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”.

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