Venice is a city built on wooden stilts, cut from the surrounding area, on 117 islands, where the inhabitants of the terraferma sought refuge in particular since Attila the Hun’s invasion of the northern part of the Italian peninsula in 452 AD. But not all is stilts here, anyway, there is also more secure ground, dorsi duri – hard underground. The Venetian sestiere of Dorsoduro means exactly that: here, the ground consists of islands, and the stilts were needed in particular to make use of as much land as possible, and to create a real “landscape” of channels, “i canali interni”. Campi were created, opening up space for gardens and vegetable gardens right in town, amongst the houses. Have you actually noticed that nowadays like in the past, there are basically three types of canals in Venice: Canals out in the lagoon, canals rising up straight from the waterline, and canals with pathways (fondamenta) running along them, or at least for a part, often with gardens opening up into their direction (quite picturesque …).
But these canals have had other function in history too, and did not just enable life in an unusual place by enlarging the space to be lived in: they have also guarded settlers for centuries. For example, these “water ramparts” blocked the forces of Pepin, the son of Charlemagne, in 810, while land-based towns around the lagoon were seized.
To show how this miracle of town actually is sewn together by stilts, today I would like to present one of my favorite TV series on Venice: Francesco’s Venice. When this TV series was first broadcast in 2004, it was a great success in particular in the UK, and was also followed by a book, Francesco’s Venice.
I have come across a short sequence of Francesco Da Mosto’s TV series, it is part 2, from which you can see how the city was actually built from scratch – stilt after stilt sewing together the marshy islands. This underground “wood” of stilts has, during the centuries that passed, become like cement due to lack of air. Above the stilts, a layer of bricks has been arranged. By the way, in the little film below you can see Francesco da Mosto actually learn how to repair these brick fundaments of Venice.
Every few years or so, these inland or side canals in Venice need to be cleaned: they are blocked off by dams, their brick walls can be repaired where required, and the bottom cleared from rubbish and accumulated mud so that boats can pass through – you can also see this procedure in the film. At the times of the Venetian Republic, the Grand Canal was also cleaned that way every ten years, but nowadays it is not done as this is the main “road” or should I say route that nobody can imagine closed like that, not even for a day. When you watch this video sequence, you will get a feeling of what an artifice this city is and what enormous and admirable efforts and strength were required to build a town from scratch like this.