Lagoon materials


(or rather a brief history of the lagoon of Venice as urban space)



1- water

‘With your boats you look like you’re smoothly sliding on grass fields as from distance you cannot distinguish canals from marshes; your houses stay on cane-brakes, just like the nest of the water birds and, outside the doors made of reeds and sticks where usually animals are tied, you leave your boats.’1 The fact that Venice is a water-town, even if the combination of the two terms could apparently seem a contradiction, it’s immediately evident for anyone landing at Venice airport on a bright day. And it is just enlarging the scale of observation to the entire lagoon, that is maybe possible to understand what brought the inhabitants of this region to build their houses on the water. Through this brief history of the urban transformations occurred to the lagoon, intended as the metropolitan context of the city, we intend to explore the close relation between the development of Venetian civilization and its territory, in which its condition in-between water and land was out of doubts one of the factors that contributed to its extraordinary history.

The space of the lagoon in fact had been inhabited and transformed since much earlier than the legendary foundation of the Venetian Republic, and has always been theatre of a complex net of communications, trades and settlements, as the natural meeting point of sea and river routes. For its own nature, though, this particular environment is strongly unstable, being subjected to the opposite forces of the sea, which tends to enlarge its domain on one side, and the rivers, which tend to fill the lagoon with sand on the other one. It is obvious then, that the maintenance of the balance of the lagoon was for its inhabitants a primary task, both for their physical and for their economical existence. There is a close structural analogy between the city and the lagoon around it, both to be considered as parts of an unitary polycentric urban space. On one side the city can be seen as a complex of neighborhoods, constituted as public units (insulae), consolidated around a square (campo), with church, well, school, market, small shops, connected each other by main streets (rughe, salizade), from which a dense net of smaller streets (calli) allow the access to private living units (corti). On the other hand, the lagoon appears like a ‘urban constellation’, working as the perimeter wall always existed around every city since the Neolithic age. Big and smaller islands stand along the access ways to the city, both from the sea and from the mainland, working as a complete defensive machine. Furthermore, in the lagoon this archipelago system was also regulated by a functional zoning; each of these islands had its proper use in relation to its position and physical character. They provided to the city essential services, like religious, medical, cultural and social primary assistance in the smaller ones; like agricultural and industrial resorts in the case of the main ones (Murano, Burano, S.Erasmo). According to the very special environment in which the earlier inhabitants of the lagoon decided to build their houses, they created a peculiar strategy of settlement, based on the capillary differentiation of urban functions. But unlike a wall that can only contain, or enclose, water is also able to connect. A large city made of isolated points, in the middle of a great open space and a net of clearly separated traffic ways: ‘the city of the future’, as Le Corbusier defined it.


2- wood

Venice represents indeed the most ancient form of European settlement, the lake village; it is the biggest, and the most glorious of the surviving lake settlements. A particular kind of settlement that in the prehistoric age was especially common, and documented, along the whole coast of the Veneto region, from the Alps arch in the north, until the delta of the Po river in the south. Already in the first Century b. Ch the Roman historician Tito Livio gave us the first description of the lagoon: he described thin strips of land (tenue praetentum litus) and cultivated fields, according to a still valid geography. The image we can get of this territory at that time is of a dense assembling of harbors, cultivations, fishing activities, hunting resort, and salt production, in an area closely integrated with the net of routes coming from the mainland along the main rivers. The openings to the sea of the lagoon were initially more then the actual three; apart from Chioggia, Malamocco and Lido, in fact, there were entrances in Brondolo, Pastene, and a series of direct accesses to the sea from the islands of Vignole and S.Erasmo, before the definition of Punta Sabbioni. The whole coast was covered by pines and oaks forests, completely destroyed during the following centuries to provide the necessary wood for the building of houses and boats.

During the Middle Age the lagoon knew important natural crises, which considerably modified the existing environment (periodical floods, constant erosion, morphological unstability). For its inhabitants, the lagoon has always been like the field for farmers, reason and cause of fortune or disease, and it is not surprising then that the first interventions to regulate the natural fluxes of the water are registered already during the IX. Century, with the construction of new embankments, and a systematic excavation of existing canals and scomenzere (artificial new canals to connect separated inner basins). In the middle of this natural environment Venice was coagulating as a compact urban settlement, while its economical and military activities and functions were literally spread out all over the surrounding territory. Smaller islands were already used as monasteries, isolated places of rest and refuge for the sailors, as well as obligatory quarantine stops for foreign ships coming from abroad.

