Illuminare Venezia – Why Venice Looked Different At Night 700 Years Ago

Claiming that Venice still looks the as same she did in the 15th century is easy and true, but there’s one severe limitation. Our claim only applies to how Venice looks during the day. For the night, it’s a totally different story, and we can safely say that we cannot imagine what Venice looked like in the past at night. The sources of illuminating her, scarcely, were very different to the possibilities we have today.

Yet we are lucky to travel back in time once a year and witness what Venice must have looked at night 700 years ago ..

It’s happening right now while I’m writing this post (Friday evening, 23 February 2018). Venice now looks like she did on any night in late winter in the 15th century. The electric lights on Piazza San Marco are switched off and other areas in town look dark and still.

Walking around al buio, in the dark, in Venice presented difficulties right from the start. Until the year 814 AD, Venice wasn’t illuminated at all. Lighting candles in the wooden houses and outside was out of the question, the City Government made no mistake about that. It also meant that walking around at night in Venice was very dangerous, not just because of potential thieves. One false step under a dark sotoportego might cause an accident ..

Only when the first houses were built of bricks, in the 10th and 11th century AD, did that attitude change. In 1128, Doge Michiel allowed people to carry lumicini (candles) or torci (torches) in their hands at night. He had lanterns illuminated by candles placed on the facades of certain buildings to increase the safety of passers-by. By the 15th century, every home in Venice had a lantern fixed just above the heads of the passers-by by law, and the owner of the building was responsible for the candles to be lit until dawn was breaking. In 1730, the lanterns were replaced by 843 oil lamps. According to this insightful article by Fondazione Neri Museo Italiano della Ghisa, by the year 1773, 1778 oil lamps illuminated Venice.

By the 15th century, accompanying people safely home at night became un mestiere – an industry of its own. Outside the casinò, or ridotti as they were called in Venice, like the most famous Ridotto at the Hotel Monaco e Gran Canal, the codega‘ were waiting for clients, Venetian noblemen or rich merchants visiting Venice, carrying lanterns and leading the way home.

Things developed differently after the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797. For almost fifty years, providing illumination and thus more safety to the Venetian population wasn’t the first priority in a city undergoing fierce changes in her structure. The first gas lights were lit in Piazza San Marco in July 1843 for testing purposes. Until the 19th century, though, many parts in Venice were illuminated by oil lamps, not just because there was little money but also because the Venetians detested the strange odor – and the harsh lights !!

This attitude changed in 1922 when the Venetian City Government introduced electricity-powered lamps in Piazza San Marco, a project gradually rolled out to other parts in town along the main shopping areas.

So if you would like to step back into a Venetian night f the past, watch out for this initiative called M’illumino di meno, promoted by RAI Radio Due / Caterpillar addressing the side effects of inquinamento luminoso, which is light pollution. Effects that might explain a lot of alterations in nature, animals and humans. Not only Venice adhered to M’illumino di meno, but also other Italian cities and their landmarks went dark, like the Colosseo in Rome, L’Arena di Verona and La Torre di Pisa. In 2018, the event took place for the 14th time to mark the anniversary of signing the Kyoto Protocol.

This article is part of our blog series How Does Venice Work. You can read the other articles here (What is acqua alta, Why low tides are dangerous for Venice, and What did the Lagoon look like in the past).