Venice 1.0 - today

Tourism in Venice

(originators: Jonathan Bahlatzis, Sophia D'Angelo, Hamlet Nina and Ilan Shomorony)

In a world where globalization is on the rise, travel has become more accessible to the society as a whole. World trends have indicated that tourism is on the rise. International arrivals have risen from 25 million to 846 million over the last sixty years and tourism has become the number one world wide export generating approximately $733 billion in 2006 . The city of Venice, Italy constitutes a portion of this world number, seeing approximately 15,000,000 tourists every year . Tourism and its related activities generate the majority of Venetian income as well as employment. Major economic sectors in Venice such as commerce, transportation, food industry, and entertainment are directly dependent upon business provided by the millions of tourists that visit the city every year. Like almost all of the multifaceted influences that affect Venetian life, tourism has its benefits, but is not without its contrasting detriments. This chapter will explore the inflow of tourism, its positive and negative impacts, as well as its social implications.

Venice’s beautiful architecture, rich culture, and wondrous canals have proven to be the city’s main attractions. Huge numbers of tourists now frequent the city. In the year 2002, there were 14,663,000 tourist presences in Venice’s Centro Storico, of which approximately 3.6 million were residential tourists and 11 million were excursionists. Increased prices in Venice have resulted in an increase in the number of excursionist tourists with respect to the residential tourists. The number of improper excursionists increased from 3 million people in 1996 to well over 5 million in 2002. A tourist may prefer to be an excursionist instead of an overnighter because the latter may include higher lodging costs than if the tourist commuted from home or from a cheaper hotel in another location. Over eighty percent of the tourists in Venice stay less than one day on the city . Although the excursionists constitute the majority of the tourist population they contributes less to Venetian income than the residential tourists. Conversely, residential tourists contribute most of the Venetian tourism income . The graphs below show the breakdown of residential to excursionist tourism as well as the income generated by each. It is important to notice that although only 24% of visitors are residential tourists, they contribute 60% of all tourist income in Venice .


Figure 1: Yearly tourism population vs. tourism generated income

If the trend of excursionist tourism continues without a proportional residential tourism growth, it is possible that tourism-accommodating businesses such as hotels may be negatively affected. However, national and regional laws approved the allowance of the bed and breakfasts, which prior to 2001 were illegal. Subsequently, the number of beds in the city increased. Currently there are 19,101 beds in the Centro Storico, of which 13,728 are hotel beds. The remaining are beds at hostels, bed and breakfasts, and other lodging establishments. This number has doubled since the year 2000 from 2,508 to 5,373.

In 1991 studies and experiments indicated that the carrying capacity of Venice was 22,500 visitors, but only a maximum of 10,700 of these should be excursionists . The carrying capacity limits are constantly violated, especially during the summer months with peak days of more than 45,000 tourists . To support the entry of such large number of tourists into Venice, the city has a respectable infrastructure which is made up by two major airports, a train station and bridge as well as properly planned inter-city and lagoon transportation system. These entry points are; Marco Polo and Treviso airport, Santa Lucia train station, the bridge to the mainland, the Venice port, litorale nord and litorale sud. The following graphic represents all tourist entry points as well as the volume of tourists coming in through each for one day during high season.


Figure 2: Tourism arrivals for a day during high season

When analyzing respective data pertaining to the benefits of tourism, the importance of it as a driving socioeconomic force in Venice becomes even clearer. Tourism has proven to be an excellent economic activity in Venice, generating over €1 billion in 2002 . According to estimates made by the World Travel Guide, tourism provides 70% of the total income of Venice, and it is responsible for the generation of at least 50% of the jobs . In actuality the unemployment rate for Venice is 4.2% as opposed to an Italian national rate of 8.7%, showing that Venice is comparably in excellent standing . Out of the twenty regions that compose the Italian territory, the Veneto is ranked first in terms of its quota of the Italian tourism, being the destination of 12.2% of all tourist movements to Italy or within Italy . Moreover, from the €28 billion spent in Italy during the year of 2004 by foreign tourists, the Veneto region accounted for €4.4 billion while over €2.4 billion were spent solely in the commune of Venice , as shown in the graph below.