Starting from the XIII. century the need for a central institution for managing this system was clearly established. In 1282, the Magistratura del Piovego (water Court, still existing today) was created, with the wide task of delimitation of public water, traffic ways, concessions of new constructions, and in general every sort of interventions regarding the lagoon. It was forbidden to make fires on the islands and to cut their trees; to collect seafood along its borders and to pasture animals on them; to take sand from the beaches and to sell the materials destined to their protection. Every citizen who had enough economical possibilities was obliged to transport five times a year this material to the shores, and to provide the workers to build the defenses to the sea. At the end of the XV. century already 140.000 wooden sticks (briccole) were used only to delimit the main canals, and they had to be replaced about every five year.


3- stone

At the beginning of the modern age the urban form of the Republic was already defined as an unitary space. And it is in the functional relation between the city and the lagoon that this form can be better understood, as represented in a fundamental graphic document such as the plan of Venice by Benedetto Bondone, dated 1528 and realized as the first printed representation of the lagoon. In this map Venice can be finally seen as a sort of inhabited platform on the water, on which all the main routes, from the rivers and from the sea, find their natural end. All the islands and the main localities of the mainland indicate the directions of the commercial routes and are represented in the correct position according to navigation coordinates, instead of their real planimetric positions. The city itself works as the main hub in which only few elements are clearly recognizable; in particular the entrances from the mainland and from the sea, and the Arsenale.

It is just in this period that the Venetians worked out the formal and symbolic aspect of their city. Significant interventions were commissioned to famous architects of the time to re-form the image of the city in a celebrative term, representing its military strengthness (Sanmicheli and the system of the defenses), its political stability (Sansovino and the complex of S. Mark square), and its religious devotion (Palladio, and then Longhena, in the S. Mark basin). Works, indeed, of great meaning and effect that hide, among their intrinsic differences, the economical and cultural crisis that the Republic was starting to face. Until that moment Venice had always founded its richness and prosperity in the commercial exchanges between water and land. Its main internal route, canal grande, constituted the docks area where the buildings (case fontego) had, at the same time, commercial and residential uses. The first bridge on this canal, in the Rialto area, the financial hart of the city (‘the Wall Street of the ancient Mediterranean’, as the historician Alvise Zorzi defined it), was until the end of the 16th century a wooden removable bridge. The actual stone bridge, result of a discussion of almost one century long, was built on a project by Jacopo da Ponte between 1588 and 1592, and we can therefore consider this date as the factual and symbolic end of the harbor function of this internal canal, reflecting the decline of the commercial interests of the Republic.

It is also during the second half of the fifteenth century that the need for a drastic intervention on the territory of the lagoon began to be discussed, exemplified by the famous polemic between Alvise Cornaro and Cristoforo Sabbadino. At the time the Republic had to face a fundamental alternative: to become a continental power developing the agricultural investments in the mainland; or to try again to reinforce the marine commercial traditions, seriously threatened by the structural crisis result of the new oceanic routes and the technological innovations in boats building achieved by Spain and England. According to Cornaro, the lagoon had to be preserved only for military reason, and to be considered as subordinated to the agricultural interests of the mainland; Sabbadino, instead, looked at the problem the other way round: it was the mainland that had to work in the strict function of keeping in balance the lagoon, as the necessary base of any possible future for Venice. The affirmation of the latter position brought to a series of interventions lasted for more than 150 years, including the deviation outside the lagoon of the Brenta, Sile, and Piave rivers; the completion and reinforcement of the defenses to the sea (murazzi); the definition of the internal borders by systematic stone marks (conterminazione). A lagoon that at the end of the 18th Century was finally fixed as a complete and unique urban fact, witness of the glory of a Republic just before its collapse, which was to come only few years later, in 1797.


4- iron

The historical moment in which the city had to face the most striking urbanistic events was probably the period of hundred years between the half of the XIX. and the half of the XX. century. The fall of the Republic after eight centuries of independency on one side, and the evidence of its economical inefficiency on the other one, suddenly showed the need for radical reforms to its structure, with the intention to adapt and integrate Venice to the overcoming world of fast connections and mechanical production. It is the century of the bridges with the mainland, of the silting up of the canals, of the opening of new ‘streets’, of the new industrial settlements.

Already during the short period of French domination (1797-1814), Napoleon promoted a series of interventions to connect Venice to the mainland, focused in the east area of the city. The basis for such an intervention are still visible: the actual Garibaldi street and the Napoleon gardens were supposed to be its end point on the side of the city. The first project connecting the mainland to the west side of the city and that necessarily turned upside down its urban structure, since ever facing the sea as main entrance and symbolic representation, is dated 1823. At the time the northern part of Italy was under the Austrian domination, and the government had the plan to create a railway net with its center in Milan, and it’s only within these programs that the line Venice-Milan passed to an executive phase. The opening took place on January 1846 after five years of work. At the same time new industrial activities were introduced to stimulate an economical recovery: the Stucky Mole, the Venetian Cotton Factory, the new shipyards for iron ships at the Arsenale, the Gas power plant, among a series of other minor ones, date back to those years, while in 1880 the new maritime station was opened in the area just to the south of the station, with the intention to reaffirm the importance of the traditional Venetian main activity. But already a few decades later these industrial initiatives inside the old city appeared inadequate to contemporary economical dynamics, so that a definitive project for a national level industrial area on the mainland next to Marghera was approved on the 12th of July 1917. Finally, on the 7th of July 1931, following a public competition and a strong political discussions, began the construction of the bridge for cars completing the ‘modernization’ of the infrastructures of Venice, opened on the 25th of April 1933,

