Four Views from the Campanile – Telling Venetian History in a Different Manner


Seeing Venice and the Lagoon from the Campanile often starts or “wraps up” a visit to Piazza San Marco. Even more so when you are visiting Venice for the first time! But there’s so much more than just admiring the view or getting oriented. A visit to the Campanile can be a journey back in time. In this post I’m describing what you can see from the Campanile, from my father’s, a Venetian architect, point of view.   

These are the stories of Venice my father used to tell me when I was a child and he took me on a rare visit up there. He pointed out the islands to me in a special order, telling me stories so that I was able to remember their names and position in the Lagoon. If you have children and would like to tell them about Venice, you might love reading this :-)

You will see, each part of Venice and each island had a function to fulfill and role to play in history. It still has, or rather in some cases, it should have, in order to save the ecosystem of our Lagoon.

The shade of the Campanile reminds me of a compass needle .. and it is an impressive bell tower, standing 98.6 meters tall. It was rebuilt in 1902, following the collapse of its predecessor, and was finished in 1912 according to the original building instructions of 1514.

It doesn’t take more than a minute to reach the visitor platform of the Campanile located just under the bells. From here, you can savor the view from one of the four panoramic windows. We’ll do it in a clockwise direction, North, East, South and West, to tell the story of Venice in chronological order. There is so much more to see than simply the sights pointed out on the panoramic maps fixed below the window ledges! And yes, it was here that in 1609, Galileo Galilei presented his new invention, the binoculars, to the Doge of Venice.

Panorama Nord – 3000 BC – 1000 AD: Secret Ancestors – From our unknown origins towards growth

The north is where one part of Venetians came from. The north is where the other part of our ancestors coming from the Levant settled. From here, starting in Torcello, our Lagoon was urbanized between 300 – 1200 AD. The people from Altino fled to the safety of the Lagoon after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, in particular to Torcello but also to Santa Cristina and Ammiana. In order to survive and pay for the goods needed not available in marshy Lagoon, they created their “gardens of white gold”, their large salt pans. Salt was the very first resource enabling Venetians to start trading with the countries in the Levant.

The first monasteries were created here, growing fruit, vegetables and aromatics, such as San Francesco del Deserto, San Francesco della Vigna and San Zanipolo on the northern fringe of the Rialto Islands, later called Venice. Also, in Venice, the church of Santa Maria Formosa can be made out, the area around the church is ancient and connected to one of the oldest festivities in town, La Festa delle Marie. And of course, Murano can be seen, where the glass industry moved from Venice after a fornace (furnace) had burnt down setting fire to one fifth of Venice at the end of the 12th century.

Panorama Est – 1000 – 1400 AD: We are growing – The Merchants of Venice are building a Spice Empire

By 1000 AD, settlers began moving towards the Isole Realtine, the 118 islands that make up our town. And ships had to be built to provide Venice and the formerly independent Lagoon settlements like Torcello with a living from the rich harvests in their salt pans.

Looking out from the panoramic window towards the east has always been my favorite. Not just because my family’s house can be seen from here. But this direction makes you think and dream of a prosperous, growing Venice. Trading her salt with the east, the Levant. Here, the boats coming from the east were moored, delivering their goods to Levantine merchants residing right behind Riva degli Schiavoni. Schiavonia means Dalmatia in Venetian, by the way. And from here, you can see the Arsenal where the Venetian ships sailing east were built.

The Arsenale, occupying the eastern parts of our town, was inaugurated in the 12th century.  It was the first conveyor-belt industry in the world producing merchant cogs to transport salt and bring back wheat and other goods in exchange, and soon, loads of spices. This was the start of the flourishing spice business of the Serenissima, the longest success story in economic history.