Figure 3: Tourism income in Venice in comparison to the rest of Italy

There are also a number of less obvious benefits for the city of Venice. The millions of visitors, who carry the Venetian reputation back to their home countries and advertise by word of mouth, also raise awareness for city needs. Thanks to them, several institutions such as Save Venice and Venice in Peril exist, promoting the global awareness of Venetian issues and raising funds to restore and preserve the City of Water. Groups like these are responsible for over 250 restorations all over the city . In addition, the population enjoys an efficient and well planned public transportation system which is mainly supported by tourism. In this sense, the intense influx of tourists in Venice and the city’s dependency on the money generated from it, act as a strong political argument on behalf of Venice. It attracts large amounts of investments, both from international organizations and from the Italian government.

The rise of tourism has brought with it many economic benefits but not without having its negative impacts. One of the main problems easily found by anyone visiting the island is pedestrian traffic. Heavy pedestrian traffic and crowding in the city lower the residential comfort level by making it more difficult for Venetians to get around the city and go about their daily duties.


Figure 4: Tourist congestion around Rialto

One of the first documented negative effects of traffic generated by tourism in Venice is the physical wear and tear on the infrastructure of the city. Every year, the millions of tourists that traverse the city in search of sights to see and souvenirs to purchase literally break the city apart. A walk across any of the numerous bridges in Venice is evidence of this when one views the middle of each step worn down whole centimeters just from the passage of people over them. Stones break from traditional architecture and often public art is all but recognizable from wear.


Figure 5: Wear and tear caused by tourists on a Venetian bridge

All this wear and tear leads to huge costs for the city of Venice in order to maintain, not even restore – these worn façades of past Venetian culture. Every year, the Venetian government spends close to €250 million on costs associated with tourism. Other than the infrastructural maintenance, repair, and restoration there is also the cost of dealing with all of the garbage and waste generated by the millions of tourists, cost of law enforcement, and environmental pollution. While adding to the amount of garbage in Venice, tourists also add to the amount of litter on the streets. Due to the high cost of food and other items in Venice, day trippers are becoming an increasingly popular trend. These day trippers often bring bagged lunches and leave their garbage behind .


Figure 6: Tourists illegally eating lunch in San Marco

Due to this issue and other related ones Venice has not only created a branch of government called the Office of Decorum but also started fining for infractions that seem relatively minor on the large scale of problems in the city. Offenses now cited include dropping soda cans and food wrappers on the ground, dipping feet into the fabled canals, sleeping in the shady alleys, picnicking on ancient paving stones, and even walking around without a shirt. Walking down the street sans shirt can be subject to a 50 to 500 euro fine! ($70 to $710) (Venice Tourists Must Stay Respectable or Face Fines)


Figure 7: Sign of rules in San Marco

Venice has actually hired “hostesses” in tourist hot spot areas such as St Mark’s Square. These multilingual women carry badges, copies of the new rules, and cell phones to call for reinforcements when necessary. These hostesses’ sole job is to prevent tourists from perpetrating horrible crimes such as sitting down to eat their bag lunches or falling asleep in public.


Figure 8: Rules being enforced by a hostess

On any given day, there are at least 89 foreigners on average for every 100 Venetians residents. This is actually the highest tourist-to-resident ratio in Europe. To put this in perspective, it is nine times that found in the Italian city of Florence. During high season the ratio of foreigners to residents is even worse. Every day the city’s 62,000 residents see themselves outnumbered with the crowding of 46,000 daily tourists as well as a commuting work force of 47,000 and 25,000 students entering the Centro Storico from Mestre and other surrounding towns every day. The ratio then becomes 100 foreigners for every 53 residents. The graphic below represents the disproportion of non-residents to residents for a day during high tourist season.


Figure 9: Disproportion of non-residents to residents for a day

Venice’s unique geography and urbanization limits the expansion of the city to accommodate the growing tourist population. Since Venice is an island, the construction of new buildings or expansions are restricted, often due to regulations governing updating of historical buildings. With a disproportion of tourists and working commuters to residents as well as inflated prices and high costs of living, many of the city’s residents opt to abandon the city in order to find a better quality of life. Intertwined with the Venetian residents is also the city’s history and heritage which declines with the population.

