In this chapter, we take a look at how the Venice we know and love became what it is today, by tracing its physical, historical and artistic development.
The Origins and Development of Venice’s Forma Urbis
The origins of Venice proper date to approximately 810 AD, when the Doge’s capital was first temporarily and then permanently moved from Malamocco (on today’s Lido, i.e. on a barrier island separating the lagoon from the Adriatic Sea) to the Rivo Alto ("high bank") islands in the safer, central part of the Lagoon1.
Figure 1. The original "Rivo Alto" islands (red)2
The shape of the city (forma urbis) was initially dictated by the distribution of islets around a main tidal channel, which was to become the Grand Canal (red islands in Figure). Smaller channels, branching off the main trunk, separated these natural sandbars from one another. These channels were the ancestors of today’s canals that criss-cross the city (blue, in Figure).
Starting from these naturally occurring grassy islands (barene), the city of Venice began to develop with the gradual reclaiming of land from the waters between islands, which were thus incrementally brought closer and closer to each other until only small canals separated them. New islands were created with the mud dredged from existing channels and the city eventually acquired the fish-like shape that it retains to this day3, molded around the Grand Canal around which it all started. This sort of "wharfing out" process, not unlike what happened around the Boston waterfront and in the Back Bay, was piecemeal, but guided by primitive forms of “planning” in the form of Ducal edicts, grants, permits and prescriptions. Already in 811 AD, the very first Doge in the new Rialto headquarters, Agnello Partecipazio, had established a special Magistrate “to oversee the enlargement and the “design” of the island of Rialto, to supervise the proper reclamation and embankment of sandbars and marshes nearby, and to fortify and protect the lidi from the impetus of the sea” .
Today, Venice is composed of 126 islands, separated by about 200 canals and connected by about 450 bridges. The fortuitous beginnings of the city, which was initially just a loose “federation” of small island villages, created an imprint that had a lasting impact on future urban development and may very well have indirectly influenced its civic and political organization as well.
The Island Module
Due to the significant separation between the initial set of islands, each one developed into a somewhat independent community, centered around a place of worship (initially a chapel and subsequently a church), with a public field , similar to the New England commons, on which animals could graze. The campo occupied the core of the island, usually behind or alongside the church, which was generally positioned with its main façade overlooking a canal, as indeed was every other building.
Figure 2. Campo S.Giovanni e Paolo [2 Knopf, p. 78, 79].
It is quite probable that each island-community had some sort of a village-chief, whose dwelling was probably indistinguishable from the rest, although it might have rested on slightly higher ground, less prone to flooding, but such altimetric differences had to be minor indeed. Due to the often temporary nature of the initial settlements , the churches, as well as the houses of both rich and poor, were initially all made of driftwood and reeds and covered with thatched roofs. Residences occupied the perimeter of the island, separated by very narrow alleys which connected the canal to the central campo.
Pedestrian mobility was utterly secondary with respect to water transportation, due to the nature of the territory. For quite a while, streets were just accidental by-products of the development of the urban quilt. All houses had fenced backyards in which small vegetable plots were planted for basic sustenance . Differences started to emerge only later, when more durable materials were introduced, often as a consequence of the dismantling of abandoned mainland buildings. Churches were the first to be rebuilt with wood planks and beams and later with bricks and stones. The richer people followed suit and eventually expanded their homes by adding a second floor, made of wood, on top of a ground floor built of stone, such as is still commonly done in nearby alpine villages. For quite a while, the roofs continued to be still made of reeds. Fires were a constant threat to these fragile settlements , and the physical separation among islands might have been actually seen as a form of insurance against total destruction of the Dogado. Once again, when the natural forma urbis served a “useful” purpose, what was initially a casual arrangement became the object of coordinated preservation, management, planning and control.
This island-module dominated the development of the city even as the islands grew closer together and increased in number. “Isolation” was ensured by the complete lack of bridges until the XII century , thus fostering the independent and autonomous nature of each cell of the forming civitas rivo alti. Today, one can still see evidence of the modular development of the various islands, even though this is hidden somewhat by the dense fabric of the city (figure 2). Each island still contains at least one church, which often faces a canal with a square (now paved) running along its flank or expanding right behind it. Modest dwellings and rich palazzi flank the square and form the perimeter of the island to this day, continuing the millenary tradition that always saw rich and poor share the space and rub elbows on a daily basis in a mutually beneficial symbiosis. As Lane said, “rich and poor lived cheek and jowl. Each parish was a diversified but integrated community” .
