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The Living City


The Body and the Building

The Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal once described the archetypal city as “a landscape built of pure life.” Can this pure life therefore be seen as a living force? Can Venice be shaped and governed by an instinctive existence, which is greater than the sum of its people? Is it more than just a collective?

By the sixteenth century it was already being described as a human body where “the head is the place where the shores are situated; and that part towards the sea are the arms.” The canals were the veins of this body. The heart lay in the city itself. So wrote Cristoforo Sabbadino in 1549. Venice was supposed to gaze out at the sea. The English traveller, James Howell, said that no foreign prince had ever “come nere her privy parts.” Where were these privy parts? They were presumably the ducal palace and the basilica.

Yet all these references affirm a belief, or instinct, that Venice itself is a living organism with its own laws of growth and change. Does it exist, and survive, by the agency of some inner or intrinsic force that cannot as yet be explained or described? It absorbed the islands that constituted its existence; it had an alimentary system laid out among its canals and waterways. Everything wishes to give form and expression to its own nature; the leaves of the tree aspire to their own shape. So by obscure presentiment, and by the steady aggregate of communal wishes, Venice grew. That is why every part of Venice—its topography, its constitution, its domestic institutions—reflects the whole. Its nervous functions are interdependent. Those who travel to the city for the first time seem to be made aware of a definite personality. Henry James, always susceptible to the subtleties and obliquities of personal sensibility, said that Venice “seems to personify itself, to become human and sentient and conscious of your affection.” It was for him mild and interesting and sad.

Does it subdue the lives and affections of the people who inhabit it? The city is so old, and so encrusted with habit and tradition, that the people can be said to fit within its existing rhythms. The Venetians were often described as actors playing out their various roles. In paintings of Venetian life, the city dwarfs its inhabitants so that it becomes the pre-eminent subject. It has often been said that Venice cannot be modernised. More pertinently, it will not be modernised. It resists any such attempt with every fibre of its being.

On the lower façade of the Palazzo Dario, along the Grand Canal, the owner placed an inscription in Latin announcing “Giovanni Dario to the spirit of the city.” So of what, if anything, does the genius loci consist? Is there a city god in residence? In other cities the worship of communal values was associated with the worship of place and with the worship of the dead. In the early centuries the Venetian dead were buried in the campo of the parish. Thus the passing generations trod upon the remains of their ancestors. Nothing could instil more awe in a Venetian than to stand on the spot where the parish was created. In addition the presence of the ancestors gave a true title to territorial ownership of the land. No stranger could claim the ground where the bones were buried. This may be the clue to the origin of all cities. They began as cemeteries.

It was originally a city of wood. There were so many carpenters, marangoni, that the great bell of the campanile in Saint Mark’s Square was named after them as the marangona. It was a city of wooden tenements, occasional squares, wooden churches, water-lanes, landing stairs and pontoons between islands. Yet the process that formed the modern city was already in evidence; a network of parishes, each with its own church, was slowly forming with their centres accruing together. Wooden bridges were built to connect contiguous islands, and footways were laid over marshy areas.

In the eleventh century this process was intensified; under private rather than public initiative the ponds and marshes were filled or covered, reclaiming all the available land. The burgeoning government systematised the various parishes, creating a core of population from which the city was gradually extended. In the early years of the twelfth century there were proposals for a large market in the Rialto, a great civic square beside the ducal palace, and an arsenal for the maintenance of the Venetian fleet. These public works changed the face of the city, and determined the shape that it would eventually assume. Flood, fire and earthquake shook it from time to time; in 1106 a great fire destroyed almost the whole of wooden Venice. But the process was now too powerful to be reversed. There were many other fires, but the city always rose from them renewed. The great urban project had begun, and it could not be diverted. Venice grew and grew as if it were indeed some natural force.

By the thirteenth century the Venetian state had taken charge of land reclamation. The city was defined as a public space rather than an aggregation of individual communities. The state became the master of the land and of the water. Overseers of embankments, streets and canals were appointed. They were eventually formed into a commission with officers in every parish. Only certain canals were to be used for the transport of wood. Dyers were only allowed to use the water of the lagoon, not of the canals. Thus begins the flood of Venetian urban legislation, dealing with every aspect of life in the city. A system for the management of waste was created. The streets of the city were paved for the first time with flagstones or cobbles. The first permanent bridge over the Grand Canal, at the Rialto, was erected in 1264.