Socially, one of the farthest reaching effects of tourism in Venice is the astronomical cost of living. Rents have sky-rocketed as the ‘rich and famous’ have bought Venetian real estate. But while fortunes are paid for water-side villas, the landlords tend to be absentee or itinerant. Consequently, in winter Venice is all but deserted, except for the dwindling local population and tourists . The sky-high prices of real estate in Venice have caused a resident migration. For example, in Venice, a 100 square meter (1,075 sq ft) property can cost up to €1 million. This is two or three times the price of comparable, newer, properties less than 6 km away in Mestre . The high price of living and the large influx of tourists, commuting workers and students coming in every day make a perfect recipe for low residential comfort level and thus residential decline. In 1950 there was close to 150,000 people living in the city. Current numbers show that a more consistent average is 62,000, with about 2000 people dying every year and a mean age of 50 years. If the current declining trends continue it is predicted that Venice may be a ghost town within fifty years. There have been a large number of schools closed over the last fifty years. One of the last kindergartens in the historic centre of Venice was closed on April 6th, 2007 and turned into Venice’s 231st hotel. This is a significant symbol of Venice’s development into an almost strictly tourist based city. As of 2006, 25% of the population was over the age of 64.

The Venetian director of CORILA, the organization that orchestrates Venice’s scientific activities is quoted as saying “We desperately need more young people. One way to attract them is to build up the university and high-tech sectors.” Although this may seem as a good idea to keep the youth of Venice from migrating elsewhere, it becomes nearly impossible to modernize Venice due to its “Heritage city” status and restrictions. Keeping a whole city restored, especially given the exceptionally difficult and unique physical environment, is extremely difficult and made more difficult by severe financial restraints. The problem of being a heritage city is that there is a demand to freeze the city in the past. In 1987 the entire city and the lagoon were added to the World Heritage List . The picture below illustrates typical Venetian façades.


Figure 10: Typical Venetian facades

Venice as a heritage city and its residents have become a “spectacle” of tourism. This spectacle may very well be the cause of residential decline. With a declining population it is possible that the city may be slowly losing the breathing heritage that gives it life. Some have said that if the residential decline continues, Venice may be no different than a theme park such as Disney World with the exception of stricter geographical limitations. For example, Disney World is in an area which allows expansion in order to create a greater infrastructure that can support the increase in visitors. Venice on the other hand has experienced a large increase in the number of tourists, but the overall infrastructure and boundaries have already been saturated. Regardless of the limitations, some believe that Disney is the answer to save Venice and preserve its heritage from an uncertain future. The comparison between Venice and strictly tourist parks such as Disney is becoming ever increasingly popular. In June 2006 an economist and columnist for the Financial Times made a speech at the “Venice in Peril” debate, on the side of the motion: “Enough money has been spent on saving Venice.” His words were “Today 12 million people a year pay €50 a head to visit Eurodisney. It is quite clear when you see it in these terms that if the Disney Corporation owned Venice, Venice would no longer be in peril.” Another writer John Kay declares, “Disney is not the best answer: but anything would be better than the squabbles, corruption, and delays of Italian politics.”

A more simple, immediate, and practical approach to alleviate the tourism problems is by promoting more residential tourism and reducing the number of the less-beneficial excursionist tourists. The vicious cycle of tourism development in heritage destinations suggests: the imposition of tariffs on those who do not book a hotel room, or other forms of “disincentive” to excursions. An advance booking system based on telecommunications could easily be integrated with the free issue of a «City Smart Card» to those who reserve, granting a series of benefits to their owners: a win-win solution that is recently gaining support in political circles. On the contrary, taxation on overnight stays – such as hotel-room taxes – reveals contra-productive as it discriminates against staying visits . The benefits of this approach would theoretically be an increase in tourism income and furthermore, a decrease in the number of the less-beneficial excursionists. This suggestion has not been implemented, therefore its practical effects on tourism income and numbers has not been verified. Others have abandoned all possibility of finding a solution and have said, “If you love Venice, let her die” . There are obvious conflictions between personal opinions on the future of Venice but one thing is for sure, Venice has been and still is one of the most wondrous cities in the world.


