A GREEK COLONY THAT BECAME A SUPERPOWER
The Laguna di Venezia.
The origin of the lagoons dates back to the end of the last Pleistocene glaciation, called the Würm (20,000 years ago). With the withdrawal of the ice-flows, the Po, Adige, Brenta, Piave and Tagliamento rivers descended from the Alps, depositing huge masses of material in the sea; the interaction between the marine flows and the alluvial deposits created a sort of sandy barrier behind which the lagoons formed. The very morphology of the landscape changed; the glacial forests of birch and Scotch pine disappeared, first being replaced by thermophilic vegetation, like hazel and oak, and then by ilex. The marshy surfaces began to stabilise and a specialised flora, capable of supporting the varying saltiness of the water, contributed to the consolidation of the sandbanks. These tongues of land are regularly submerged at high tide.
The natural progress of this system was to silt up, this being opposed by the continuous efforts of man, whom already during Roman times began the first embankments and river control. During prehistoric times man had already settled in this difficult environment, which nevertheless provided important products such as salt, game, fish and building materials like reeds and clay. Environmental characteristics however selected a specialised human type.
Hunting and fishing took place under difficult and unpredictable conditions, while sea and river flooding must have frequently destroyed the villages, thus permitting only a precarious existence.
Natural conditions forced man to travel by boat. These evolved from small and simple single hulls to complex constructions used on the lagoons and eventually for open-sea fishing.
Cassiodorus, the prefect of King Theoderic, has left us a lively and detailed description of life in the Venetian lagoons during the first centuries after Christ. In a letter sent to the maritime tribunes in 537, Cassiodorus praises the sailors of the lagoons:
«… you pass along what can be called your roads, you who navigate in the land of your fathers; whenever the fury of the winds makes the sea inaccessible, you open up the sheltered river routes; your keels do not fear fierce blasts but arrive on land undamaged, and though frequently running aground they do not break. From afar they almost seem to move between the fields if one does not see the channel they are navigating; ropes pull them along and, when turning around, the men help their boats with feet. Your houses are like those of the water birds, now on the sea now on the land. You are rich in fish; rich and poor live together in equality».
A civilisation of the waters.
The historic success of the Republic of Venice led to a marked change in the landscape, which in the meantime had deteriorated with extensive swamping and marked reduction of the cultivated area, reclaimed by the macchia (scrub). Canals, alteration in river courses, embankments, silting, sea defences, first with piles then with the stone “Murazzi”, altered, regulated and protected the hydrogeological system of the great Venetian lagoon, preventing its natural tendency for silting up due to strategic and economic motives.
In modern times, important drainage works have resulted in the destruction of great areas of the lagoon and permanent embankments have prevented the natural tidal flow and closed off large sections. At the same time, subsidence due to the exploitation of the underground water and methane resources has often contributed to the dangers of high tides. Elsewhere a lack of interest has caused large areas of lagoon to silt up, forming dead lagoons, the water in whose large brackish pools is only slowly changed.
A physical outline.
From a strictly hydrographic viewpoint, the Laguna di Venezia is made up of a collection of seawater or brackish basins with many interconnections, lying behind a coastline formed by the peninsula of Sottomarina, the island of Pellestrina, the island of Lido and the peninsula of Cavallino.
The lagoon covers an area of 58,000 hectares, with a water volume estimated at 800 million cubic metres; tidal flow varies between 280 and 370 million cubic metres. Its average salt content equals 35.5 per thousand, with between 6 and 41 per thousand in the surrounding country zones and near the sea. The stretches of water cover an area of 52,000 hectares, while 6,000 hectares are made up of land, islands, reclaimed and silted up areas.
This lagoon is divided in three separate sections:
The Southern Lagoon has a few deep channels (Canale della Perognola, Canale di Bombae) that carry a huge quantity of seawater at each tide, otherwise it is shallow with tiny underwater channels called «ghebbi»;
The Central Lagoon, between the Canale di Malamocco and the Canale delle Navi lapping Venice from the north is heavily built up in the northern part. To the south it is similar to the Southern Lagoon, but has been partially altered hydrographically by the digging of the big Canale dei Petroli.
The Northern Lagoon is probably the one retaining most of its original characteristics, with the presence of great sandbanks and patches of land, once heavily inhabited.
All the eastern area is of great natural beauty and rich in birdlife, with a perfect balance between the presence of man and nature.
Venice came into being on some banks of dry land, surrounded on all sides by water; with time, its inhabitants increased and it became the Serenissima -the Most Serene Republic – an independent dukedom of noble merchants. It lasted for one thousand years, surviving the vicissitudes of history; it flourished and became rich and powerful. It possessed gold, art and countless enemies. Venice signified ships, sea routes to be followed and defended. It meant commerce with Turks and Syrians, with English and German merchants; it was synonymous with elegant diplomacy. Its inhabitants were both astute and ambitious. Venice signified civilization when all around her loomed the benighted barbarians. Today Venice is quite different, yet still represents a vital way of life. Modern Venice is a city given over to tourism, a cultural capital, a cliché dèja vu, a picture postcard, a myth to be sought after as the visitor takes a gondola ride, goes to a concert in a church or to an exhibition in a historical palace. However, we only have to climb to the top of a bell-tower to rediscover the eternal, timeless Venice, an unchanging sea of red roofs from which emerge -islands of white stone – palaces and churches, those historic symbols of Power, ever.