“You have only plenty of fish, rich and poor live together in equality, a single food feeds everyone; uniform dwellings protect each one of you; so nobody can desire the belongings of others and, by so living, you avoid envy which is the worst vice in the world”
More than a thousand years before Lane, shortly after the year 500 AD, a minister of Theodoricus, by the name of Cassiodorus, expressed the same concept when he wrote a very famous letter to the Tribunes that had ruled the lagoon federation since 466 AD . Despite the more or less casual beginnings, the blending of the various social strata and the fine grained spatial distribution of the powerful families was understood by all to be a successful recipe to avoid decadence and strife. What Cassiodorus observed at the very beginning of Venetian independence, was perpetuated — more or less consciously — throughout the long history of the Republic, until its demise in 1797, through a series of written and unwritten rules intended to foster the egalitarian nature of Venetian urban space.
Physical and Political Structures of Venice
The independent development of the island-modules engendered an equanimous distribution of power in the built environment, and prevented the formation of rich enclaves and poor favelas which prevailed everywhere else in Europe at that time (see brown palaces in Figure 3).
Figure 3. The distribution of palaces in Venice (brown) [6 Palaces IQP, p. xx].
This concept of mixing (mistione) of rich and poor was “idealized as the foundation of internal harmony” and was in effect institutionalized by the Serenissima Republic.
The Doge’s Palace itself was actually an island and, unlike the rest of the fledgling city, it was heavily fortified and occupied the site where the Doge’s Palace still stands today. Originally, the palace was completely surrounded by a moat-like canal, with draw-bridges connecting it to the surrounding islands (see top right of Figure 4).
When the body of St. Mark was abducted from Alexandria (Egypt) in 828 AD, a church was built in his honor right next to the Doge’s fortress (at left of moat in Figure 4), supplanting the original Saint Theodorus as the patron saint of the City . The winged lion of St. Mark became the symbol of the fledgling republic from then on.
Figure 4. The Doge's "fortress" [2 Knopf, p. 220].
From the beginning, the State represented the unifying power for the original island communities and the Doge was always considered to be a glorified civil servant and not a autocratic ruler. The Doge’s moved into the Palace with his family and made it his home for the rest of his life, but the palace was also very much the busy heart of the republican government.
Function and efficiency were largely preferred over form and embellishments on civic buildings, as is best exemplified by the city granary and salt warehouses. One can find, in every government building, an ingenuous mixture of functionality and beauty. Except for religious architecture, one would be hard-pressed to find in all of Venice a single example of a structure that was merely ornamental and not efficient or eminently functional. Unlike today, parsimony was considered a patriotic virtue in the State of St.Mark, so costs were always kept at a minimum and extravagant expenditures of public funds were frowned upon and basically never made. Without overdoing it, the State skillfully used the façades of public buildings to reinforce the libertas Reipublicae and to instill civic pride in all its citizens. In Venice, “civic architecture adheres to the precepts of a collective ethic that aims with an eye constantly trained on the ‘birth’ [of the city] at safeguarding and transmitting communal values”. Venice’s role in Mediterranean diplomacy also required that it maintain an impressive image in the pursuit of balanced public relations with the outside world.
The supremacy of the State over all its citizens was further emphasized by playing down both the differences among the ruling class and between the latter and the rest of the citizenry. Until the XVI century, a self-imposed restraint from the overt ostentation of riches was exercised by the merchant families to preserve the stability of the Venetian Republic through the “harmonious equality” of the patritiate. This intentional mediocritas was in fact prescribed since the origins of the Dogado by the government deliberation proposed by Zeno Daulo that dictated:
“for more equality and similitude […] to forgo the palaces and magnificent houses in order to not outdo each other; mandating by law that all houses should be even, similar, of the same size and ornamentation.”
Figure 5. A sequence of palaces on the Grand Canal shows their “uniform“ height, despite the differing styles [2 Knopf, p. xx].