Figure 11: Ponte dei Sospiri

Worldwide, tourism is one of the most rapidly growing economic sectors and historically and aesthetically rich cities like Venice can easily become a one industry city, while its other economic activities decline. As long as the city is still afloat, tourism will continue to support it and destroy it. How long the city will be around for everyone to enjoy is just a question of proper planning and tourism management which up until now has failed to regulate the Venetian tourism carrying capacity violations. One thing that the proper authorities must recognize is that in terms of sustainability, economic interests must be balanced with the infrastructural, environmental, social, and economic constraints of the city – long term as well as short. It should be noted that often times, if not handled properly and regulated, tourism can even lead to loss of local traditions and gradual impoverishment of social structures.

The Venetian Retail Sector

(originators: Jonathan Bahlatzis, Sophia D'Angelo, Hamlet Nina and Ilan Shomorony)

Venice, a city that was once a major maritime power and important center of commerce is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Its location on the Adriatic Sea enabled it to become a major stop on trade routes. As a main commerce center would, Venice flourished in population, economy, and power until the mid twentieth century. Originally Venetian retail was one of the strongest contributors to its economy but after WWI and WWII tourism became Venice’s main industry and economic support. Tourism is cited by most Venetians and even many outsiders, to be the main cause for the decline in traditional retail. The truth is that rise of tourism is only part of the cause of this decline. In reality, factors such as residential decline and world social and economic trends are also major contributors in this decline in the number of traditional and basic necessity stores such as butchers, bakers, and grocers.

However, a decline in the number of traditional food and basic necessities stores does not necessarily mean a decline in the retail sector as a whole. Since the total number of retail stores is not declining, it can only mean that touristic and non-food shops have been replacing traditional retail stores. There is indeed a decline in traditional retail stores in Venice that may be related to an evident influx of tourism related stores. Between 1990 and 2000 the number of traditional retail stores has decreased from 675 to 575. Seventy-five of those stores were providers of basic need items like bread, meat, and vegetables. In the same period the number of restaurants has increased by 110 and the number of bars has increased by 77. This fact, however, does not necessarily mean that this is an inherently negative result of tourism.

Figure 1: Decline of basic necessity stores since 1971

The rise of tourism has also brought with it a demand for tourist oriented shops such as souvenir or high fashion clothes shops. The change of a retail sector is usually influenced by a transformation in the economy and physical surroundings. Based on demand in an area, the population an area must adjust its selection of products or supply. A high tourist population, for example, will most likely increase touristic product demand such as ready made food or souvenirs. An area such as Saint Mark’s Square contains 870 open stores, and as can be expected, many stores are targeted at tourists such as jewelry, Murano glass, and souvenir shops. The reality is that tourism in some ways is one of Venetian retail’s saving graces. It has been found in numerous cases that if a food store or traditional retail store closed and a tourist related shop such as a mask or souvenir shop did not replace it, it would remain empty and the city would lose one more source of commerce.

Figure 2: Closed store that has not been replaced

Tourism is actually a major factor in the stimulation of retail because tourists are usually the only people willing to pay for the often overpriced items in Centro Storico. However, those tourists who pay for overpriced items only facilitate inflation. For other tourists who are not as inclined to overpay or who simply cannot afford to overpay visiting Venice can become a burden. For some of these tourists day-tripping is the answer, where they save money by not having to pay for an overnight hotel stay. This however is less of a problem for Venetians, who pay at least 30% to 40% less than tourists for the simple fact that they are locals.

To illustrate this, Franco Conte the head of the Venetian branch of Codacons, the Italian consumer rights group is quoted saying, "If you are Italian, a croissant and a cappuccino costs €3.50 (£2.40)," he said. "If you speak another language, it costs €7. In restaurants, a pizza and a drink for two people costs between €20 and €25 for locals, perhaps cheaper for Venetians - but €50 to €60 if you are forestieri." Forestieri refers to foreigners and literally translated means "from the forest" or foreigner.

In 2002, the Euro, which was rapidly spreading across Europe, was introduced to Italy. When Italy adopted the Euro in place of the traditional Lira, prices all over Italy increased drastically and people were hit especially hard in Venice – an already overpriced and economically unfavorable retail setting. In a time when locals were unwilling to spend frivolously, tourists were the major contributors in maintaining Venetian commerce and income.

