7 Amazing Things You Never Knew About Venice

From the story of how it floats to its secret prosecco stash

"The City of Water," "The City of Masks," "The Floating City," "The City of Bridges," and "The City of Canals"... it goes by many names.

Venice or Venezia, named after the ancient Veneti people who lived there over 3000 years ago, is one of the most mysterious and captivating cities in the world. Here are some of its best-kept secrets.

1. Venice's Roots & Origins

What Makes the ‘Floating City’ Float?

Perhaps one of the most interesting facts about Venice is how it began. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Venetian merchants decided to protect themselves from barbaric raids by building a barricaded, floating city on nearby marshes. To this day, the support system used to keep the city elevated above the water is still in use – wooden stakes or logs all taken from the forests of Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro.

So, how does the wood keep from rotting after all this time?

Thanks to the wonder of nature. Venice keeps afloat due to the absorbed sediment beneath the waters, and lack of exposure to oxygen which has helped petrify the ancient wooden logs.

2. Venice Acqua Alta

Climate & High Tides

The main island of Venice, the one most of us know and love, is the one that's home to St. Mark’s Square. But Venice's city actually consists of 118 islands, some of which are connected with 400 bridges. These man-made islands are feeling the negative effects of an irregular climate and many of them flood regularly. Water can reach about to 3.5 feet high, making galoshes regular footwear for Venetians.

Tanja Milbourne, The Flooding of Venice, Palazzo Mora, 2016. Photograph mock-up proposal (From the collection of Time Space Existence - Biennale Archittetura 2016)

Flooding happens approximately 4 times year, generally around November and December, and it is slowly taking its toll on this 1600-year-old city.

Flood Damage, Venice, By Dmitri Kessel (From the LIFE Photo Collection)
Flood Damage, Venice, By Dmitri Kessel (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

Known as acqua alta to Venetians, meaning 'high water', the flooding has become such as issue that the famous acqua alta of 1966 left residents without homes, reaching a record level 6 feet of high tide water.

3. Venice Is Home to a Farm

Where There’s Rain, There’s Prosecco

When it comes to Venice, most people think of the city center, or maybe Murano and its famous glass making, but few know that it also has a small agricultural island – Sant Erasmo. This island is breathtaking to say the least, with a small strip of sand for local sunbathers and Venetians showing off their new boats.

Sant Erasmo, Venice Agriculture  

If that wasn’t enough, Sant Erasmo is also the agricultural hub of Venice, growing the likes of fresh chicory, artichokes and grapes for… prosecco. Thanks to the climate and natural rainfall of the area, the sparkling Italian wine that is native of northern Italy, can also be found as a local Venetian product in most bacari (finger food restaurants typical of Venice).

No Natursekt, Martin Kippenberger, 1996/2017 (From the collection of MUSEION)

Agricultural Venice may not be the Venice you know, but it shows how contradictory and surprising the city really is.

Cicoria novella di Sant Erasmo (From the collection of Youth Committee for the Italian National Commission for UNESCO)

4. Venice’s Panchine Rosse

Sit and Enjoy the View

The Venetians simply love to relax and enjoy the beauty of their charming city. So much so that there are carefully placed public panchine rosse (aka red benches) throughout the city, specifically set aside for people watching.

La devozione di Venezia, Isola della Giudecca (Youth Committee of the Italian National Commission for UNESCO)

5. Burano Lace

From Fishing Nets to Lace

Glance at any Venetian window and you will find something that is not at all typical of southern Italian cities – delicate lace curtains. Burano, one of Venice’s main islands, is known for its renowned lace-making craftsmanship which serves as one of the city’s trademarks.

Women working at lace-making school under supervision of a Catholic nun, by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1947(From the LIFE Photo Collection)

How this tradition of lacemaking began is not so clear, but some accounts explain that the art of lacemaking was closely tied to the art of creating fishing nets. One art form slowly emerged out of the other.

Burano (From the collection of Youth Committee of the Italian National Commission for UNESCO)

Whatever its origins, it’s certain that it was the Countess Andriana Marcello who put Burano lace on the map, thanks to her drive to revive Burano lace making. The school of Burano Lace Making was born and continues to dominate the city’s traditions.

6. Rialto Fish Market

A Market Made History

Where there’s water and a farm, there’s a market. The Rialto Fish Market has had a long-standing tradition of selling the catch of the day, alongside other local produce. Whether you like seafood or not, the site itself is stunning, overlooking the canal and just steps away from the famous Rialto Bridge. If you get to go early in the morning, you’ll get to witness the true lives of Venetians.

Banco di pesce fresco (From the collection of Youth Committee of the Italian National Commission for UNESCO)

The Rialto Fish Market located in Campo Della Pescaria has been declared part of the UNESCO patrimony, ensuring the tradition continues for generations to come.

Banco di pesce fresco (From the collection of Youth Committee of the Italian National Commission for UNESCO)

7. Venice Regatta

A Race Fit for a Queen

Venice has long had a history of water events, one of which includes the Venetian Historic Regatta, held the first Sunday of every September. Traditionally begun as a religious celebration, Venetians host over 120 regattas on their waters, celebrating everything from religious to political events.

Regatta on the Grand Canal in Honor of Frederick IV, King of Denmark, 1711, Luca Carlevarijs (The J. Paul Getty Museum)

The Venetian Historic Regatta of 1489 commemorated the arrival of Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus, to Venice with hand-carved boats still fit for a queen. The colorful re-enactment is definitely worth a trip to this city on water.

Venice pays tribute to Caterina Cornaro, Hans Makart, 1872/1873 (From the collection of Belvedere)

See more from Venice here.

Words by Louise Vinciguerra
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