16 surprising facts about Venice to mark 16 centuries of the lagoon city

16 surprising facts about Venice to mark 16 centuries of the lagoon city
Happy 1,600th birthday, Venice. Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP
Venice celebrates the 1,600th anniversary of its founding on March 25th. We look at some of the intriguing things you might not know about the lagoon city and its 16 centuries of history.

1. Venice was born with the first stone of San Giacomo di Rialto church

March 25th 421 is commonly recognised as the day that Venice was founded, with the laying of the first stone of the San Giacomo di Rialto (San Giacometto) Church. These origins are reported in the Chronicon Altinate, a Latin chronicle that recounts the legends of the city’s founding, and later by Venetian historian Marin Sanudo, who reported the massive fire on the Rialto bridge in 1514:

“Solum restò in piedi la chiexia di San Giacomo di Rialto, la qual fu la prima chiexia edificata in Venetia dil 421 a dì 25 Marzo, come in le nostre croniche si leze”.

This can be translated as: “Only the church of San Giacomo of Rialto stood, which was the first church built in Venice on March 25th 421, like our chronicles tell.”

2. Venice is built on wood

Those breathtaking piazzas and opulent buildings are all the more impressive when you look around and notice that it’s all rising from the water.

How was the city built on such fluid foundations? Before Venice became what we know it is today, the area was a muddy, marshy lagoon with all the islands spread across its swampy plains.

To transform it into the floating city that it’s now known as, early settlers had to drain the lagoon and dig the canals. They installed wooden stakes, or logs, to line them and create a barrier, which also lay on hard clay beneath. They then built wooden platforms on top of the stakes and put stone on top of those. Venice’s buildings are built on these foundations.

Photo by Olivier MORIN / AFP

How has the wood endured the years? You might think the material would have decayed, leaving the whole city to crumble into the canals. In fact, the water around Venice is low in oxygen and so the conditions aren’t viable for microorganisms that may break down the wood.

What’s more, the saltwater has meant that salt and other minerals have been absorbed, hardening the wood into a stone-strength material.

3. Venice’s canals are up to 17 metres deep

It’s hard to gauge just how far down Venice’s waterways go, as the water is usually not transparent. The canals all vary in depth, but they’re mostly around 1.5 to 2 metres deep, depending on the tides and whether work is being carried out.

The Grand Canal, the main one that runs right through the centre of Venice and known as the Canalazzo to locals, is deeper – at 5 metres. It stretches for two and a half miles and has over 170 buildings perched along its length.

Its distinctive S-shape is thought to be ancient and it existed back in Roman times, when people lived in stilt houses along its banks.

There are canals deeper still in Venice. The Canale della Giudecca – the waterway that separates Venice from the island of Giudecca – is 12-17 metres deep.

4. Venice has one of the world’s narrowest streets

You’re guaranteed a great view no matter where you walk in Venice.

While you’re wandering along its 150 canals and 400 footbridges, you can find one of the world’s narrowest streets. Calletta Varisco measures just 53cm – or 21 inches – across. This is definitely not a route for strolling hand in hand with your beau.

5. Venice ruled itself for 1,100 years

The lagoon city was an independent empire for more than a millennium. Known as La Serenissima from 697, its autonomy was ultimately brought to an end when Napoleon took control in 1797. France and Austria fought for ruling power until eventually, the city became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1866 under King Vittorio Emanuele II.

Before that time, Venice ruled most of the Mediterranean and traded with western Asia, hitting its peak of power in the 14th century. Islands such as Crete and Cyprus were under Venice’s rule and it also had a lot of clout in the city of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).

Because of its topography, Venice became a plucky empire, needing to survive with good trade links and ship building. It couldn’t rely on much else, such as agriculture, so with good business acumen, Venice became one of the wealthiest cities.

Photo by ANDREA PATTARO / AFP

6. Gondoliers are disappearing

As no motor transport is allowed in Venice’s historic centre, you get around on foot or by the famously romantic mode of transport, the gondola.

But both the boats and the professionals who steer them are disappearing. You need a professional licence to become a gondolier and only about three or four are granted each year. It’s no wonder when you consider that it takes 400 hours of training to get one – as well as the requirement to pass an exam on Venetian history and architecture.

READ ALSO: Venice reduces gondola capacity as tourists are ‘getting heavier’

Little surprise, then, that the number of gondolas you see gliding up and down the canals is also shrinking. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as many as 10,000 gondolas filled those waterways. In modern times, only around 400 are still touring the watery routes – and almost all are used for tourism.

7. There is only one official woman gondolier

As the gondolier profession was historically passed from father to son, women never had the chance to pursue this as a career.

After almost a thousand years of being an exclusively male business, Giorgia Boscolo, the daughter of a gondolier, became Venice’s first licensed gondoliera around 2010.

But that’s not to say that there aren’t other women rowing or even building boats in Venice.

READ ALSO: ‘Rowing in Venice is unique – it’s the closest you’ll get to walking on water’

Photo by Andrea PATTARO / AFP

8. Venetians invented quarantine

As Venice built an empire on trading widely by sea, it followed that ships docking in the city would also bring diseases with them and outbreaks could follow.

To prevent this from happening, ships would be required to sit offshore for 40 days – which is where we get the word ‘quarantine’ from (40 in Italian is quaranta).

READ ALSO: From dildo to quarantine: 10 English words you didn’t realize were stolen from Italian

The Venetian government created quarantine in 1348, after which people and goods arriving to the city would be taken to an isolated island. If Venetians had been exposed to the plague, they and their families would also be sent there. If it turned out they were infected, they’d be sent to another, separate island full of infected people.

If after 40 days, the signs of infection had passed, they were free to go. 