This continual enlargement of the urban fabric continued well into the fourteenth century, at a time when the population had reached one hundred thousand. It was already one of the most inhabited cities of Europe. The major streets of the city were laid out; new quays and bridges were built. Work on a new hall for the great council was approved in 1340; by that date several great churches were beginning to rise, among them S. Maria dei Frari, the basilica of SS. Giovanni e Paolo, S. Maria della Carità, S. Alvise and Madonna dell’Orto. New streets were built. A public granary was instituted.

There was a diminution of activity in the middle years of that century, under the weight of fatalities caused by the Black Death, but the beginning of the fifteenth century saw a wave of new works, private and public. That is how Venice developed—in waves of activity, sudden increases in the temperature of the city, an access of fresh vitality. The temptation to speak in organic terms is strong. Some two hundred palaces, many of them still standing along the Grand Canal, were built in this period. The medieval town of wood had finally given way to a Renaissance city.

The process was finalised, was set in stone, in the sixteenth century. The appointment of Jacopo Sansovino as public architect, in 1527, was the first stage of a deliberate programme of public works to create a second Rome both magisterial and gorgeous. The first general planning act is dated from 1557; it envisaged, among other things, an embankment of Istrian stone encircling the city. Venice became what Lewis Mumford called, in The City in History, an “absolute city.” It had become the setting for the sedulous dissemination of “the myth of Venice” as an enduring and impregnable polity. The work of Palladio, in the middle of the sixteenth century, added further adornment to a city that would never willingly change again. He reinvented the shape of its sacred architecture with the conception of the churches of S. Giorgio Maggiore and Il Redentore. The city needed only one more thing—the first stone of the great bridge across the Grand Canal at the Rialto was laid on 31 May 1585. The creation of Venice was complete.

Yet despite its manifest grandeur Venice was still an intensely local city. There were divisions, and divisions within divisions. The largest was that which separated “the Saint Mark’s side” and “the Rialto side” of the Grand Canal. Then there were the six sestierior divisions of the city that were established in twelfth century; in the late nineteenth century they were still described in popular speech as nations; there was the nation of Castello, for example, and the nation of Cannaregio. Horatio Brown, in Life on the Lagoons (1909), noted that the people of the various quarters “are different in build and type of features” one from another; their speech was different. Even the dialects might vary.

Within each district the parishes were congregated. The parish, the contrada or contrata, was the essential and fundamental unit of Venetian society; in official documents the members of the popolani identified themselves in terms of their parish. The parish had its own festivals and rituals, and the parish priest was elected by the freeholders of the neighbourhood. There were small parish markets, and the church was a refuge in times of trouble; many parishes had their own specialised trade. It was an administrative, as well as a sacred, entity. Neighbourhood rivalries between the parishes on either side were common. The identity of each separate parish was also fully formed. So in spirit, if not in structure, the city still reflected its origins in one hundred or so islands.

The square or campo was at the heart of the neighbourhood. It spread before the church and was once its burial ground. In each square—or in the calle just around the corner—was a fruiterer, a greengrocer, a general goods store, a retailer of pasta, a café, a barber’s shop, and various other tradesmen from the mercer to the carpenter. It was a self-contained entity, marked out by its well and its carved well-head where the women of the parish came to gossip. It was a Venice in miniature. If there is indeed a spirit of place within the city, it is still to be found here.

The houses were tightly packed together. The parishioners knew each other’s business. Strangers were quickly noted. The city, in other words, was criss-crossed by individual boundaries. Going from one district, or from one parish, to another was like walking into a different town. The people of one district might not know the topography of another. There were parts of the city to which many, if not most, Venetians had never been. It was not unknown for a Venetian to live his or her own life without venturing beyond the bounds of the sestiere. There were Venetians who had never entered Saint Mark’s Square. The author was told of an old lady of Cannaregio, recently deceased at the age of one hundred, who had only been to the square twice in her life.

The canals are the signs and tokens of division. They are essentially the old streams and rivers that once crossed the territory; the stretch of water dividing the island of Giudecca from the rest of the city was once the mouth of the River Brenta. There are 170 canals threading through the city, ebbing and flowing with the tide for more than sixty-two miles (99.7 km). The Grand Canal itself has a length of two miles (3.2 km). Some allow only one-way traffic, and others accommodate two-way movement; some are dead-ends or blind canals. They have influenced the nature of the people as strongly as the nature of the city. It has been said that the presence of flowing water induces tranquillity. These boundaries of water also inhibited the rapid assembly of people in riot or rebellion. The peace of Venice may derive from its canals.