Figure 3: Tourists have been supporting Venetian retail

Why does the decline in traditional retail matter? Comfort level. Within the scope of retail, comfort level is defined as the ease in which consumers can obtain their basic necessities such as bread, meats and poultry, and fruits and vegetables. With a mean population age of fifty years, comfort level is a serious issue in Venice because as more stores close, people must walk further in order to obtain their basic necessities. An example of basic necessity comfort level of the sestieri of Dorsoduro is shown below. It can be seen that for most of the islands which make up the sestieri, the basic necessity comfort level is either below average or low.

Figure 4: Basic necessity comfort level map of Dorsoduro

The ability to obtain daily needs in one area is beneficial, convenient, and appealing to people. In Venice’s past it was common to find clusters of basic needs stores. Within a small neighborhood or block, typically there would be a butcher, grocer, baker and if you were lucky, even a candle stick maker. The importance of the proximity of cluster stores is that they rely on each other to offer different products. It is detrimental if one cluster store is not able to operate profitably or meet the local demand. If one of the stores closes, then the other stores next to it will suffer. A consumer may venture to another area to do his/her daily shopping, which in turn takes business away from the original sellers. In addition, if a bigger store such as a supermarket contains a wide variety of goods, it will probably replace the need to shop at three or four smaller retail stores. However, if a store with a diversified selection of basic necessity products such as a supermarket is not very near then the comfort level of a resident is not necessarily increased. This often results in residents travelling to regions with higher comfort levels and lower costs of living such as Mestre which is only 6km away seem more attractive to Venetian residents.

One theory about the level of comfort for an individual is presented by Christopher Bates. His theory states that there is a formula pertaining to the willingness of a person to travel in order to obtain his needs. P=F*k/t^2 is his derived formula which can be described as the following:
P= the willingness of the consumer to travel to the area where his needs are located
F= the area of the store
K= the physical attractiveness that the store can offer to the consumer
T= the time it takes for the consumer to travel to the location

A value of P greater than 1 demonstrates a greater willingness for an individual to travel elsewhere to obtain their daily needs; whereas a number below one shows that an individual is less willing to travel a greater distance or to other areas to a destination to obtain products.

Taking into account the daily needs of the Venetians, the formula can show the overall satisfaction of the Venetians and why they will travel to the mainland to obtain their needs. Factored into the formula is the lack of availability and attractiveness that Venetian stores have to offer to their inhabitants. While the local shops around them might have the basic necessities that they need, these shops may not have the selection that the Venetians prefer. Although this may seem trivial, one must remember that as society advances, demands increase beyond basic primitive needs. A store may provide the necessities a Venetian needs such as basic living needs, but some luxuries are often desired. The stores on the mainland become more desirable to the shopper because of the wider availability of selection. Also, there are different modes of reliable, accessible and cheap travel to the mainland such as train, bus, and boat . This trend does not completely destroy the local traditional food store economy in Venice but it does put a strain on the stores. The supermarkets on the mainland become the main source of acquiring basic necessity goods but the local city stores are a source of convenience for picking up smaller daily needs. It has been found through survey of Venetians that approximately 93 percent of citizens shop at supermarkets either often or always, while roughly only 25 percent said they go to small stores either often or always.

The reasons Venetians shop for food at different types of stores is unique to each individual shopper. When quality and personal connection are indispensable, people tend to still favor small food stores, while the majority of Venetians purchase their food products at supermarkets. It is true that many citizens complain about the recession of small food stores and are very nostalgic for the old Venice, where one would visit the same butcher, baker, and grocer every day. For many, supporting these traditional businesses is indeed within their means, but they still choose the convenience of the supermarket.

