1122–24 — Under the dogeship of Domenico Michiel , Venice attacks and defeats the Egyptian fleet that was besieging Jaffa, taking possession of the merchant ships and their cargo of treasure trove and spices. She then goes on to participate in the victorious siege of Tyre, and the sacking of Byzantine ports in the Aegean and the Adriatic. These shows of force were crucial in restoring the reputation and political status enjoyed by the city before the King of Hungary had affirmed his power in Dalmatia, and in persuading the current Byzantine Emperor, Giovanni Comneno , to accept the fundamental independence of the city, recognised by his predecessors.
1143 — The Council of the Wise Men , or Consilium Sapientium , is already in existence by this date. Thought to have consisted of 35 members presided over by the doge, this organisation was to evolve into the Great Council.
1145–53 — Istria, already protected by Venice, now finds herself totally subjugated as the doge is proclaimed totius Istriæ dominator .
1171 — Emergency measures are implemented by the Eastern Empire angered by the plundering of their trade ships by Venetian, Genoese and Pisan navies. The disastrous expedition of Doge Vitale Michiel II , whose crew was decimated by the plague, is judged very harshly by the Venetians, and leads to his murder. His successor, Sebastiano Ziani (1172), is elected under a system similar to that which later (1268) was sanctioned by law and lasted into the following centuries.
During the dogeship of Vitale Michiel II, the six sestieri are created as subdivisions of the city, thereby facilitating the collection of taxes.
1175 — Construction of a wooden Rialto Bridge.
1177 — It is in Venice that Pope Alexander III and Federico Barbarossa end the conflict between the city states and their antagonists, the Church and the Swabian Empire. According to legend, this is the occasion that saw Alexander III donate his ring in the Marriage of the Sea
1178 — Eleven men are nominated to elect the 40 electors of the doge, including six ducal councillors – one for each sestiere.
1201–04 — Fourth Crusade . Doge Enrico Dandolo , a man of extraordinary energy despite being 90 and blind, attacks Constantinople (1203), which succumbs decisively to a second assault the following year. The Eastern Latin Empire is formed under an emperor nominated by six Venetians and six crusader barons. Spoils and lands are divided between the emperor, who took a quarter of the empire, the barons and the Venetians. Recognition is given to the doge’s lordship over “a quarter and a half of the empire”.
13C — Around 1220 the Quarantia , a bench of 40 magistrates with judicial powers, is formed as part of the Great Council.
1240 — Venice besieges Ferrara, thus securing commercial control of the Po Valley.
1255 — First dated documentation about the Pregadi , who are charged ( pregati ) with expressing opinions and fulfilling particular duties as members of the Senate . The Council of the Pregadi is appointed by the Great Council, to deal with questions of navigation and international politics, thus assuming both legislative and executive functions.
1257–70 — Venice enters into conflict with Genoa. The Venetians defeat the Genoese at Acre, from where they brought the Acrean pillars now in front and to the right of the basilica.
The Eastern Latin Empire falls when the Byzantine Emperor, Michele Paleologo III , an ally of the Genoese, takes possession of Constantinople. The Genoese are subsequently bound by treaty (1270) to Louis IX of France, who needs the Genoese fleet for the Crusades.
1268 — New rules are drafted for the election of the doge. The Great Council has first to nominate the Council of Forty , charged with electing the next doge, by means of a 10-stage process of elections and drawing lots. The first doge appointed in this way is Lorenzo Tiepolo .
1284 — The gold ducat is minted, equal in weight and gold content to the Florentine florin, which had been in circulation for 30 years (0.997g gold per 3.55g coin). The gold ducat was accepted currency until the fall of the Republic. When silver ducats were struck in 1561 the gold ducat became known as the zecchino .
1294–99 — Venice is once more at war with Genoa. At the Battle of Curzola (1298) the victorious Genoese sustain grievous losses. The treaty signed in 1299 sanctions the Genoese dominance over the Riviera and that of the Venetians over the Adriatic.
