7 Secrets of the Grand Canal

How Venetians embrace the water that surrounds them

Venice has always been a beloved city thanks to its unique charm, and it is undeniable that the water it floats on has played quite a role. Here are a few ways water has added to the character that is Venice.

1. Venice 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 is still in use—wooden stakes or logs all taken from the forests of Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro.

Youth Committee of the Italian National Commission for UNESCO, Italy

How did the wood keep from rotting all this time?

Thanks to the natural wonders of science, 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 that most of us know and love is that which is home to St. Mark’s Square—but Venice city actually consists of 118 islands, some of which are connected, with 400 bridges. These man-made islands are slowly feeling negative climate effects with regular flooding. Water can reach about to 3.5 feet high, making galoshes a 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 Architettura 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 (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Known as “acqua alta” to Venetians, the flooding has become such an 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 Is Rainfall, There’s Prosecco

Most visitors are familiar with Venice city center and even Murano, which is famous for its glass making, but few know that there is a small agricultural island with its home in Venice—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.

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

If that wasn’t enough, Sant Erasmo is also the agricultural hub of Venice growing the likes of fresh chicory, artichokes and… prosecco. Thanks to the climate and natural rainfall of the area, the sparkling Italian wine that is native to 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)

4. Venice’s Panchine Rosse
Sit and Enjoy the View

It’s something you don’t normally take notice of but the Venetians love to simply relax and enjoy the beauty of their charming city. So much so, that there are carefully placed panchine rosse (aka red benches) throughout the city simply set for people watching.

La devozione di Venezia (From the collection of 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 typical of southern Italian cities—delicate lace curtains. Bruano, one of Venice’s main islands, is known for its renowned lace-making craftsmanship, which serves as one of the city’s trademarks.

Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1947 (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

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

Vita quotidiana in isola (From the collection of Youth Committee for the Italian National Commission for UNESCO)

Whatever the case, Countess Andriana Marcello put Burano lace on the maps 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. 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 at the Rialto Bridge, Francesco Guardi, 1770s (From the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

The Venetian Historic Regatta of 1489 commemorates the arrival of Caterina Cornaro to Venice, Queen of Cyprus 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)

7. 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 local produce and catch of the day. 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 morning, you will have the rare chance to spot a true Venetian at home.

Banco di pesce fresco 2 (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 3 (From the collection of Youth Committee of the Italian National Commission for UNESCO)
Written by Louise Vinciguerra
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