Not Venezia but Venessia
That is what Venetians call their home city; not Venezia but Venessia. This is not Italian; it’s the Venetian dialect, their own language. Pronounced with a soft double “s,” and delivered in those delightfully rhythmic, undulating cadences reminding me of the ebb and flow of the tides.
Language, the Venetian language, remains vitally important in this unique city. We can see it on a thousand nizio’leti (street-signs); it is still spoken every day by dozens of gondoliers and thousands of residents. It is all of a piece with the city’s millennial history and its physical fabric. For centuries, official documents of the Most Serene Republic were written in venessian, not in Italian.
The red and gold gonfalone of the winged lion, Mark, the Evangelist and the Republic’s protector, is also everywhere. The standard is sold to tourists and still hangs from palazzi two centuries after this fabled Republic ceased to exist. Such is the continuing power and importance of history, tradition and identity.
That ebb and flow, both of the music of the language and of the tides themselves, are part of the city’s identity, its raison d’etre. Although it is claimed, somewhat prosaically, that very few venessiani can even swim these days, the tidal ebb and flow are always there, at the end of every ramo, slapping and sloshing along the banks of every fondamenta. They are there when the tides are so low (bassa marea) that some of the canals become impassable. And they are there when the sirens start to wail, and when the venessiani and we lucky part-time residents reach for our stiva’li (boots), and peer gingerly out into the calle submerged under acqua alta. Water. The element from which the city emerged, Venus-like, in just one of the many conceits that the Republic fashioned, to glorify and mythologize its origins. Botticelli transposed to the Lagoon.
Two questions are asked more than any other about Venice—and I have been asked them countless times—why? and how?
Why was this glorious, absurd city built in this preposterous location, surrounded by labyrinthine creeks and malodorous marshes? And how was it built on such challenging, seemingly impossible terrain?
The answer to the first one is relatively easy: as history relates, it was a place of refuge, a haven at a time when nowhere else on the northeast Italian mainland was safe. And because these margin-dwellers already knew these lagoons, these creeks, these mud-banks; they knew, too, how to navigate their sometimes treacherous waterways; knew where to catch their abundant fish and seafood; knew which were the large, firm islets on which it was possible to build.
And so they began to build. Safe in the knowledge that the terra firma threats could not reach them on these low-lying reefs. Simple timber dwellings at first, with roofs of osier thatch, much like the little casoni that survive in the most remote northern lagoon. Slowly, they were replaced by heavier, more permanent structures, brick, this time, with roofs of timber and tile. This is how the nascent Dogado slowly developed from a turbulent collection of squabbling islet-towns—firstly into a confederation, and then into a Republic.
As to the how: well, again, very special physical environments require very specific responses, and the venessiani, through ingenuity and tenacity (and notably increasing wealth through trade), devised a range of construction techniques to enable them to build where no other Italian considered it possible. How?
Essentially, by driving millions of timber piles into the firm clay subsoil, then building rafts (zattere) of timber—oak or larch—on top. Above these rose the brick and stone walls of their churches and palaces, on these stout decks of rot-proof timber. They were almost always remarkably successful: the Palazzo Ducale still stands on timber piles driven into the clay 700 years ago, which are as good as new. On the rare occasions that they have failed, the reason was usually simple: exceptionally heavy point loads exerted by the city’s hundred-odd campanili were sometimes simply too much for the foundations to support. They developed alarming inclinations (Santo Stefano, the Greci) and occasionally they succumbed, as, most spectacularly, at San Marco in 1902. These failures, though, were rare.
Naturally enough, down the centuries, both the city’s proud noble residents and its notable visitors have been awe-struck, not to say bewildered, by this nature-defying vision.
Petrarch, for example, arrived here in exile in 1364, and managed in a few lines to summarize not only the admirable qualities of the Republic itself (“…the one home today of liberty, peace and justice, the one refuge of honourable men…”), but also to acknowledge the remarkable physical achievements of its building, while heaping still more praise on the institutions of La Serenissima: “…solidly built on marble, but standing more solid on a foundation of civic concord, ringed with salt waters, but more secure with the salt of good counsel…”
More than a century later, it was a proud Venetian noble, Marin Sanudo, who eulogized his magnificent capital city, then at its mid-millennial peak of splendour. In his description of Venice and its government in 1493, he praises the Venetians’ skill in devising these unique construction methods, ‘with great ingenuity’ and ‘not in the way that they build them elsewhere.’ In his view, Venetian builders and pile-drivers were far superior. And Sanudo’s words were echoed visually at almost exactly the same time by Jacopo de’Barbari’s magnificent aerial view, the original woodblocks for which may still be seen in the Museo Civico Correr.
How to characterise and thus comprehend this most enigmatic and complex of cities? Countless writers have tried over the centuries, using a myriad of metaphors, similes and flights of rhetoric.