1297 — This is the year of the Locking of the Great Council , a reform that considerably increased the number of council members to more than 1 000, as well as tightening up the system for their selection. Current as well as former members have to conform to rigorous procedures. By 1323, nomination is standardised, membership is for life and passed down the generations. Later still, the Great Council degenerates into a corps for the Venetian nobility.
1308–13 — Venice, dissatisfied with the duty levied on all the goods travelling through the Po Valley and wishing to consolidate its power over the area, attacks Ferrara. Pope Clement V , keen to defend his right of sovereignty over the city, issues from Avignon an interdict on Venice, which lasts until 1313.
1310 — Baiamonte Tiepolo , a Venetian nobleman, tries to depose Doge Pietro Gradenigo. The revolt is suppressed with much bloodshed, and prompts the creation of a remarkable judicial body known as the Council of Ten , whose prime function is to protect constitutional institutions. Presided over by the doge, this body consisted of 10 members of the Senate and six wise men. It employed the service of secret police and informers to investigate suspicious citizens and deal with denunciations and charges of libel against the State posted in the lions’ mouths .
1321 — The poet Dante Alighieri stays in Venice in his capacity as ambassador to the Lords of Ravenna.
1347–48 — A Venetian galley introduces the plague from Crimea, which was to decimate the densely populated city (over 100 000 inhabitants) by three-fifths.
1350–55 — The conflict with Genoa continues.
In 1350, Venice is troubled by heavy traffic that often causes serious accidents; it is established that horses should be provided with “bell-collars to warn pedestrians of their passage”.
Dogeship of Marino Falier (1354–55)
Marino Falier was 80 when he was elected doge. Irascible and resentful, he began his dogeship under the worst of omens. The day he arrived in Venice, the bucintoro , the grandiose dogal barge, decorated with friezes and gold carvings, could not draw alongside its mooring because of fog; secondly, on arriving on the piazza, the doge entered the palace by passing between the two columns where outlaws were executed; lastly, he was offended by insults about his wife scrawled on his chair by a young boy. Falier became even more viperish when he found out how lightly the culprit had been punished.
He decided to mete out punishment and exact his revenge by plotting murder on those members of the nobility whom he thought had betrayed him. The conspiracy was exposed in time. The doge was accused of treason and sentence passed for his execution. A black-draped portrait in the chamber of the Great Council, recording his unhappy rule, bears a defamatory but accurate inscription. The story of Marino Falier inspired both Byron and Swinburne (who both wrote works bearing the same title: Marino Falier ), Donizetti ( Marin Falier ) and Delacroix.
1358 — Dalmatia or “Schiavonia” is ceded to Hungary.
1378–81 — A fourth offence is mounted by the Venetians against Genoa to liberate Chioggia from Genoese and then Paduan hands.
1386 — Corfu comes under Venetian rule.
1389–1420 — Venice gradually gains dominion over a vast territory corresponding, more or less, to the present areas of Veneto and Friuli.
1409 — Venice regains possession of Dalmatia.
1410 — Venice is badly hit by a high tide.
1424 — Building begins on the Ca’ d’Oro.
1425–54 — During the dogeship of Francesco Foscari , by now head of an oligarchic system (since 1423 the formula had been dropped which had once required the popular approval of the new doge; “If it is pleasing to you”), Venice is at war with the Lombards. Carmagnola takes part in the battles and, suspected of treason, is condemned by the Council of Ten to be beheaded between the columns of the Piazzetta. After three decades of battle, Venetian territory stretches as far as the River Adda.
In 1428 Venice is devastated by an exceptionally high tide.
1463–79 — The capture of the Venetian Argosy by the Turks is one of several humiliations to which Venice has to succumb, including the loss of Cumae and Scutari in Albania that prompts an annual levy of 10 000 ducats. This tribute is finally abolished at the death of Mehmet II.
1472 — Caterina Cornaro marries Giacomo Lusignano II, King of Cyprus, after whose death Queen Caterina is toppled by a coup d’état.
1490 — The art of printing is introduced from Germany by Aldo Manuzio , who sets up his own printing press. It is famed for its refined italic characters and for the intellectual nature of his books, stamped with a dolphin and an anchor.
