Why Does Venice Have so Many Canals?
Unlike most canals, those in Venice are not man-made. If anything, man has made the land around the canals. In the 7th Century this North Italian town was no more than a series of tiny islands and mud flats. After the fall of the Roman Empire, political exiles sought refuge in the Venetian lagoons. Gradually a town emerged with many of its buildings having been constructed directly over the water, supported by massive foundations on the sea bed.
The canals between the groups of houses were left, and consequently, the only form of transport in Venice today is by boat. The vibrations of motor vehicles would soon shatter the foundations of this beautiful city, which in some cases are precariously poised on nothing firmer than sand.
In the days of the gondola all seemed well, but the wash produced by motor boats has greatly weakened Venice’s structure. To add to this historic city’s problems, much of the main island is slowly sinking into the sea, largely because of the dredging and water pumping activities of a nearby industrial area. The Italian government has now embarked on the difficult project of trying to keep this marvel of medieval and renaissance architecture and engineering afloat.
The banks of the Grand Canal are lined with more than 170 buildings, most of which date from the 13th to the 18th century, and demonstrate the welfare and art created by the Republic of Venice. The noble Venetian families faced huge expenses to show off their richness in suitable palazzos; this contest reveals the citizens’ pride and the deep bond with the lagoon.
Amongst the many are the Palazzi Barbaro, Ca’ Rezzonico, Ca’ d’Oro, Palazzo Dario, Ca’ Foscari, Palazzo Barbarigo and to Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, housing the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. The churches along the canal include the basilica of Santa Maria della Salute. Centuries-old traditions, such as the Historical Regatta (it), are perpetuated every year along the Canal.
Because most of the city’s traffic goes along the Canal rather than across it, only one bridge crossed the canal until the 19th century, the Rialto Bridge. There are currently three more bridges, the Ponte degli Scalzi, the Ponte dell’Accademia, and the controversial Ponte della Costituzione from 2008, designed by Santiago Calatrava, connecting the train station to Piazzale Roma, one of the few places in Venice where buses and cars can enter. As was usual in the past, people can still take a ferry ride across the canal at several points by standing up on the deck of a simple gondola called a traghetto, although this service is less common than even a decade ago.
Most of the palaces emerge from water without pavement. Consequently, one can only tour past the fronts of the buildings on the Grand Canal by boat. After the fall of the Republic of Venice in 1797, much of the palatial construction in Venice was suspended, as symbolized by the unfinished San Marcuola and Palazzo Venier dei Leoni (housing the Peggy Guggenheim Collection).
The Patrician families, bereft of their hereditary role in governance and sometimes persecuted by revolutionary forces, sought other residences. Several historical palaces were pulled down, but many found other uses, and some restorations have saved their 18th century appearance. By the late 20th century, most of the more prominent palaces were owned by the city, state, or civic institutions.
During the era of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy, the Napoleonic suppression of the monastic religious orders vacated large sectors of real estate in the city. It also freed large amounts of furnishings and works of art into the antiquarian market or into the possession of the state. Large monasteries changed functions: the Santa Maria della Carità complex became a museum, the Gallerie dell’Accademia); the Santa Croce complex, was converted into the Papadopoli Gardens area; and the Santa Lucia complex (partially designed by Palladio) was razed for the establishment of the Santa Lucia Station.
The Kingdom of Italy accession restored serenity in the city and stimulated construction along the Grand Canal respecting its beauty, often reproduced in Gothic Revival architectures like the Pescaria at Rialto.