Lights and Seasons
Venice is one big show. The changing light and the varying seasons infuse the stones of Venice with an infinite variety of colors. In spring, the Northeast wind makes the colors crystalline; the misty dawns of April abound in half-tones: the Grand Canal appears to be permeated with colors which merge into one another in the distance, creating a pearly iridescent haze. With summer comes silence: the air is still, and the Sun etches sharp shadows on the façades of the buildings. The atmosphere peculiar to Venice is created by this silence in the maze of alley-ways penetrated by the sea breeze. Summer also means crowds, sultry heat, and the tens of thousands of tourists who swarm all over the city. August and September bring thunderstorms: dramatic shafts of light, massed white clouds against a threatening sky. Once the storm is over and calm reigns once more, the sunset explodes over Venice with the power of purer, stronger colors. Venice in winter. Rain, high tides and sea-mists, but also the most enchanting days of the whole year. It rarely happens that the city is covered by snow, and that this spectacle in enhanced by sunshine, but when it does, it takes us completely by surprise.
Venice is surrounded by “liquid” walls. The lagoon stretches for miles, impossible to cross, with its tortuous shallows. The city itself is an archipelago, interlaced with dozens, even hundreds of rios and canals. In these grey-green waters are mirrored the images of bright-colored houses and white palaces, in incessantly shimmering reflections. Boats are the protagonists of the daily life of the city which has always taken place on the water, between the mainland, the lagoon and the open sea. Boats for transporting people, boats for bringing in the produce from the surrounding countryside, boats for hunting and fishing, and many types of boats to meet the needs of life on an island. Queen of them all, the gondola, with its strange asymmetrical form, unsurpassed fusion of hydrodynamic lines and the craftsmanship of Venetian boat-builders. The assortment of all the different kinds of boats can be seen in revue at each Vogalonga, the annual rowing event when all Venetians assemble with their boats to row across the lagoon together, or else, at the Redentore festival, when they enjoy, again all together, the breath-taking sight of fireworks over the waters of St. Mark’s basin. Another important watery occasion is the Historic Regatta, when Venetians all shout to exhort the rowers to victory.
At the outset there were powerful families who had opted for the continuity of commerce with Byzantium, rather than the dubious outcome of the Lombard domination. Later on, commerce and profit decided the rules for people living together in such a small area of land. Venice developed into a single maritime society for commerce. The doge, the Council of Ten and the Senate were chosen to find new markets, eliminate any obstacles, and regulate individual enterprises. The iron hand was used sometimes, but Venice found it far more useful, and more economical to gain its ends by justice and diplomacy. While in the rest of Europe regimes alternated, Venice realized that power could be maintained unchanged only if it was used in the common interest. Hence all appointments were made by election from among the members of the many aristocratic families. The custom was never to have anyone in the same position for too long. The origin of all resources continued to be the sea crossed twice a year by the Venetian navy which traded, fought its battles and then want back to trading once more. Venetians were not interested in new territories: they had no ambition to conquer states; they maintained strongholds scattered all over the eastern Mediterranean for the defense of their navy and their commerce.
Venice felt the need for a symbol, and obtained one in her own way: two merchants, Rustico da Torcello and Buono da Malamocco, stole the corpse of St. Mark from Alexandria in Egypt, and, hiding it underneath a consignment of pork, smuggled it to Venice in 828. The Republic could thus boast an evangelist as her patron saint and a lion as her symbol. This lion had a book open which read “Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus” open for friends of the Republic, while towards enemies it bared its teeth with the book closed. Venice claimed – and obtained – the patriarchal throne for her bishop, but the patriarch’s church was safely outside the city “walls”, in the peripheral island of Olivolo, known today as San Pietro di Castello, situated at the extreme East of Venice. The principal Christian church, the Byzantine basilica of San Marco, ablaze with precious marbles and dazzling mosaics, was merely the private chapel of the doge. Although they were convinced Catholics, Venetians never trusted the clergy completely, fearing they might be agents for the politics of the pope of Rome: the latter was also a ruthless rival in commerce and, often, a pitiless adversary in politics and war.