1494 — Charles VIII, King of France, arrives in Italy to conquer the Kingdom of Naples. The anti-French league, of which Venice was part, fails to defeat him in the Battle of Fornovo the following year.
1499 — The Turks attack Lepanto. Antonio Grimani is defeated off the coast of Sapienza: in Venice he earns the epithet “Antonio Grimani, ruin of the Christians” . The Turks sack Friuli. The peace treaty of 1503 sanctions the loss of Lepanto, Modone and Corone.
1500 — The De’ Barbari map is published, providing a strangely evocative and realistic impression of the city.
1508 — In order to split up Venetian territory, Julius II, Louis XII and Emperor Maximilian I form the League of Cambrai , in alliance with Spain, Hungary, the Duke of Savoy, the Duke of Ferrara and the Marquis of Mantua. After an initial defeat, Venice takes seven years to recover her possessions as far as the Adda.
1514 — The Rialto market is destroyed by fire.
1516 — The Jews are segregated in the Ghetto district.
1538 — Andrea Doria, admiral under Emperor Charles V and a Venetian ally, is defeated at Prevesa. The Turks now control the seas.
1539 — A secret service is set up by the State Inquisitors , the Supreme Tribunale , comprising three inquisitors: “the Red”, a dogal councillor in a scarlet gown, and “the Blacks”, two members of the Council of Ten. Working on information from informers, they take part in intrigue and counter-espionage.
1570 — The Turks land in Cyprus and conquer Nicosia.
1571 — After the siege and fall of Famagusta, Marcantonio Bragadin , the Venetian governor, is flayed alive by the Turks.
Joined in the Holy League with the Pope and Spain, Venice confronted the Turks at Lepanto on 7 October 1571. The Christian fleet, commanded by Sebastiano Venier , comprised 202 galleys and six smaller ships, of which more than half were Venetian. The Turkish fleet comprised 208 galleys and a flotilla of 63 boats. The Turks were heavily defeated: 30 000 men were killed, 80 ships sunk and 140 captured. The League lost 7 600 men and 12 ships.
Among the wounded Christians was Miguel de Cervantes , author of Don Quixote , who always considered the Battle of Lepanto the most important event not only of his life, but of all history. Cervantes believed that the injury to his left hand, which was permanently crippled, was “to the greater glory of his right one”.
1573 — Venice signs a treaty with the Turks that clinches control over Cyprus, which is abandoned and left to decline.
1577 — Fire damages much of the Doges’ Palace. Refurbishment is undertaken by Antonio da Ponte.
1587 — The Banco della Piazza , the first public Venetian bank, is set up. The second, the Banco Giro (or Banco del Giro), is created in 1619.
1588 — The Rialto Bridge is rebuilt in stone.
1593 — The fortress of Palmanova is built, designed in the form of a nine-pointed star to defend the eastern borders against the Turks and Habsburgs. To commemorate the victory at the Battle of Lepanto, the foundation stone is laid down on 7 October.
1599–1604 — The River Po , which deposits huge quantities of sediments around Chioggia, is diverted towards Goro.
1600 — Once again, the city of Venice is flooded at high tide.
In order to understand the relationship that existed between Venice and the Holy See, it is useful to note what the Venetians, who held themselves to be “first Venetian and then Christian”, used to boldly claim: “We believe fully in St Mark, sufficiently in God and not at all in the Pope”.
The Pope did not accept the right to religious freedom that Venice granted the Protestants. In 1605 the denunciation before the Council of Ten of two priests, accused of various crimes, proved to be the last straw. The Pope maintained that the two should have been handed over to the ecclesiastical authorities. On the Venetian side was a Servite priest, Paolo Sarpi , whose arguments seemed heretical to Rome. When the Pope threatened an interdict and excommunicated Venice, the city responded: “Your excommunication we regard as nothing and we care not a fig about it.”
