10 amazing, little-known facts about Venice
Venice is one of the world’s most famous cities — but there’s plenty you don’t know about it
It is, without doubt, one of the most famous cities in the world. Certainly one of the most famous in Europe, and pretty much the most famous thing in Italy, give or take a Colosseum here and a Trevi Fountain there. Yet even Venice — instantly recognisable to anyone with eyes — the capacity to surprise. Via these 10 nuggets of fact, for starters.
It is more like an archipelago paradise (the “paradise” bit dependent on whether the sun is shining, and how many other tourists you are sharing the city with). Specifically, Venice is laced across 117 mini-islands, which sit within the shallow waters of the Venetian Lagoon (a low-slung body of water which has an average depth of 34ft/10.5m — and only ever drops to 71ft/21m). Not all of these islets are “real”. Sacca Fisola, for example, was built by human hands in the Sixties, by adding landfill to a patch of saltmarsh adjacent to Giudecca. It is linked to said very-much-real island by bridge — and is largely residential.
1 2 3 It is not an island paradise:
True, if you look at a map of Europe, Venice is very much Italian. But the curiosities of its construction hide an international secret. The wooden piles on which the city was famously built — hard nuggets of alder which were driven down through layers of sand and mud into the compressed clay which underpins the city— were sourced from the Karst region of what is now Slovenia, and from forests further south in what are now Croatia and Montenegro. These supports have done their job with sturdy water-resistant efficiency for centuries. Even so, Venice is notoriously sinking by up to 2mm every year.
It is partly Balkan: High tide is higher than you think:
The city’s gradual subsidence is one of the reasons why, in winter, it is often consumed by chill waters. However, this slow descent into the blue is not the sole reason for “acqua alta”. You can also blame two different winds, the Sirocco and the Bora, which blow north and northeast respectively up the torso of the Adriatic, funnelling waves into the Venetian Lagoon. The result can be remarkably picturesque (if inconvenient for anyone who lives in the city) — liquid lying low, even prettily, on the surface of the Piazza San Marco. But equally, high tide can bring bad tidings. The highest documented acqua alta was on November 4 1966; a fearsome 194cm of sea-breach. But these deluges have been occurring for as long as Venice has existed. One medieval chronicle referred to a case of acqua alta as far back as 1240 — and water which “flooded the streets higher than a man.”
The precise moments of Venice’s birth are as lost in murkiness as an engagement ring dropped by shaky hand
4 It is an ancient refugee:
into the Grand Canal. But the city was probably founded in the Roman era, by frightened people fleeing towns like Padua and Treviso on (what is now) Italy’s exposed upper flanks — running ahead of attacks by Germanic tribes, and seeking sanctuary on disparate islands. One genesis story pins Venice’s first breath to 421AD, when the church of San Giacomo di Rialto — which still stands in the modern San Polo sestiere (district) of the city — was apparently founded. Either way, Venice has at least a millennium and a half of history under its belt. Enough for (5) to have become a reality.
It seems impossible to imagine in this era of global super-states and embittered elections, but Venice was once one of the most powerful players on the European stage. Between the end of the seventh century and 1797, it was the Republic of Venice (Repubblica di Venezia) — an
5 It used to be its own country:
economic powerhouse which forged a mercantile empire in the Adriatic and the eastern Mediterranean. Its wealth and prestige were largely based on trade and negotiation, but it was not averse to building fortifications to protect its interests. The shorelines of Croatia and Greece are still littered with strongholds created by Venetian ingenuity — the wonderful Assos Fortress on the west side of Kefalonia is but one random example. The era came to a close at the tail end of the 18th century, with the ascent of Napoleon. By then, Venice — weakened by two centuries of war with Ottoman Turkey — was down to its last 11 ships. Bonaparte swatted Venetian resistance aside with barely a glance on May 12 1797, as a millennium at the top of the tree came to a swift conclusion.
6 Gondolas could use a feminine touch:
These long, oar-powered vessels are elegant symbols of the city — but if you hail one to take a ride down a sun-dappled canal, you will almost certainly be propelled on your way by a man. Venice did not witness its first female gondolier until 2010 — when Giorgia Boscolo became the first woman to pass the strict qualification exam. Her success was not, perhaps, a surprise — she is the daughter of a gondolier. But her promotion to the world of blue-andwhite striped tops was not met with universal applause. “I still think being a gondolier is a man’s job,” her father Dante said, flicking to the Damning With Faint Praise section of the Book of Paternal Compliments. “But I am sure that, with experience, Giorgia will be able to do it.” Her response? “Childbirth is more difficult.”
7 The Basilica di San Marco is something of a latecomer:
Venice’s most famous church is the subject of a million photographs, the architectural star of the Piazza San Marco. And a church dedicated to St Mark has occupied this spot since 828 — even if the present building was not completed until 1092. And yet, for all its age and magnificence, the basilica has only been the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Venice since 1807. Prior to this, San Pietro di Castello held the position, and did so with dignity — between 1451 and 1807. You can still pay it a visit. The crowds are decidedly smaller.
8 9 10 The city can be very narrow in its outlook:
But only if you wander down Calletta Varisco, a street in the Cannaregio district that is just 53cm wide in parts. Not unexpectedly, it is the narrowest street in the city. Although the word “street” is perhaps over-egging the description of what is more an alleyway — or the sort of gap you see between a fence and the back of a garden shed. Follow it west to its end, and Calletta Varisco becomes a set of stairs that descend to the Rio del Gesulti. At this point, you will need to retrace your steps — or track down a helpful passing gondolier.
Carnevale still thinks about the Black Death:
As with all festivals held in the run up to Lent — Caribbean Mardi Gras, staged at the same time, is no different — the Venice Carnival has its quirks. Its tradition for revellers to wear masks of various bright styles frames a certain darkness. The Medico della Peste mask — the unnerving face-disguise which bears avian features and a long beak — is (as its name says) a reference to the plagues which swept Europe in the Middle Ages. It is supposed to have originated with the 17 th century French physician Charles de Lorme, as a protection against disease. The beak could be filled with perfume and sweet-smelling items, with the aim of repelling the bad odours that were deemed to be the carriers of infection. They didn’t work on this score — but they look decidedly striking in the present.
Venice is not a lone example of a floating city. It is not even a lone example in the Venetian Lagoon. It is accompanied by Chioggia, which sits 16 miles to the south (31 miles by road). This pretty town has canals of its own, including the Canale Vena, while its Chiesa di Sant Andrea can claim an 11th century belltower — which, in its own red-brick way, is (almost) as photogenic as the feted Campanile of the Basilica di San Marco.
It has a little cousin:
Venice, the “city of canals”, is also called the “city of bridges”.