9. Venetian masks used to be illegal

Around carnival time in February, Venetian masks are a symbol of the city and its celebrations. They can range from affordable plastic ones to intricately designed pieces of art that sell for thousands of euros.

Photo by Vlad Hilitanu/Unsplash

Historically, though, these masks were much less about festivities in the street. They used to be worn in the city to conceal people’s identities when they took part in any activity that wasn’t approved by the Church in the days leading up to Lent.

Sometimes they were worn to cover up illicit or illegal activity; other times it was for much less nefarious but still frowned-upon behaviour, such as romantic encounters. For that reason, they were actually made illegal across various points in Venice’s history. 

IN PHOTOS: Venice celebrates carnival without tourist crowds

These dramatic face-coverings date back to the 13th century. They rose in such popularity,  that by the 17th and 18th centuries, the elite had taken to wearing them so frequently that the government had to restrict their usage. A law was passed only allowing people to wear a mask for three months of the year, from Christmas to Lent.

Sometimes, certain activities were banned while wearing masks. In the 13th century, one favoured activity of the Venetians was to throw perfume-filled eggs at passers-by.

However, spurred on by the anonymity of mask-wearing, people started throwing eggs filled with ink instead. This led to the introduction of a law in 1268 forbidding those in masks to throw eggshells altogether. 

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10. And sometimes wearing Venetian masks was mandatory

In certain social situations, wearing a mask actually became compulsory in Venice. Once women were married, for instance, they had to wear a mask when going to the theatre.

By this point in their marital status, masks served more as a marker of modesty than a signal of seduction.

Some masks were even an essential piece of equipment worn by doctors – an early form of personal protection equipment. The Plague Doctor mask, with its long, sinister beak, has made a reappearance in these pandemic times. 

Photo by Andrea PATTARO / AFP

Originally, though, it allowed doctors to treat patients with the plague. The beak would be stuffed with aromatic herbs to block the stink from those infected and the eye holes were covered with a type of glass for protection.

11. Venice has its own language

Perhaps another kind of disguise is the city’s dialect, called Venexiàn. Some linguists insist it’s actually another language altogether, not a dialect of Italian.

Henry James describes Venexiàn in his 1909 book of essays, Italian Hours, as “a delightful garrulous language [that] helps them to make Venetian life a long conversazione”.

“This language, with its soft elisions, its odd transpositions, its kindly contempt for consonants and other disagreeables, has in it something peculiarly human and accommodating,” writes the author.

READ ALSO: Nine handy Venetian words to use on your next trip to Venice

Venetian is full of Latin influences, but also contains Greek and Arabic roots due to the history of trading relationships. You can see traces of these languages in words like ‘fork’ – forchetta in Italian but piròn in Venexiàn, similar to the Greek word piruni.

Venexiàn is sometimes referred to as the dialetto del mar (dialect of the sea) – or to use the local word, dialeto, because double consonants are usually pronounced as a single consonant. For example, a dish is a piato in Venexiàn, not the standard piatto of Italian.

Some other Venexiàn words you may hear in the city include bacaro (‘local bar’), vin (‘wine’), bicier (‘glass’), ancuo (‘today’) and schei (‘money’).

12. Venetians could disappear by 2030

The local population is leaving the city. There were around 120,000 inhabitants in the historic centre 30 years ago and now there are fewer than 60,000.

Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

With 30 million tourists visiting Venice annually – pandemic notwithstanding – the city is slowly losing its roots and taking its language with it.

If trends continue, some experts predict that there’ll be no local residents in Venice by 2030.

13. The government has been trying to prevent Venice from sinking since 1973

Venice’s precarious position is well-documented, and getting worse. Average estimates are that the city is sinking by 1-2mm every year, made worse by acqua alta – literally ‘high water’ – events.

Climate change, extracting water from the city and the shifting Adriatic plates on which the city sits are all credited with pushing Venice towards extinction.

OPINION: After flooding and coronavirus, is it time Venice stopped relying on tourism?

Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

However, more frequent flooding started happening with less warning almost five decades ago. In 1973, the Italian government passed the first law for Venice that recognised the city’s vulnerability and the urgent need to protect the lagoon from environmental disaster.

Officials commissioned a barrier system, known as the MOSE – Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico – comprising 78 gates that can be raised to hold back the tide in order to protect Venice’s fragile lagoon, and the city itself.

After decades of controversy and spiralling costs, the long-awaited flood barrier was activated for the first time in October 2020, and successfully held back the tide.

14. Out of over 400 bridges in Venice, only four cross the Grand Canal

As the Grand Canal is the aquatic heart of the city, it seems surprising that only a fraction of the city’s bridges cross it.

They include the wooden Ponte dell’Accademia near the Gallerie dell’Accademia, the Ponte degli Scalzi near the train station, the modern Ponte di Calatrava a Venezia and the star of the show, the grand old Rialto Bridge.

Photo: Antonio Molinari/Unsplash

15. The Rialto Bridge features in Shakespeare

This famous bridge goes way back in history, dating to 1591 in its current form, and much further back still in previous states.

It was the first permanent bridge built in Venice and provided, as it still does to this day, access from the Rialto market to the San Marco and San Polo districts (sestieri).

This architectural icon of Venice has often featured in art and literature. It was referred to in William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, when one character inquires: “Now, what news on the Rialto?”

Though Shakespeare is never believed to have visited the city – or anywhere in Italy – the bridge’s reputation as a place for people to meet and discuss the latest gossip must have preceded it all the way to Elizabethan London.

16. Venice is shaped like a fish

You might never know this fact unless you look at Venice from above. Who could have predicted that a city formed from a swampy lagoon would end up looking like a fish?

Check out aerial views and you’ll see the city sitting in its watery world.

This handout satellite image shows Venice under ‘acqua alta’. Photo: CNES 2019/AFP

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