The interdict lasted for a year. Although the relationship between Venice and the Vatican normalised, Paolo Sarpi was the victim of an assassination attempt in 1607. Recovered from his wounds and surveying the dagger with which he had been stabbed, he is said to have declared: “I recognise the style of the Roman Church.”
1609 — Galileo Galilei presents the telescope to the doge.
1613–17 — After raids by the Uskoks , pirates from Bosnia and Turkish Dalmatia protected by the Habsburgs, Venice goes to war over Istria and Friuli, which results in the Uskoks being deported to central Croatia.
1618 — Spain instigates a complex conspiracy against Venice. The Council of Ten intervenes decisively as usual: one of the participants is sewn into a sack and thrown into the sea; another two are hung upside down on the gallows of the Piazzetta.
1622 — Antonio Foscarini , the illustrious senator and ambassador to France and England, is found guilty of spying. He is condemned to death and succumbs to the usual treatment of being hung by one foot in the Piazzetta. Some time later, it is revealed that the accusations against Foscarini were false. The man who had spread these accusations is tried by the Three and condemned to death. Venice makes public admission of her grave error. A state declaration is sent to his family and to embassies, and copies are pasted around the city.
1628–30 — Following the death of Ferdinand of Gonzaga, Mantua is claimed both by the French, led by Charles of Gonzaga-Nevers, and the Habsburgs. It is under siege from German troops when Venice intervenes: the city is nevertheless lost to the French. Mantua is savagely ransacked as the plague ravages the region, decimating the local population and Germans, before spreading to Venice. In little more than a year, the Serenessima loses 50 000 inhabitants. When at last the contagion subsides, construction is begun on the Church of Santa Maria della Salute in fulfilment of a vow.
The Sultan’s harem and the war of Candia (Crete)
The Knights of Malta habitually committed acts of piracy of which Venice disapproved because they were detrimental to her relationship with the East. In 1644 the Knights attacked a Turkish galleon in the Aegean and captured part of the Sultan’s harem. The Sultan avenged himself not by attacking Malta, but Candia – Crete was then known by the name of its capital – convinced that the Venetians were behind this act.
The war dragged on for over 20 years, despite the Turkish fleet having suffered a naval defeat, second only to Lepanto, in 1656. Finally, Captain Francesco Morosini , backed by 3 600 men, signed the surrender in 1699, with which Venice lost the island.
1684–99 — Francesco Morosini, the ally of Austria and Russia, reconquers the Peloponnese peninsula, thereby acquiring the nickname “the Peloponnesian”. Unfortunately, during this military operation, a Venetian mortar is fired at the Parthenon which, being used by the Turks to store their reserves of gunpowder, is severely damaged. He is elected doge in 1688. In 1699, although the former Venetian territories had not all been reclaimed, the Treaty of Carlowitz temporarily checks Turkish military campaigns.
18C and decline
Although in decline, when faced with a choice between alliance and independence, Venice once again opted for autonomy by refusing to side either with France or the Habsburgs in conflict for two centuries.
1714–18 — Venice loses the Peloponnese forever in a final battle against the Turks, sealed by the Treaty of Passarowitz , signed in 1718. She maintains possession of Istria, Dalmatia, the Ionian islands and a few territories in Albania.
1744–82 — The Murazzi (protective wall around the lagoon) is built at Pellestrina and Sottomarina, 14m/46ft wide and 4.5m/14ft 8in higher than the average level of the tide. It is made with Istrian stone and pozzolana, a type of volcanic dust which has remarkable binding qualities when mixed with water, sand and lime.
1784 — The Procurator Andrea Tron , nicknamed el Paron (the Leader) for his strong personality and political standing, which most citizens regarded as above the doge, laments that “there are no shades of our old merchants among the citizens or subjects” before the spread of “weakness of character, overwhelming luxury, idle shows and presumptuous entertainment and vice” in Venice.
1784–86 — These are the years of the final naval incursions. Admiral Angelo Emo wages battles against pirates along the North African coast.