The introduction here of these new dynamics and their development in the following years, provoked a series of harsh problems to the structure of the city, but, even worse, it probably didn’t bring any substantial contribution for the redefinition of its economical and urban future on a longer term. This effort, intended to adapt and uniform this ‘obsolete ‘city to the coming industrial era, for their intrinsic character had to be concentrated in few big interventions, only punctually connected to the existing urban structure. For the first time during its history, the lagoon, or rather the water around the city, was understood as an obstacle to its economical development, instead of an element of advantage. If in the glorious past of the Republic the manipulation of its territory had the clear intent to preserve its physical and traditional singularity, during the industrial age the ‘rest of the world’, based on fast transports and mass production, tried to integrate Venice into its own rhythms and rules.  With the only result of showing its difference even more drastically; its isolation, instead of being reduced, suddenly appeared unsolvable.


5- plastic

At a first sight contemporary Venice is nothing more that a huge tourists-machine, even if beautiful. From all over the world more then 20 millions people every year want to be in ‘the city on the water’, mostly only for a one day visit. A non-stop flood that seems to cover any other possible activity; in the last 30 years the population of the historical center felt from 150.000 to 60.000 residents. This critical situation, together with the announced rise of sea level, creates a sort of permanent emergency state: Venice is today besieged by twin tides that threaten its destruction; tides of nature, and tides of man. After the exceptional aqua alta of 1966 ‘Saving Venice’ became then a statement of Western culture, with the intent to preserve from destruction the city as a physical object. Yet if Venice manages to survive the rising tides of the sea, as a monument, or historical heritage, it still faces more corrosive currents in the millions of tourists that want to take at least a picture of it. In this context, Venice is far from alone in finding itself becoming a victim, as Umberto Eco characterizes it, of the ‘hyper-real’. The city threatens to become a simulacrum of its own self, destined to satisfy not just the curiosity of its visitors, but especially the onslaught of their basest expectations: canals, gondola, and plastic carnival masks. Consumed as big economical, commercial and financial power, the city itself seems now to survive only through the tourist exploitation of the ‘Myth’ of its decadence that just at the same time had been elaborated and diffused. And the more the terms of such decadence appear evident, the more this myth becomes stronger: it is especially the evidence, the deepness, and the durability of this crisis that makes of Venice an object of affection for the masses, making this myth more and more available, repetitive, and meaningless.

Venice always appeared menaced because it’s just its being that seems impossible: ‘an impossibility put on the impossible’, according to an expression of Francesco Sansovino. Already when European cities looked like organic creations, Venice was an unnatural exception; artificial balance between manmade and natural systems. But if for centuries Venice -its leading class, its cultures, its economy- was able to give form to this unnaturality, this balance has became more and more precarious, and the lagoon around the city gradually forgotten. For a foreigner entering Venice by bus, train, or water taxi, the lagoon has now disappeared from the map. Mere pretext for a half-day boat excursion to shop china-made blowing glass pieces in Murano and lace works in Burano, this huge expanse of water has just become an urban void to be crossed as quick as possible, in which the rest of the islands are ready to be transformed into the next five-stars hotel.


In the past the nobles who aspired to public roles in the Venetian Republic had to demonstrate to have enough experience of travelling abroad, while at the same time in Venice for a foreigner the citizenship was easily obtainable, as guarantee the international vocation of the state. Venice was the place of exchanges for excellence, and home of a large number of foreign communities, which had always been one of the necessary reasons of its economical and cultural prosperity. Is it realistically possible to imagine an alternative future in which tourism can be seen as a potential instead of a destructive force?

Worldwide, in the general homologation of languages, habits and expectations of contemporary society, it is said that physical places are progressively loosing their recognizability and meaning. In this context, the uniqueness of Venice, as indivisible from its abandoned lagoon, can represent once and for all an added value. A lagoon to be rethought not just as a natural environment to be maintained as it is, but especially as the necessary urban premise to the city, which cannot be really understood, and experienced, without its natural complement. With the conviction that it is possible to learn to be Venetian, even only for one single day.


1 Description of the lagoon in the high Middle Ages by Cassiodoro (470-562 a.D.), minister of the Goth king Teodorico, in a letter written to the tribunes of the maritime cities of his Reign.

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