The four centers of activity of the city -spiritual, military, political-administrative and commercial- were situated along a line from East to west, in four separate nuclei: Olivolo (San Pietro di Castello), the patriarchal see, the Arsenal with its troops and shipyards, St. Mark’s with the palace of the doge and the offices of the civil Service and lastly Rialto, the commercial centre of the Republic. The Arsenal was the largest industrial complex in medieval Europe with construction methods that enabled ships to be completed in a remarkably short time. It was there that the ships were launched to sail in convoy to the Aegean, the Black Sea, the Palestine and Flanders, with soldiers, oarsmen, merchants and merchandise on board. When ships sailed in to Venice, the Rialto market swarmed with business men from all over the known world: bankers and cloth merchants, dealers in cereals and cotton. Gold and silver were exchanged fro pepper and cinnamon, Syrian brocades for English woolen cloth. In the merchants’ office double-entry bookkeeping, bills of exchange and bills of lading were used.
The former Rivo Alto soon changed to Rialto, and the huts made of wood and reeds were rapidly transformed into palaces. The stone from Roman buildings at Opitergium (Oderzo), Heraclia (San Donà di Piave), Altinum (Altino) and Torcello were used for this purpose. Ships coming from the East brought marble from Syria and Alexandria, from Greece and Turkey to Venice. Columns from temples, capitals, important fragments of ruins were both war booty and symbols of power and splendor. From the colonies came the white Istrian stone to build Venice’s palaces, and trachyte from the Euganean Hills was sent overland for the city pavements. The city grew along the canals: for a long time they were the only routes of transport; aristocrats and wealthy merchants built sumptuous palaces. These palaces were home, office, warehouse, hotel and fortress combined – proud symbols of stability and proof of a secure financial position. Famous architects came to Venice, from Codussi to Palladio, even though the flowering gothic style with its mullioned windows and marble open-work, that of the Doge’s Palace and Ca’ d’Oro, was always the Venetian style par excellence.
The life of the city throbbed with trade, factories, shops, full to overflowing with people going about their business. These were aristocrats and merchants, craftsmen and artists from all over the world. Venice was a capital but first and foremost a city to be admired, splendid enough to amaze the most blasé traveler. Venice loved to provide splendid entertainment for her guests: kings and ambassadors were regaled with processions along the Grand Canal, designed to impress and spellbind the visitors with the magnificence of the great palaces overlooking the Canalazzo. Venice also permitted her citizens, even the humblest, complete freedom to mix with the Upper classes, masked, during Carnival. Venice had been a place for tourists right from the early days, where incredible adventures happened. There were the three fairs each year at Rialto, and the festival of the Sensa (Ascension), of Carnival time and of the Redentor (Redeemer) in which Venice gave herself up to pleasure and entertainment. Then there were the actors with their plays to delight the people: Harlequin, Pantalone and Colombina mingled on the stage and in the squares with the forbidding baute (masked costume) of the aristocrats – the whole of Venice had become one vast stage.
The faces one meets here today are as changeless as the stones of Venice. Walking round the city -at Rialto or Castello – one meets the ordinary Venetians; they hurry on their daily errands, they appear suddenly round a corner, and disappear just as quickly down the alleyways that resemble a maze. Intermingling with these there are the “new Venetians”, who have long since taken possession of the city of the doges, the tourists. They are people, some prepared for the city, some ingenuous, who have come to marvel at the history, the art and the myth of this most beautiful, yet most eccentric of cities, curiously amphibious by nature. Each one of them has own private reason for coming: The reason for coming to Venice are infinite as are the clichés Venice calls to mind. During Carnival time, the crowd goes mad. At the Redentore festival and the Regatta time, everyone becomes water-borne – more crowds. But then, in the intervals between these red-letter days, everyday life goes on, at home and in the neighborhood squares; by observing the daily life of the inhabitants, foreigners can become part of that life. One has to be born a Venetian: however, one can become a Venetian, as well, but it’s difficult for all to belong to her.
Those who make a distinction between the “official” Venice and the other, “minor” façade of the city, are guilty of yet another common-place. There is a unique façade of Venice, albeit divided into countless facets. The city of monuments and palaces exists only because, side by side with it, there is that other Venice of small houses, deserted alleyways and solitary squares. And vice versa. The dense network of narrow streets form a kind of maze, full of secluded corners, enchanting in their simplicity. Then we catch sight of the dramatic symbols: the palaces, the monuments and the churches. And symbols they undoubtedly are. Suddenly a square opens in front of us, thronged with people; canals disappear from view, silently, between the houses; tortuous alleyways lead the occasional passer-by who knows where? There is the soul of the city; in the maze of narrow streets as well as on the Grand Canal. The backdrop is always irregular and asymmetrical, a casual interplay of spaces and solids based on the primitive canals that wound their way across the lagoon. And yet the city has developed in a functional way, in symbiosis with the water; with human dimensions, as has been said, even though man himself has changed over the centuries.
Not far away we can glimpse the lagoon itself, the various islands, the reeds growing on the saltings. This is another aspect, perhaps the most artless, the truest aspect of this unique Venice of ours; Pellestrina, Poveglia, San Lazzaro, Burano, Torcello, Murano and many other islands. Simple brightly-colored houses, varying accents, primeval skills, and a more relaxed life-style characterize these places and their inhabitants. Far off, the silhouette of St. Mark’s can be seen against the sky, overshadowing the entire lagoon.