Despite the success of the Daulo Act, Francesco Sansovino (Jacopo’s son) later remarked that “as a consequence of the growth of the merchant fortunes that have always been the backbone of this Republic, [the palaces] have risen and lowered in height according to the tastes of the builders”. He also notes that the elders, in spite of their parsimony, were rather lavish in the decoration of the interiors of their dwellings . Fortunately, the trend toward bigger and more elaborate palazzi was kept in check by the physical characteristics of the terrain, which precluded the construction of buildings more than four stories high .
Although traditionally a conservative bunch, eventually the Venetian nobility fell prey to the materialistic attraction of the Renaissance, when a heated debate took place in the aristocratic circles about the renovatio urbis with two main sides to the dispute, roughly aligned along pro-papal and pro-imperial positions. The former were proponents of embracing the new spirit that had already conquered Florence and Rome, while the other side was much more moderate and lukewarm to all this new fashion . Eventually there were some departures from the time-honored architectural Puritanism, but these came late in the history of Venice, when decadence had set in and the commercial power of the Republic was waning.
One could argue that the seed of the final breakdown of the Daulian restraint on private architecture came when “the lion stepped onto dry land” (as metaphorically represented by artists like Giorgione) and Venice extended territorial control to the mainland, where wealthy patricians began to build lavish villas far away from the conservative eyes of the dominante. In this period, many noble families lived a double life of luxury and excess in the mainland while they maintained a façade of stark and traditional restraint in town. Eventually, some of the country lifestyle made its way into the city, albeit slowly and quietly.
Figure 6. The procedure for the election of the Doge [2 Knopf, p. 232] .
The gradual development of the physical infrastructure of the City was mirrored by the incremental development of the political government structures, which were constantly modified to ensure that no single family or individual could have supreme power over the City-state, making it impossible for a Signoria to come into being, as indeed was happening in almost every other city in medieval Europe. As a telling example of this constant pursuit of balance one should consider the labyrinthine mechanism for the election of the Doge which is illustrated in Figure 6 (see footnote for details). The only lifetime government appointments were the Doge, who was a member of the elite aristocracy, and the Grand Chancellor, who was strictly a representative of the regular population . This was another form of balance between rich and not-so-rich, which is a constant refrain in many other aspects of Venetian life. The Scuole, discussed below are another major equalizing factor between citizens and noblemen.
All other political posts were extremely brief in duration, six months at most, and allowed no re-election to avoid entrenchment and corruption. If one was elected to a post, he could not refuse the position. No campaigning was allowed and all elections were impartial and often by lot. Essentially, every noblemen had to be a jack-of-all-trades and fill the most varied positions in the numerous committees and magistrature which composed the patchwork of Venetian institutions. One could be an ambassador to Constantinople one year, and the next a judge, or a state attorney, or a supervisor of salt trade, and so on.
Figure 7. The "hands" used to cast the "balote" shown in their case [2 Knopf, p. 233] .
Voting and electing were the major activities that took place daily at the Doge’s palace , orchestrated by the Grand Chancellor who wielded enormous power, being at the center of the complex bureaucratic machinery of the republic, and the pinnacle of the regular population of the City (see Figure 7 and its footnote for some interesting details about voting in Venice).
The State was the only supreme political power and the rich families for the most part were content to enjoy their “stealth wealth” in private. Special sumptuary laws expressly prohibited excessive ostentation of wealth both in clothing and in other outward manifestations, such as the decoration of the family gondolas (which is why all gondolas are all black to this day).
Figure 8. A Venetian Ducat [2 Knopf, p. 38] .
Nothing was to upset the delicate balance of the Republic of St.Mark. Every step was taken to ensure that individual aspirations were always subservient to the paramount interests of the community as a whole. There was to be absolutely no glorification of individual achievements , no heroes, no George Washingtons, no Mao Tze Tungs, no Fidel Castros. Only the winged lion of St.Mark was glorified and showcased around the city, on public buildings, wellheads, ships, flags and currency (although the Doge’s name did appear on one side of the Ducat, he was shown kneeling in front of Saint Mark as a servant to the Republican cause, Figure 8).
In the interest of the entire community, the prudence and restraint exercised in architecture and urban development went hand in hand with the parallel formation of government institutions. As we shall see in the following chapters, there were other aspects of Venetian life that exhibited the same traits and complemented the urban politics just described.
- the gradual reclaiming of land between two piers along the waterfront of a harbor. As land between piers ir reclaimed, new, longer piers are built and the landmass thus gradually enlarges as a consequence.