A break with tradition and the demise of the Republic
1789 — The last doge to be elected, Ludovico Manin , ironically is the first not to be born of the old Venetian nobility, but of an émigré family from Friuli that had paid 100 000 ducats for inclusion in the Golden Book in 1651.
1792 — The opera house reopens as La Fenice .
Before the decline of Venice, the city still shows consideration for its fragile lagoon. It defines a series of boundaries referred to as the “lagoon perimeter”, inside which it was forbidden to carry out any activity that might endanger the natural habitat of the lake.
1797 — Napoleon invades Venetian territory in 1796 while pursuing his Austrian enemy and successfully ejecting it from Italy – a possession he only maintains by posting troops in Verona and controlling access to the Brenner Pass. A temporary pact is made with the Austrians at Leoben (18 April 1797). This is ratified six months later on 18 October by the Treaty of Campoformio signed by Francis II, Emperor of Austria, and Napoleon Bonaparte. It confirms that Austria renounces her claim over Belgium and Lombardy to take possession of the Veneto as far as the Adige, Friuli, Istria, Dalmatia, the Po Valley and the islands in the Adriatic. France takes the Albanian coast and the Ionian islands. Venice is left with the former Papal States of Romagna, Ferrara and Bologna.
Venice’s fate, in effect, is sealed by her resistance to ally herself to Napoleon. Not only does she show no remorse when anti-French feeling is stoked by the clergy during Easter week to the point of vicious rioting in Verona (a Venetian dominion), but she positively congratulates her officers for firing at a French patrol in the Adriatic and killing the French crew. Napoleon’s exasperation is documented: “I will have no more Inquisition, no more Senate. I shall be an Attila to the State of Venice” .
Without the reassurance of Venice’s recapitulation, the government would have to be seized and war would be inevitable. The Senate meets for the last time on 29 April. By Friday 12 May, Napoleon’s demands have to be conceded and the Great Council meets for a last, very tense sitting. A provisional government is approved by an “unconstitutional” Council falling short of its quorum of 600 by 63, many members having fled to their country estates on terra firma. Laying down the cufieta , the bonnet worn by the doge under his crown, Ludovico Manin turned with dignity to his servant: “Take it away, I will have no further use for this” .
After the fall
1805 — With the Treaty of Presburg, Napoleon formally reclaims Venice as part of the Kingdom of Italy.
1815 — The Congress of Vienna establishes that Venice, the Veneto and Lombardy should belong to Austria.
1821 — The Italians show unrest caused by the failed attempts to achieve unification. Anti-Austrian movements break out.
1839–53 — Construction of the north and south dikes at Malamocco is completed.
1841 — The railway bridge linking Venice to Mestre is built.
1844 — The patriot founders of the secret organisation Esperia, Attilio and Emilio Bandiera, together with a sympathiser, Domenico Moro, are shot at Cosenza.
1847 — The lawyer Daniele Manin and the writer Niccolò Tommaseo are awarded prizes by the 11th Congresso degli Scienziati.
1848 — Daniele Manin is nominated President of the Republic of St Mark and begins reorganising a provisional government, before leading an insurrection against the Austrians supported by Niccolò Tommaseo. Both eminent men are subsequently exiled.
1854–58 — Identical iron bridges are built near the Accademia and the station.
1866 — After the Prussian defeat of the Austrians at Sadowa, Venice votes to be part of a unified Italy by a majority of 674 426 to 69.
1895 — The International Biennale of Art is founded. Exhibition facilities are expanded through the 19C with the erection of various modern pavilions.
1902 — The bell-tower of St Mark’s collapses.
1915–18 — Venice suffers several bomb attacks but her misfortunes are not caused only by the war: once again the city is flooded by the rising waters.
1932 — First International Film Festival.
1933 — Inauguration of the Ponte Littorio, now called the Ponte della Libertà.
1943–44 — On July 25, 1943, the Italian Fascist government fell. German troops arrived in Italy on September 8, 1943. On September 16, Giuseppe Jona, president of the Jewish community of Venice, committed suicide rather than hand over the lists of the names of the Jewish community. 204 Jews were deported from Venice by the Nazis, only 8 returned from the death camps.
