The city of Venice was founded in the fifth century, developing from a group of small island communities that each centered on a local church. From the beginning, in an effort to preserve their heritage and culture, Venetians buried priests and nobility within these churches. As time went on, this practice became routine and was expanded to include any member of the community with the appropriate resources or personal ties. Napoleon, after conquering the Venetian republic, abolished this practice due to health concerns. To this day, however, Venice exists with many of its original churches and the artifacts contained therein.
Centuries of burials and the gradual subsidence of the city (and consequent construction of new, higher floors and pavements) have led to the stratification of the church floors, many now containing several layers of artifacts. Beneath the current surface of these floors lie hundreds of items that exist as an historical record of Venetian culture and tradition – moments frozen in time. These artifacts include tombstones, plaques, and inscriptions. The earliest "ledger" stones date back to the 11th century, covering the tomb, allowing access to the grave, commemorating the family, and displaying inscriptions and biographical information – age, date of death, and occupation – about the deceased.
A lack of burial space in the 14th century led the Venetian government to adopt different entombment methods. Sealant that had originally lined the bottom of tombs was replaced, either by wooden planks spaced three centimeters apart or an arrangement of bricks that did not use mortar. In both cases, space was left to allow the natural passage of water that came with the tides. As the water passed through, the human remains within the grave decomposed and eventually were taken away by the tides – over several years, this action would free space that was needed for future burials. This practice not only caused significant damage to the floors, however, but was also eventually outlawed by Napoleon in the early 19th century to prevent disease transmission during the warm summer months. Since the Napoleonic conquest, all burials have taken place on the nearby island of San Michele, which still exists today as Venice’s main cemetery.
The rich history contained within Venetian church floors is threatened by two forces. The first and foremost is water damage – every structure in Venice is susceptible to the water damage that accompanies the ever-rising tides. Church floors are especially susceptible because many of the artifacts are contained on or below the surface of the floor, much lower than the treasures on the walls that most conservation efforts tend to preserve first. Canal water often has corrosive properties, and it causes deterioration each time it comes into contact with the floors. The second threat to church floors is foot traffic; the more usage a church sees, the more wear and tear is exerted on the floor. Over time, foot traffic can be very damaging to a floor, wearing down deeply-engraved inscriptions to complete illegibility.
In 1987, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the entire city of Venice a site of extreme cultural importance. In that same year, the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA, launched the Venice Project Center (VPC). In conjunction with the Soprintendenza dall'Archeologica (Archeological Superintendent) and the VPC, undergraduate students from WPI have been studying Venetian churches since 2000. Their work has produced some of the most extensive data in existence about Venetian church floors.
Data collection has fallen into three main categories, the first being "Art, Designs, and Materials." The second involves all measurements taken within the churches, and the third is the actual evaluation of the conditions of the floor1. There have been a total of 770 artifacts and 308 floor quadrants surveyed. The text of each artifact has been transcribed, and useful historical and biographical information was extracted from the artifact inscriptions. Artifacts that have names and appear to be tombstones have been identified as such, and names, dates of death, age at death, and professions have been extracted when the information was available. Complete lists of translations are available in WPI's database2.
Seventy churches in Venice and its lagoon have yet to be studied. It is very likely that many of these churches have artifacts in their floors, and it is important that their information be recorded in an effort to contribute to Venice’s rich and diverse historical record3.