Figure 5: One of the many supermarkets that has opened in Venice

This type of trend however is not unique to Venetians. It actually mirrors the general trend in most parts of the world. Currently, worldwide retail sales for independent grocers are on the decline. In modern society where convenience and low prices are everything, the majority of people prefer to use supermarkets.
A small analysis of 25 food stores and 4 supermarkets in the sestieri of Cannaregio showed that with the arrival of the 4 supermarkets between the year 2000 and 2005 all 25 food stores closed. Within that small sample of stores, 40% of the food stores were lost with the arrival of the supermarkets while the other 60% was replaced by other food stores. This small analysis is not enough to prove that supermarket openings is directly causing a decline in traditional food stores but it is a valid assumption that it may be one of the main contributing factors. Below is a graph representing the decline of traditional food stores from 1971 to 2005 as well as the increase in store closures .

Figure 6: The decline of basic necessity stores since 1971

Venice is a city of numerous antiquated laws - many of which have been “on the books” for centuries, but rarely enforced. John Berendt mentions in his book The City of Falling Angels when quoting a Venetian resident, that if the average citizen “added up all the taxes and fees you supposedly owe, you’d have to pay something like one hundred and forty percent of your income.” These laws are fluid and always changing and the retail stores change accordingly in response. Up until June 11, 1971 Venice only required an informal licensing agreement in order to operate a retail store. It was then that Venice finally began to require specific and limiting operating licenses for these stores according to the goods they offered (Law 426). This is when the first retail data collected by the city began to appear. Then in 1998, Law 114 was passed. This law allowed any store less than 250 square meters to be able to open and operate with little more than notifying Venice of their opening and plans. This allows the large majority of Venetian stores to operate without a formal license, but luckily there is still some tracking done on the basis of the store opening notifications .

The strictest laws regulating tourist shops are placed on two of Venice’s most famous areas, the Rialto Bridge and St. Mark’s Square. Store licenses from other areas are non-transferable to these two regions. This limit does not apply exclusively to tourist shops in these areas, but bars and restaurants as well. If a shop closes in this area then one is able to move in, but the absolute number of stores in the region is fixed, such as 870 stores in the sesteri of San Marco.

The government also attempts to shelter residential areas from tourism. These areas are Campo Santa Margherita in Dorsoduro, San Leonardo in Cannaregio, Via Garibaldi in Castello, and the Rialto in San Polo / San Marco. In areas such as those it is actually illegal to open any store that may fall within the tourist category. The government even offers small incentives to anyone who opens a food store in one of these four zones such as 50% reduction of the price for trash removal and tax exemptions for public space protrusions such as signs, awnings, or displays.

However, street vendors are a different situation. These vendors are actually rarely taxed, if at all. In actuality, almost 27% of Italy’s gross domestic product is not accounted for due to the lack of taxation . Their plastic, garbage bags full of purses, sunglasses, and a multiplicity of other items to be sold can be found throughout the island of Venice. This untaxed commerce does not contribute much to the economy but rather just lines the pockets of the individual vendors.

Figure 7: Many vendors line the streets of Venice

Another aspect that needs to be taken into consideration when analyzing the Venetian retail dilemma is social trends. Young Venetians are opting to move away from Venice in search of lifestyles more like other more modern cities. These young people often go to college instead taking over the family business. When the owner of a traditional retail shop retires, it is customary for him to hand over his store to their children, however this next generation tends to not to be interested in the small shop owner life of long hours with little incentive.
In accordance with world trends towards modernization, family dynamics are also changing. Family size is smaller today than in the past. Rossella Palomba, of the CNR National Institute for Population Research has found that Italian couples feel under strong pressure to become parents - but "one child is enough to fulfill this social duty." So Italy has become the land of the single bambino or bambina: a quarter of women born in 1963 have only one child . Even eating habits have changed. Traditionally, Venetian families would all eat together for the majority of daily meals. People worked close to home and could travel back for meals very easily. With commuting distances increasing, workers often can not come home for lunch; it is much easier to eat out. Without large meals being made at home, less food is purchased from stores.

The Venetian retail situation is a multi-faceted issue with a number of influencing factors. Due to the dynamic nature of economics and more specifically trading, there are a number of factors that affect the development. The evolution of retail stores is affected by many issues such as industrialization, globalization, and the influx of tourism and it is a dynamic ever changing cycle. Trying to cite one specific aspect of life such as Tourism as the sole cause for traditional retail decline is a very presumptuous move. The decline is more likely a combination of social and economic factors such as costs of living, politics, population loss, employment, and world economic trends.