1953 — Giuseppe Roncalli is appointed Patriarch of Venice before being elected Pope John XXIII and instigating the Second Vatican Council.
1953–69 — Architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1869–1959) plans a student centre, the Masieri Memorial, to be built along the Grand Canal. In 1964 Le Corbusier (1887–1965) proposes designs for the Civil Hospital. Louis Kahn (1901–74) undertakes a project for a new Congress Hall. None of these undertakings sees the light of day.
1966 — During November the high tide rises to an alarming level. The waters flood the Murazzi at Pellestrina and reach many of the city houses.
1969 — Albino Luciani is appointed Patriarch of Venice and elected Pope in 1978, assuming the name John Paul I , which he bore until his death, a month later.
The lagoon lives on
If the glory of Venice belongs to a bygone era, its lagoon provides a continuous link with the past, preserving a quality and style of life unique to its shores, regardless of the threat of subsidence or flooding. In 1925 alone, the Piazza San Marco, the “salon of Venice”, was flooded eight times. Since then it has succumbed to inundation on a further 50 occasions.
Pollution, today’s worst enemy
The 20C was the era of industrialisation. Marghera was created in the 1920s and, after the Second World War, the areas taken up by industrial activity expanded quite considerably. Oil was known to seep into the canal, threatening the ecological balance of the lagoon, whose precarious state was further endangered by the draining of land to build industrial areas and Marco Polo Airport.
Between 1950 and 1970, the waste turned out by refineries and by chemical and metallurgical factories at Porto Marghera would often end up in the lagoon. During the 1980s a number of purification plants were set up nearby and they now recycle an estimated 80% of the area’s industrial refuse. Pollution, caused by excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphates, chemical fertilisers and insecticides, and organic substances generated by industrial complexes and urban communities, destroys part of the lagoon flora and fauna, encourages the proliferation of algae and stunts that of the phanerogamic species, whose roots are extremely useful, since they prevent the onslaught of erosion.
1973 — The Italian State declares that the preservation of Venice is of “pre-eminent national interest”.
1988–92 — The MoSE prototype, a huge mobile sluice-gate devised to regulate the movement of the tides, is installed in the lagoon waters on an experimental basis.
1989 — The famous rock band Pink Floyd are invited to play in St Mark‘s Square. The council‘s gamble on bringing modern music to the heart of Venice backfires horribly as concert goers cause mayhem and thousands of pounds of damage. The city council resigns en bloc.
1996 — The opera house La Fenice burns down on 29 January.
2001 — Approval is given for the completion of the mobile tide barriers designed to protect the city.
2003 — The reconstructed La Fenice opens to the public.
2004 — The 650ft (200m) long cruise ship Mona Lisa runs aground in fog in St Mark’s Basin, provoking fears of a major accident in the heart of Venice.
2008 — Venice‘s fourth bridge across the Grand Canal, the Ponte di Calatrava is completed.
Pigeon feeding in the Piazza is banned.
The trouble with tourists...
Henry James once remarked “There are some disagreeable things in Venice, but nothing so disagreeable as the visitors”. It is a sentiment that many Venetians echo in private if not public.
In no other functioning major city on earth is the resident population so heavily outnumbered by visitors as it is in Venice. Some 62,000 live in the historic city (Centro storico), while another 31,000 live on other islands in the lagoon. Each year they are invaded by around 20 million visitors. No-one knows the real total and this in itself is a problem for managing the infrastructure.
According to the tourist board (in 2004), 6 million visitors spend one night or more in Venice every year. A further 15 million flood its streets and alleys only for the day, marching into the Piazza San Marco, perhaps paying a swift visit to the Basilica di San Marco, before heading out again. In fact It is said that around 80 percent of tourists don’t even bother to visit a single monument while in Venice. Whatever the true figures, there is no doubt that day-trippers contribute little in economic terms and cause immense problems in terms of pollution and congestion.
Venice of course is dependant on tourism, which accounts for 70 percent of its economy. It is often said that the charm of Venice is more at risk from the tourist tidal wave than from sinking into the sea.