In 1203, when Doge Enrico Dandolo set out as commander of the fleet of the Fourth Crusade, the Arsenale was able to deliver one fully fledged merchant cog per day!! Riva degli Schiavoni was created as long quay where boats were moored bringing merchandise from Dalmatia for the growing town. Precious garments, wool, wood, carpets. Foods like almonds, olive oil and loads of pepper. And dried meat, castradina, that was to save the lives of many Venetians during the outbreaks of bubonic plague.

But also at that time, additional orchards, vegetable plots and even vineyards had to be created in the midst of the ancient salt pans of the Lagoon to feed the growing population. We still get vegetables from the eastern part of the Lagoon, from Sant’Erasmo and le Vignole, in particular.

Also, Venice was in need of growing her population due to the outbreaks of bubonic plague … In particular, immigrants from the Aegean and Dalmatian Coasts kept arriving, creating la Venezia Levantina such as San Giorgio dei Greci and San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. Merchants from Turkey, Germany and Flanders opened rep offices including warehouses, the so-called fondeghi.

Panorama Sud – 1400 – 1800 AD: Politics and Venice – Peak time, ups and downs and fall of the Republic

Now turn south and view how the Republic of Venice reacted to these new settlers and visitors. Sometimes, islands were assigned to them. For example, Venetians built homes on the Lido for the Armenian immigrants in 1717. Quarantine islands were created in the Lagoon where the merchants had to stop for forty days before being allowed into the city, to save the population from the plague. Hospitals were created on the islands. San Lazzaro degli Armeni was originally a quarantine island, as was San Servolo.

This is also the area of town where the churches were built during the pestilence times that hit the town in the 16th and 17th century, Il Redentore and Santa Maria della Salute. You can see both of them in the picture above.

By then, the Southern Lagoon gradually shifted its commercial focus. Salt pans were moved out of the Lagoon and into the waters surrounding Cervia on the Adriatic Coast next to the Po river delta. Instead, vast valli da pesca, fish farms, were set up to feed the 300,000-plus inhabitants of Venice.

In the 16th century, the commercial focus moved away from the Mediterranean towards the Atlantic, involving other nations like Spain, Portugal and England. Venice was to re-position herself or .. that brings us towards an issue unresolved until our times. Venice then stopped living up to her vocation and potential.

Panorama West – 1797 to this day: Showdown, Sundown and / or Mapping our Future

We have entered a different age by now. After the fall of the Republic in 1797, difficult times and utter poverty were followed by the age of industry. The merchants went missing all of a sudden. Production facilities looking rather alien popped up in Venice, financed by foreigners as Venice had become completely impoverished. Her ancient heart and economical structure based on the spice trade had ceased to exist.

The western part of the island of Guidecca was chosen to set up factories and workers’ quarters (eg Mulino Stucky, which has now been turned into Hotel Hilton). And Venice became connected to terra firma … Above you can see the two bridges connecting Venice to the mainland, car bridge left, train bridge right. In the background you can make out the industrial areas of Marghera / Mestre.

Napoleon who conquered the Venetian Republic came from this direction. Under the Austrians, the railway bridge (ponte ferroviario) connecting Venice with the mainland was built. In 1933, this bridge was re-enforced by a car bridge (Ponte della Libertà)

Also in the 1930s, on the edge of the Lagoon, industry facilities were created in Marghera and Fusina. Finally, the canals of the Lagoon were deepened in the 1960s, starting with Canale dei Petroli, to allow oil tankers cross the Lagoon and reach Porto Marghera entering via the Bocca di Malamocco.

And finally, in the age of mass tourism, the cruise ships follow in their wake, anchoring at the cruise ship terminal. So the latest addition to the western panorama is: cruise ships ..

By the way, from this macro view of our town’s history we can deduct a micro view as well. We could call it the Venetian Garden Atlas because gardens were not created haphazardly. The Venetian Lagoon became a completely a self-sufficient entity. I will write how the Lagoon was urbanized in a sustainable manner in one of my next blog posts.

This post sums up interpreting the view from the Campanile through my father’s eyes, an architect and historian. He died in 2001 but I will always remember discovering Venice with him.

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