One practical way is to consider Venice as a tightly packed collection of tiny villages, each with its own campo, parish church and noble palazzi. This is indeed how the city coalesced over time, almost like a miniaturized version of the hundred-odd villages surrounding London before they all expanded and joined together to form a vast, contiguous urban whole. Here, though, every campo remains unique, every island parish retains its own identity. Most also retain their palazzi and parish churches.
Another way might be this. A few years ago, Roberto Alajmo wrote a wonderfully idiosyncratic introduction to his home city, Palermo, which is entitled Palermo e’ un Cipolla (Palermo is an Onion). And Tiziano Scarpa has described Venice; perhaps more obviously, as a fish, using the human senses as extended sensual metaphors for the experience. But in many ways the onion analogy, although certainly less romantic, is more applicable to Venice than it is to the beguiling capital of Sicily. Alajmo means, of course, that a city reveals itself in layers, one at a time.
Venice’s urban form can be considered as a series of roughly concentric layers, each one concealing the next one as we progress further and further inwards. Thus we need to reach, to discover, to explore, and then peel away each of the outer layers in turn to reach the next one. The ‘rough’ outermost layer, is represented by the furthermost reaches of the Giudecca, scruffy and post-industrial, or the peripheral glass-making island-town of Murano, struggling, but still working for a living. These are the city’s periphery.
Towards the centre, the greenery decreases, the density increases, the campi become more truly urban and well defined with the splendid squares of San Polo, Santo Stefano, Santa Maria Formosa. This is the fully characterized grain of the mature city: tight, dense, and refined.
And finally, in the very centre of this splendid cipolla, we come to the Piazza and Piazzetta, the Basilica, the Palazzo Ducale, and the other monumental structures that collectively define the heart of the millennial Republic. Even here, in the Piazza, in fact, there is still one more layer to penetrate. We must enter the ancient portals of San Marco and survey the mosaics; stand in the centre of the hall of the Maggior Consiglio, the Senato and the Collegio; absorb the sense of wealth and power.
How else might one characterize this extraordinarily complex city-organism? Well, the simple truth is that we are all a little like Calvino’s Marco Polo: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” Henry James called it “a sort of repository of consolations.” To Ruskin it was, “A wonderful piece of world. Rather, itself a world.” Dickens described his entire visit as a dream sequence; Daphne du Maurier (and later Nicolas Roeg), by contrast, conjured up a wintry nightmare.
We all, millions of us, each have our own personal Venice, a kaleidoscope of colours, sounds, smells, memories, reflections—some images fleeting or perhaps just fragmented shards of images…an infinite mosaic as rich and complex as those in the basilica. Every one is different.
My own dream is firmly rooted in the reality of the living city. Campo Santa Maria Formosa is only a two-minute walk from my own Venetian apartment. It represents, to me, an essential part of the real, living Venice: the city of its inhabitants, not the city of a million mordi e fuggi (day trippers). Two aspects of this square render it, for me, a distillation of the city.
Firstly, it is surrounded by a splendid array of palazzi, spanning the centuries from Palazzo Vitturi (13th to 14th centuries), through the gothic palazzi Dona’ to the early Renaissance Palazzo Malipiero and the early 17th-century Palazzo Ruzzini Priuli. And projecting into the Campo to the west are the three elegantly curved apses of Mauro Codussi’s wonderfully refined early Renaissance parish church, still very much in daily use.
This is the second aspect of the Campo that is so vital as a metaphor for the city’s future: it is the life in the Campo itself that fills me with the hope that Venice can and will remain a real city for real Venetians. Within the square are many of life’s daily necessities—a newsstand, a fruit and vegetable stall, a bar, a pharmacy, a cash machine, and one or two other stalls. On the Calle Lunga a few yards away we find an excellent butcher, a remarkably eccentric bookshop, and two or three flourishing trattorie and bacari. The essentials of daily life.
Every square metre of the Campo is used, for a wide range of functions and activities. Six-year-old boys kick footballs around at the top end; retail activities are concentrated in the central section, where all the pedestrian routes come together. At the south end, small toddlers scream around on their plastic tricycles. And in the far southeast corner, by the Ruga Giuffa bridge, is the gondoliers’ stand. This is the living city that must survive and thrive.
About Richard J. Goy
Richard Goy is a practicing architect and author. He has expertise in the conservation and restoration of historic buildings and is published extensively in the field of architectural history, especially that of Venice, for which he is an international authority. He divides his time between London and Venice.
“Residents of 14th century Venice would still recognize their city today. Venice was built to fit into her liquid environment, at the same time fully respecting the needs of her inhabitants. Dream of Venice Architecture is a heartfelt invitation to learn what Venice can still teach us today about humane architecture.” —Iris Loredana, author