If the canals are the sign of division, then the bridges are the token of unity. There are more than 450 of them in the city, linking parish with parish. Many of them have honorifics or nicknames, such as the Bridge of Fists or the Bridge of Assassins or the Bridge of the Honest Woman. They were used as battlefields and as places of assignation. The earliest bridges were simply wooden planks laid across pilings or the hulls of boats, and the first one built of stone was not constructed until the latter half of the twelfth century. In that period, too, the first great wooden bridge or pontoon was erected across the Grand Canal at the Rialto. The sixteenth century was the great age of the stone bridge, when the wooden structures were replaced by their more durable substitutes. They rose on either side to a hump in the middle, and there were no parapets or balustrades. The pedestrian, or horseman, had to be nimble and fearless. The bridge-building has not finished yet. A new bridge has just been put into place across the Grand Canal, linking the two transport centres of Piazzale Roma and Ferrovia in the west of the city.

So out of this medley of disparate parishes and districts emerges the miracle of a sovereign and recognisable city. Out of difference springs identity; out of the parts, related or unrelated, emerges the whole. It is the secret of the city’s entire life. One of the first sights that greets the traveller arriving at the bacino or pool of Venice are the two columns of Oriental granite standing guard over the piazzetta. On the column closest to the ducal palace stands the lion of Saint Mark. From a distance it looks like a splendid composition. In fact it is made up of separate parts, created in different periods and held together by iron cramps. The age of some of the pieces is not known, but the majority of them can be dated to the late twelfth century. The wings of the lion are the work of restorers, and were originally divided into feathers. So by some instinct or by some compulsion the builders of the column, joining the separate parts of the lion together, represented the creation of the city.

On the other column is poised the statue of Saint Theodore, the original patron saint of Venice. If you were to come closer to this image, you would notice that it is not in any sense the work of one hand. The head is of Parian marble, and is believed to represent Mithridates, king of Pontus; the torso is a Roman piece from the time of Hadrian the Great; the dragon, or crocodile, is in the Lombardic style from the first half of the fifteenth century. It is a glorious, and apparently haphazard, exercise in historical assembly. It deserves to be on its column. Once again it is an image of Venice itself.

The architecture of the city is heterogeneous and apparently random, combining Gothic, Greek, Tuscan, Roman and Renaissance elements; the sum of their combination can be defined as Venetian architecture. Various styles, and stylistic modes, exist simultaneously; the art of Venice lay in amalgamation. It is a reminder of how oddly sorted the appearance of Venice has always been; it is based upon random accumulation of objects and materials. It reflects thoroughly eclectic tastes. There is no consistency, and no uniformity. That is why, for the traveller, Venice can be so fatiguing. It resists interpretation. It denies the single vision. Minarets can become crosses. Byzantine columns can rise towards Corinthian capitals. Parts of one statue can be attached to another. Théophile Gautier, writing of the basilica of Saint Mark, observed that “the singular thing, which upsets any idea of proportion, is that this jumble of columns, of capitals, of bas reliefs, of enamels, of mosaics—this mingling of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Gothic styles—produces the most harmonious possible whole.” There are endless fragments that, paradoxically, only make sense as part of a perceived unity.

“In this most noble city of Venice,” the architect Sebastiano Serlio wrote in 1537, “it is the custom to build in a way which is very different from all the other cities of Italy.” It is an insular architecture. It is architecture built on water. Of course it will be different. The buildings of Venice reflect the spirit and the nature of the city. They are the emanations or exhalations of the territory. Ruskin entitled his magnificent appraisal the Stones of Venice. The stones are its soul.

So the architecture of Venice is noticeable for its lightness, for its balance, and for its harmony. It represents all the aspirations of its citizens. That is why the architecture is unique and identifiable—the deep central windows, the pattern of recess and shadow, the surface ornamentation, the intricate variety of styles, the preference for curved shapes, the screens of arcades, the general emphasis upon light and space. The thrust is towards the horizontal rather than the vertical, hugging the surface of the lagoon. The façades of Venetian buildings are not load-bearing. The effect is one of magnificence without monumentality. Volume is denied, being always broken up by the effects of glittering light. The façades seem to float freely, as if the architecture itself were a magnificent illusion.