In January 2008 a new waterbus line, no 3, was opened with one special feature: it is open only to Venice Card holders. Since this is for 3-day and 7-day visitors, daytrippers are effectively excluded. Marcello Panettoni, director general of the Venice transport authority, said the new line was a response to citizens’ complaints that (day-trip) tourists were cramming onto water buses, leaving residents stuck on dry land. “For people who live and work in Venice, better transportation has become essential. They are our habitual clients, we have to cater to them above all.” It is worth noting too that Venetian commuters pay around one-sixth of the equivalent fare on (all) vaporetti that tourists pay.
Rather than just applying the “stick” approach of fending off visitors however, the city points out that by marketing a pass that offers significant saving when visiting a number of attractions over a number of days (plus it offers the privilege of jumping queues), it is taking a more positive “carrot” approach to incentivise longer-stay visitors rather than just discouraging day-trippers.
A tougher approach is taken against misbehaving visitors. In 2007, stewards began patrolling St Mark’s Square and other historic sites and imposing on-the-spot fines to tourists found picnicing, walking around bare-chested and littering.
Unique to Venice
The inhospitable nature of the lagoon, from which Venice sprung up as if by magic, has demanded of the Venetians an extraordinary ability to adjust to a particular lifestyle implemented through a rare spirit of initiative. To combat the waters, either too high or too low, and to make their way around the myriad islands, the Venetians built the gondola and hundreds of bridges; they also planted thousands of poles.
No one knows exactly when the gondola was invented: the word gundula appears as early as 1094 in a decree of Doge Vitale Falier, although the reference relates to a massive boat equipped with a large crew of rowers – a far cry from the gondola we know today.
In the 14C, small boats covered with a central canopy bore metal decorations on the prow and stern. At the end of the century the vessel began to be made longer and lighter, the prow and stern were raised and the felze or cabin was added, affording shelter in bad weather. Some had decorated prows. Others were painted in bright colours and decked with satin, silk and gleaming brass. On the prow and stern stood painted cherubs bearing the coat of arms of the family to which the gondola belonged.
From the 16C, boats were toned down by being painted black: a colour we might judge to be rather funereal, but in Venice red, not black, is the colour of mourning. Today the gondola is about 11m/36ft long, 1.42m/4ft wide and comprises 280 pieces of wood.
Building a gondola
The shipyards where gondolas are built and repaired are called squeri . At one time, each of these was allocated primarily to a family from Cadore in the Dolomites, hence the reason why their wooden galleried constructions resembled alpine houses.
The ferro , a sabre-toothed projection made of iron placed at the prow and stern, is without doubt the most crucial element of the gondola: implemented initially as a fender to safeguard against knocks, today it serves as a counterweight to the gondoliere, and is used to align the boat around hazards in the narrowest passages. The curved fin is said to echo the dogal corno and to symbolise its power over the six sestieri or divisions of the city represented by the six serrations. The tooth that “guards” the gondola itself is the Giudecca.
The forcola or rowlock, is an intricate piece of carving hewn from walnut, designed as a pivot that allows the oar maximum mobility. The oar is made of well-seasoned beech. But perhaps only the most observant will notice the two bronze sea horses cleating the cords of the seats.
Paline, dame and bricole
Whether travelling by gondola, vaporetto or boat, there is always the risk of running aground. Navigable channels are identified by means of bricole – a series of large poles ( pali ) roped together – whereas the entrance to a canal or a junction is indicated by dame , which are smaller poles than the bricole .
The paline are those thin individual poles that project from the water at odd intervals, to which private craft are tethered. They are particularly evocative if painted with coloured swirling stripes, outside some fine building to mark the landing stage of a patrician family in days gone by.
Among the hundreds of Venetian bridges crossed during the tussles of su e zo per i ponti , meaning “up and down the bridges”, there are several like the Ponte Chiodo without railings or parapet, where rival factions such as the Castellani and Nicolotti faced each other during “fist fights”. Projects for bridges with three arches met with less success.