Venice for Beginners: Episode One: A Special Introduction to the City and Lagoon, written for our Guests of the Slow Venice Experiences
When you live in Venice, this is what you see when you leave your home on a summer morning. Yes, there are still some areas, “belonging to Venetians”, so far off the beaten paths. Just turn around the corner, and a little campo will open up, two cafes where you can eat breakfast in the morning sun.
This is the Venice a hit and run tourist won’t get to see, and we are sorry to say that they do miss the true spirit of Venice.A setting like this is the Venice regular visitors become “addicted to”, and there are good reasons for it.
In 2017, more than 90 per cent of the 35 million tourists coming to town, stayed for more than one day. In fact, most visit Venice for less than six hours! Even though they might have had a perfunctory glimpse of “famous Venice”, they missed their chance to discover so much more.
In this section VENICE FOR BEGINNERS, we will show you where to start exploring, in three episodes. This is the introduction to our city we would like to give you, as personal guest of our VENICE EXPERIENCES.
Venice isn’t easy to know, I’ve often heard our foreign friends say. It’s even more difficult because by now, we have lost too much of her heritage by now. Venice was an independent state, one of the most powerful trading nations for more than 1,300 years. And Venice is truly a garden city. Just imagine that more than seventy per cent of the city surface is still privately owned. Of these private grounds, two thirds consist of gardens and courtyards.
Why do you tell me about history? Your city is beautiful as it is!
If you want to understand Venice as humane city, in a holistic manner, and not only as works of art and agglomerate of beautiful buildings in a Lagoon, we need to show to you the identity of the Venetians, and telling more about history is a start to understanding her. From here, Venetians are building their future from their roots.
Until the 1970s, tourism (gran turismo) was just one of several “industries present” in Venice. Yes, there’s been tourism in the past as well, but of a different kind. You see, pilgrims and crusaders on their way to Jerusalem arrived in Venice since the 11th century AD, in order to board one of the Venetian ships taking them to their destination. Merchants from all over the world came to Venice, some settling permanently while opening warehouses for their goods and embassies (or rather, trade relations bureaus, called fondeghi). Only in the 19th century did the “real” tourists arrive, on their Grand Tour, and that was when the Republic of Venice had ceased to exist.
So what happened …
The Venetian state ceased to exist in 1797 and its culture fell into oblivion. It happened gradually and now, not much is remembered about the immaterial heritage of Venice. Much information is still available but tucked away in public and private libraries in town and at the Venetian State Archive.
First of all, you need to understand that Venice was not built to please the eyes or attract tourists. Venetians simply copied the architectonic style of their trading partners in Byzantium first, and then developed their own style. Houses in Venice were built for a purpose, that is, to store the goods Venetian merchants brought to town, and to house the family of the merchants. Usually, a few (!) gardens were also part of this casa fondego (= private home and business headquarters housed in one, rambling, building).
We can summarize the purpose of Venice, her DNA, in just one word: COMMERCE. Venice is the cradle of modern commerce in the western world as we know it today. Venice even invented capital market transactions to finance overseas expeditions for procuring the raw materials for trade.
As a people living in the narrow space that the Lagoon is, Venetians were missing basic goods for subsistence and were forced to look for them elsewhere. Soon, they become masters in setting up trade networks. They organized expeditions to the Levant, to acquire raw materials and spices, which they refined and packaged in Venice and sold all over Europe. The merchants of Venice acquired their spice provisions along the spice routes reaching from the Middle East all across Asia as far as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and China.
So the city you are visiting was once the home to the richest trading nation in Europe, between 1000 and 1650 AD in any case. The spice trade made Venice rich, so the Venetians could afford building fairy-tale palaces all over the city and the Lagoon. They indulged in creating exotic gardens as well, where they practiced growing rare and edible plants, and of course, spices! Most exotic plants took well in the humid and mild climate of the Lagoon, and many spice plants (including pepper and cinnamon) found a new home in Venice.
Spice masters (spezieri) refined the spices and create own mixtures, which the Venetian merchants sold in Europe. Yes, Venetians also invented packaging and marketing. Now you can imagine that to work with spices and other luxury goods, the merchants needed a special type of warehouse, which became the typical house on the Grand Canal, called El Fondego (the warehouse).
So on the ground floor and first floor, the spices arriving from the Middle East on board the Venetian fleet (le mude) were stored and mixed, then packaged and stored again until they left Venice, again by boat, for Holland, France, Great Britain and central Europe.
What’s little known is that the spices weren’t just used to flavor food. In Venice, spices were used to create remedies, perfumes and beauty products as well! The Museum of Perfumery (Ca’ Mocenigo) has a video that tells you beautifully how perfumes, beauty products and soaps were created from spices. Forgotten treasures that sound so interesting to modern women as well, in my opinion :-)
Venetian cogs between 700 AD and 1797 were the premier fleet transporting loads of fragrant spices from the harbors of the Middle East to Venice. They founded trading posts between Crimea, northern Turkey, Constantinople, the Middle East, Egypt, London, Antwerp and far beyond, in the North Sea. So this is why the trading hub, Venice, required spacious palaces, solidly built, in the midst of a safe haven, the Lagoon !
The best book I know telling us about the characteristics of Venetian architecture, both with regard to contents and visually, is Dream of Venice Architecture. Click here to read my book review and interview with the editor, JoAnn Locktov, and the photographer, Riccardo de Cal.
Next, let’s consider the special Lagoon that Venice was built in. It’s a 550 km²-sized Lagoon, shallow in the beginning, so it was difficult to reach the islands (swamps!). Flat boats were needed to arrive in Venice, and the cogs of the Republic of Venice had to “park” outside, along the Scanno della Piscotta sandbank (this sandbank doesn’t exist any more). In the 1960s, canals were carved throughout the Lagoon to allow the oil tankers reach theharbor, Porto Marghera. And since 2007, large cruise ships enter the Lagoon, passing by San Marco along deep, artificial shipping lanes.
Yes, the Lagoon is shallow, and digging out canals alters the composition of this habitat. It means, the Lagoonscape has changed considerably, and so has the danger of high tides, acqua alta, flooding Venice several times a month. Looking at the statistics I used to write my thesis Ecologia e Urbanizzazione della Laguna di Venezia, I noticed that before canals were carved out, Venice experienced episodes of high tides 2-5 times a year. From the 1960s, the number of episodes per year rose to 80-100 times.
So this is the basics you need to know why Venice looks and IS so different. To wrap up our introduction and understand Venice ven better, we suggest that you read through the following posts on our blog:
- The Lagoon of Venice for Beginners
- The Spice Gardens of Venice
- Our Botanical Heritage: How the Exotic Plants arrived in Venice
More about Understand Venice + Venice behind the Scenes …
From late August 2018, our signature online course DISCOVERING VENICE IN SEVEN STEPS, will be available! We choose the format of online courses, hosted on the Learning Platform Thinkific, because it allows us to include interactive tools, videos, pdfs, ebooks, presentations, checklists, quizzes, etc.
Thanks for reading! Have questions? Please click here to get in touch! Xo, Iris and Lina