The buildings often seem to be the sum of small parts rather than being dominated by one central conception. It is in that sense a very practical architecture. Venetian builders did not seem to mind asymmetry; they placed together styles that were a century or more apart; they shortened and lengthened buildings according to the exigencies of the site. The emphasis is upon contrast, and variety, rather than uniformity. Different systems of decoration could be employed in the same space; the proportions of the various architectural “orders” were breached. This architecture is one of natural exuberance. There is nothing solemn, nothing portentous, nothing menacing.

One of the essential forms is that of the three-storeyed front decorated with pilasters; it is the basic shape of the houses along the Grand Canal. The focus of the house is towards the exterior rather than the interior. And no one seems to care about the back of the building as long as the front is sumptuous. This is the city of masks. Hence the reliance upon external pattern. It is an ornamental and pictorial architecture. It has elements of the picturesque. The surfaces were encrusted with carvings and coloured marbles, with decorative patterns spreading in all directions. It is as if lace embroidery had been turned to stone.

The first architectural style in the city can be loosely called Byzantine. It is a style of arcades and of domes, of round or inflected arches upon pillars, and of mosaics clothing the walls with beauty. The domed basilicas of Venice were based on an eastern pattern, with the dome hovering over a cube of space in perfect alignment. It was an image of infinity. The Byzantine style in Venice can be dated from the seventh to the twelfth centuries; for five hundred years the city took Constantinople as its inspiration. Then the style renewed itself in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

In the thirteen and fourteenth centuries the eyes of Venice turned towards the West rather than the East, and that attention led in turn to the rise of Venetian Gothic. It is significant that at the close of this period Venice was poised to gain a land empire on the mainland of Italy. The churches were now given vaulted naves, although they could not be built very high; the watery foundations of Venice could not sustain any great weight. There was a new interest in interplay of shapes and of materials, in the exfoliation of pillars and pilasters, in great portals, in trefoil arches, in quatrefoil tracery, and in double lancet windows. It was a style of pattern and ornamentation, again deeply congenial to the Venetian genius. Yet it was also a question of self-image, by co-opting a western imperial style, and of a new form of magnificence.

The style was dominant in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, surviving even into the sixteenth century and giving a Gothic aspect to the city that still survives. Many Gothic churches replaced their Byzantine predecessors on the same site. They were built in homage to a different God, or to a different conception of God. But it was a secular, as well as a sacred, architecture. Most of the well-known palaces or great houses are created in the Gothic mode. The basilica of Saint Mark is an example of Byzantine; the ducal palace is the embodiment of Gothic.

Ruskin despised the Renaissance architecture of Venice that followed Gothic. He considered it to be a symptom of the city’s decline and fall. The classical columns and pediments, the sheer symmetries, were alien to the life and spirit of the place. What had Venice to do with classical antiquity? What had Venice to do with the purity, the austerity, and massive uniformity, that are at the heart of the Renaissance style? The great exponents of the Renaissance style—Codussi, Sansovino and Palladio—were not themselves Venetian. They cast a foreign eye over the city. Palladio did not even like traditional Venetian architecture, believing it to lack grazia and bellezza. It has been said that the edifices of Palladio do not suit Venice. They do not fit Venice. Yet in Venice everything “fits.”

Certain features of Venetian architecture have had a continuous history. The domestic dwellings of the people, for example, have always conformed to a simple pattern. They are not the most inviting aspects of Venetian life. The ordinary Venetian house is a mysterious place. It is the very opposite of the public spaces that seem to be at the heart of the city’s life. The house is generally small, narrow and dark. It does not willingly receive guests or welcome strangers. The original timber houses of the city were of one storey, built around a central courtyard, and that sense of inwardness never left the Venetian domain. The innate conservatism of the city was such that by the thirteenth century the essential structure of all subsequent houses had been laid out.

They were simple affairs, of two or three storeys, with one or two rooms on each floor. A wooden balcony ran around the front, and on the roof was the flat enclosed space known as the altana. From here the Venetians could take the air, or observe their fellows in the streets below. There were few windows, heavily shuttered or protected by iron bars; the larger windows faced inward, towards the central courtyard. There was very little furniture, but the pieces were richly decorated and ornamented. Flat roofs were preferred. Chimneys were popular. The shutters were painted dark green. There were no Venetian blinds in Venice. And of course there were no cellars.

There were small houses with shops opening onto the street. There were rows of small terraced houses, each room or floor accommodating a family. In parts of the city two identical rows face each other across a narrow street; the effect, surprisingly, is rather like that of industrial housing in the north-east of England—except for the well in the middle of the street. In areas of working-class housing there were also often tunnel-like passageways, with arches, known as sottoportici.