In cities like Venice, it is easy for the city’s socioeconomics to be overtaken by the tourism industry without proper regulation. In order to keep Venetians on the island, it is vital that measures be taken to preserve both residential areas as well as food stores so citizens can lead lives comparable to that of other cities. The Venetian government has taken steps to help regulate tourist shops in certain areas, as well as given incentives - albeit small ones - to shop owners in some of the residential areas. However, the Venetian government is notorious for its bureaucracy and inefficiencies that prevent proper regulation practices. Short term traditional retail will survive, however its future is not known. If it is to sustain itself, a balance between traditional and touristic retail and their influencing economic factors must be attained in order to preserve the traditional retail stores and the Venetian residents.

The Nautical Heritage of Venice

(originators: Bryan Bigda, Michelle Dubuke, Daniel LaTorella, and Jennifer Richards)

Strolling through the narrow streets of Venice, you hear the sound of an accordion bellowing a rustic-sounding melody, and the strong, yet mellow, voice of a Venetian singing to passengers in a gondola. Like most tourists, you stop on a bridge to snap pictures or to simply watch four or five gondole float beneath you, maneuvered eloquently around the twists and turns of the canals. This is the view that most people have of the Venetian culture of old, but it is not an entirely accurate one. The traditional boats of Venice filled the canals for centuries, until a drastic decline starting in the 1970’s. With the exception of the gondola, there are no traditional boats currently being produced in Venice for work purposes. However, what people do not realize is that the gondola is only one style among about 40 documented that fall into the category of traditional boats. Each one is hand-crafted with a unique design to carry out a specific task.

The fascinating world of traditional boats has shaped the Venetian culture and lifestyle for centuries, but many have no idea what constitutes a traditional Venetian boat. This lack of knowledge is not simple “tourist ignorance,” but is rather due to the fact that traditional boats are very rare today. Motor boats dominate the canals which, for the bigger part of Venice’s history, were traversed by rowed traditional boats. Once popular, there are no longer any facilities in Venice that still rent traditional boats to the public. One organization in Venice that is dedicated to keeping the heritage of the traditional Venetian boat alive is Arzanà. Arzanà consists of volunteer mariners who work to keep and restore traditional boats, as well as the nautical heritage that are associated with them. Arzanà works with boats that have been abandoned or donated in an effort to keep these precious artifacts from disappearing all together. The Venetian culture is greatly connected to traditional boats, whose very existence is threatened and whose legacy is doomed to be lost forever if there is no immediate action taken.

Replacing rowed boats with motor boats seems simple evolution; it is the natural step in the progress of the culture. Asking Venetians to return to total dependence on traditional boats would be akin to the return of the horse and carriage: a completely impractical solution. The traditional boats of Venice should be preserved as cultural treasures, in order to keep the nautical heritage, which has so visibly shaped the city, alive. The cultural and physical union with the sea is one that is rooted in the history and geography of Venice.

The city of Venice is built on 125 different islands, which are connected by over 182 canals and 473 different bridges. However, that level of structure didn’t always exist – early in the city’s history, the individual islands were isolated in their development; the only contact between islands was wooden planks and boats. Early Venetians recognized the link that they had with boats – they built homes not just for themselves, but also open-bottomed, three-sided structures which could house their boats. By the sixth century, they were known as formidable seamen. Venetians were famed for their maritime skills, including the innate ability to sail boats against the current.

Many Venetian customs and traditions developed around the dependence on the sea. According to tradition, the Doge, the ruling entity of Venice, was “married” to the sea. Each year, in a celebration called the Festa Della Sensa, the Doge would cast a large ring, as seen in Figure 1, into the sea. Similar to other cultures, Venice was prolific in its creation of art and architecture, and pieces typically were focused around different aspects of the city’s maritime heritage. One of the most popular tourist sites in Venice, St. Mark’s Basilica, contains many pieces of artwork depicting different boats and the sea. One example is the Translatio of St. Mark, seen in Figure 2, which is a mosaic from the 13th century that can be seen on the west-wing vault in the San Clemente Chapel in St. Mark’s. Similar mosaics can be found on the three other walls of the chapel, and illustrate not just Venice’s link with the sea, but the connection between the sea and religion. However, artwork relating to the sea is not just seen in churches – many pieces of public art seen throughout the city have a nautical theme.

