Home Private pages Italy 2008

Venice, 2008

Building on the water

My first reaction arriving in Venice was one of amazement. Crossing the lagoon, it is difficult to see the town in front of the train, and your eye is more attracted by the expanse of water and the receding coastline. Only when you get out of the Santa Lucia station do you suddenly realize that this town is not just built on, but literally in the water.

As soon as we arrived, we took the Vaporetto down the Grand Canal and the show started: Palazzo after palazzo line the banks of the canal with their feet in the water. Some are fairly plain, others much more elaborate. I recognized the Ca' d'Oro from reading my guide books, one of the most ornate buildings along the canal, even without its original gold leaves and lapis-lazuli paint.

Later, after we got settled in our tiny, but comfortable room in a typical narrow street off of a fancy commercial street, Via XXII Marzo, we wandered toward St Mark Square in time to see the sunset reflected on the gold mosaics of the basilica. Like many buildings in Venice, St Mark was built in the middle ages and has been modified many time since. Some of the early mosaics have been moved to the museum or replaced by more modern versions. The famous four bronze horses that adorn the facade are copies of the original ones (Greek antiques stolen from Constantinople in 1204), which are also in the museum.

Building on the water has its peculiar problems. The old way is to create a wooden raft anchored to underground piles, on which the building is erected. This means that the buildings sort of float on the saturated ground. Movements are unavoidable and it is common for floors in old buildings to be rather wavy and buildings themselves are often less than square. Tall buildings present a special challenge. Most churches are braced to keep the arches from collapsing, as in Santa Maria dei Frari. This is not always entirely successful. Several buildings failed over the years. In 1902 the bell tower of St Mark collapsed in a nice pile of rubble (note that this picture is probably a fake!). It was later rebuilt with the motto "dov'era, com'era" (where it was, as it was). I hope they strengthened it a bit.

Most buildings have foundations of Istrian stones that are supposed to be waterproof. Still, rising damp is a constant problem, even away from the canals. A slight air of decrepitude pervades the whole town and repair crews are everywhere.

When a building is fixed up, though, as the Palazzo Franchetti, now a museum, it can be magnificent. Wherever you look you see incredibly beautiful works of art or craftsmanship like this 17th century sculpture by Francesco Pianta in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, where the baroque decorations almost overwhelm the enormous Tintoretto paintings, the three-dimensional effect in the floor mosaic of St Mark, the intricate marble flooring and carvings and inlays of the choir stalls of Santa Maria dei Frari, the ship-keel roof of the church of Santo Stephano, tribute to the skill of the medieval Venetian ship builders and a reminder that the word "nave" means boat in Italian. One can also marvel at this incredibly ornate ceiling in the doge's palace (with more Tintoretti), the fancy hand-made masks, the decorated stairs of the Palazzo Franchetti, not to mention all the places where the vigilant museum guards would not let me take pictures. Surprisingly enough, even though tourists crowded some places like St Mark's square, they were apparently more interested in the pigeons then in works of arts, and many museums were so empty that the bored guards could follow us assiduously.

Back to index.
Next: Living on the water