If the various styles of architecture represented the spirit of the place, as a distinctive and recognisable genius loci, that may be because all of them rose directly from the same foundations. The building of Venice was an act of communal perseverance against nature. Beneath the waters of the city lie strata of mud and clay and sand. The foundations of the buildings, piles of tough oak, were driven into that ground with heavy drop-hammers. They reached a depth of between ten and sixteen feet (3 to 5 m) below water. Cross-beams were then laid down, and the interstices between the wooden piles were loaded with cement and broken stone. Then a thick surface decking of wooden planks, bedded in cement, was placed on top of the wooden structure. It became the true ground of the city. A second foundation was erected on top of what was essentially a great wooden raft, two to four feet (0.6 to 1.2 m) below the level of the tide.

From these foundations Venice rose, resting upon a petrified forest. Somehow it manages both to defy, and to make use of, nature. These great trunks of oak and larch and elm had always to be submerged; if they were exposed to the air, they would begin to rot. In their waterlogged condition they were sturdy, however, and almost imperishable. The weight they bore was immense. The campanile in Saint Mark’s Square, for example, weighs 14,400 tonnes (14,170 tons); yet the piles of wood carry it. The Rialto bridge is supported by twelve thousand piles of elm. The church of the Salute is borne up by 1,156,657 piles of oak and larch. The weight of the building itself helps to stabilise them. There is no complete rigidity. That is impossible in the lagunar waters. Yet even though the piles may shift a little, they do not collapse. Many of them have lasted for a thousand years.

There is a chant sung by the pile-drivers dating from 1069, the latest variant of which was transcribed by an Englishman in the nineteenth century:

Up with it well,

Up to the top,

Up with it well,

Up to the summit.

The primary materials of construction are brick and timber, with stone used as a decorative rather than a structural necessity. At the waterline is placed a foundation of Istrian stone that is impermeable to water. Ruskin described that stone, quarried on the mainland (there is of course no natural stone in Venice itself), as “smooth sheets of rock, glistering like sea waves, that ring under the hammer like a brazen bell.” Above the stone is brick faced with stucco so that the church, or dwelling, also glisters. The absence of stone walls also gives an incomparable feeling of lightness to the material fabric. Venice is a floating world.

In the Galleria dell’Accademia hangs Titian’s “Presentation of the Virgin”; it is placed on a wall that was once part of the albergo or hall of a notable confraternity; in the foreground of the painting is a great staircase, which the young virgin is ascending. In fact the staircase itself leaves the picture and enters the Venetian world; just to the left of the canvas is the tower staircase of the albergo itself, which seems to obtrude into the painting. Among the crowd of people accompanying the Virgin are pictures of recognisable individuals; these are the members of the confraternity. It is typical of Venetian painting to incorporate local detail as part of the overall design. The background wall of the “Presentation” is constructed out of pink and white bricks, set in diamond pattern, as an unmistakable reference to the façade of the ducal palace.

When Carpaccio needed to depict Cologne, in his cycle of paintings concerning Saint Ursula, he simply used the image of the Arsenal in the district of Castello. Tintoretto uses Saint Mark’s Square as a setting for biblical miracles. The humble houses and shops of his paintings are directly modelled on Venetian interiors. He placed the image of his contemporary, Aretino, in the company witnessing the Crucifixion. In Veronese’s “Conversion of Saint Pantalon” the elderly man cradling the miraculously healed child is the parish priest of the church of S. Pantalon who in fact commissioned the work. There is no attempt here to honour the “individuality” of the priest; rather he becomes part of the company of the blessed, and in so doing reflects beatitude upon the city itself.

When Titian depicted the miraculous draught of fishes, from the narrative of Luke, he ensured that the boatmen took up the characteristic stance of Venetian gondoliers. It is said that in his paintings from the New Testament, Tintoretto always made the Apostles gesture like gondoliers. In his “Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross on the Rialto Bridge” Carpaccio faithfully depicted the wooden bridge, the sign of the Sturgeon Inn, the houses and institutions along both banks of the Grand Canal, and the members of the confraternity of which he was the official painter; it represents the poetry of urban detail, with its bricks and balconies and chimney-tops. More than any other painters in the world, the Venetians readily depicted the environment of their home city. Never has a city and its people obtruded so much on artistic traditions.

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