The Squeri

In a city that demands boats for transportation, the art of shipbuilding has been a great Venetian tradition dating back as early as the city itself. Traditional boats are always handcrafted at specific boat building sites known as squeri. These squeri are home to some of the world’s most talented wooden boat craftsmen, the squerarióli. Most squero are small, meant for building one particular type of boat. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the squeri is the method of transporting boats in and out of the water. The loading area of the squeri consists of a downward sloping ground that goes directly from the boatyard into the canal. This allows effortless transport and also eliminates the risk of damaging boats.

These are several examples of the different nautical heritage elements which can be seen throughout the city of Venice. In 2005, a study was conducted by students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute identifying the nautical heritage of Venice. In the study, 33 places of nautical interest were identified including, but not limited to, ten churches, one monument, three museums, and 14 Squeri. These can be seen simply by visiting popular tourist sites, such as San Marco, Palazzo Ducale, and Museo Correr. The nautical heritage of Venice is seen not only in building and artwork, but also in street names found throughout the city. The streets were often named after the different vendor’s shops located there, and though many of those shops have closed the names remain. Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in a similar study, catalogued 26 street names containing the word Barche (boats), four containing the word Felzi, nine containing Remer (oar-maker), 17 containing Squeri or Squero, and 19 containing Traghetto (gondola taxi) as seen in Figure 3, with a total of 75 streets referring to some kind of nautical aspect.

Squeri and the Arsenale

In a city that demands boats for transportation, the art of shipbuilding has been a great Venetian tradition dating back as early as the city itself. Traditional boats are always handcrafted at specific boat building sites known as squeri. These squeri are home to some of the world’s most talented wooden boat craftsmen, the squerarióli. Most squeri are small, meant for building one particular type of boat. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the squeri is the method of transporting boats in and out of the water. The loading area of the squeri consists of a downward sloping ground that goes directly from the boatyard into the canal. This allows effortless transport and also eliminates the risk of damaging boats.

The largest squero in Venice is the Arsenale, founded in 1104 A.D., and still standing today. The Arsenale, as seen in Figure 4, was the boat production and repair center, or squero, of Venice; at the height of its power, approximately one boat was produced per day, and it employed over 16,000 people. Today, the Arsenale is primarily a naval base, but it sits adjacent to the Naval History Museum of Venice and serves as a part of the biannual art exhibit hosted by the city of Venice.

Traditional Boats

(originators: Bryan Bigda, Michelle Dubuke, Daniel LaTorella, and Jennifer Richards)

With a history so rich in maritime heritage, it is easy to see the link the Venetians have with boats. The term “traditional boat” in Venice refers to a boat with a flat bottom and a shallow draft hull, two characteristics that have very distinct and practical purposes. Due to the shallow water in the canals, the squeriorli were forced to craft the boats with a flat bottom to keep them from hitting the bottom of the canal. The shallow hull allowed the boats to be dragged to shore with minimal structural damage, and also to make it easier for people to get in and out of the boat. Another benefit to the shallow hull is the balance it offers for passengers when standing in the boats, which is a strange concept for most people. When crossing the Grand Canal in a type of gondola called a traghetto, it is customary for the passengers to remain standing. Traditionally the traghetti were not confined to transport across the Grand Canal, but as can be seen from the traghetti map of 1697, it was also a very common way of getting from island to island in Venice. Figure 5 compares this to the traghetti map of 2004 , we can note that not only are the traghetti strictly in the Grand Canal, but the number of points where someone could take a traghetto have decreased from 43 stations to the eight that are presently active.

Although the number of traghetti has decreased, they are still used in modern Venice. It is the most practical way to get across the Grand Canal, at points where pedestrians are unable to cross by bridge. Using a gas motor would be wasteful and create a wake that would not only adversely affect travel up and down the length of the canal, but cause damage to the canal wall as well. However, the most common traditional boat which can be seen today throughout Venice is the gondola, truly the modern-day symbol of the city. Tourists from all over the world will spend 100 euro to take a romantic ride in a gondola, which through the years has turned into a multi-million dollar business.

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