I recently took students at my school on a trip to Venice, Italy.
I had never been to Italy before and really only knew Venice as a popular tourist destination, but because it was an educational trip with students, I learned the history of the city. For me it was fascinating…
- Venice was originally built sometime in 400 A.D. at the fall of the Roman Empire, when barbarians invaded and people fled to escape the attacks. Venetians decided to build upon the muddy islands of what would become Venice, just off the coast of the mainland in the Adriatic Sea, with the thought that building on the lagoon would prevent, or at least discourage, the barbarians from following them. Being an unenviable and inaccessible place to live, and given the invaders’ lack of knowledge of the sea – it worked. Venice was built and eventually rose to become the world’s longest existing Republic.
- Venice, then, is built on a lagoon and its roads are waterways. Instead of parking your car in a parking lot or garage, residents pull their boats up to dock! Or jump in a vaporetto (waterbus) for public transportation. Here’s a Venetian vaporetto stop – imagine the subway, metro, or Tube station on water!
The city is entirely pedestrian, so no cars are allowed in Venice proper. The main road below, the Grand Canal, curves through the city and even has a speed limit to avoid boats from creating waves and battered waters. All canals have a speed limit, in fact, usually between 5 to 7 km per hour (roughly 3 to 4 mph). Yes, Venetian police ride the streets and fine boats for “driving” past the speed limit.
- Below is St. Mark’s Basilica, a landmark of Venice. The Basilica was built in 828 A.D. when merchants from Venice stole the body of St. Mark the Evangelist, one of the four apostles, from Alexandria, Egypt. St. Mark’s tomb is kept in the Basilica. Legend says that the merchants snuck past Egyptian guards with the body of St. Mark by burying it in layers of pork, which the assumed Muslims would not touch. The story of this is depicted in gold mosaic as you enter the church. To the right of the Basilica is the Bell Tower, which collapsed in 1903 and had to be rebuilt and finally finished in 1912. The Bell Tower was rebuilt exactly as it had been prior to collapse.
- Just next to St. Mark’s Basilica is the Doge’s, or Duke’s, Palace which was the center of politics and public administration during the time of the Republic of Venice. The Republic existed for a millennium between the 8th and 18th century, when it was then taken over by Napoleon and French rule. It later joined Italy in the 19th century, and remained a part as it is present day. Inside Doge’s Palace you can visit several rooms, which once were administrative offices, and the courtroom where individuals were tried and judged for crimes against the Venetian Republic. Doge’s Palace also housed prisons, with new prisons being eventually built in the second half of the 16th century. The bridge below was then built to connect Doge’s Palace (and the old prisons) to the new prisons. The bridge has been named the “Bridge of Sighs” on the premise that prisoners tried and sentenced for crimes in Doge’s Palace crossed over this bridge to be kept in the new prisons. Upon crossing the bridge, prisoners could see Venice through the windows and would sigh knowing that it was their last glimpse of the city before imprisonment, and maybe their last view of Venice ever.
- The future of Venice is in question as the city’s foundation was created by plunging wood logs into the mud and building on top of them. While the wood logs decompose into the mud and establish a somewhat sturdy foundation, when you walk through buildings like St. Mark’s Basilica or Doge’s Palace, or any building I suppose, the floor waves up and down and even moves under your feet given the muddy foundation upon which Venice is built. It’s a pretty strange sensation. Venice, then, is sinking, having been built on mud and sand, while with recent increasing global temperatures sea level is rising. With a rising sea level and a sinking Venice (bad combination), who knows how much longer this city will even exist. Venice, in fact, often floods and temporary walkways have to be put up and taken down, as needed, to accommodate pedestrians walking the streets in spite of the flooded paths.
In any case, Venice is still very much alive and thriving, described by the tour guide as a “Disneyland” attracting tourists from around the world. It’s most widely known for its picturesque canals, Italian charm, and gondola rides – and for this it certainly delivered…
I left absorbed with the history of this city, none of which I knew before visiting, but also sad in a way that such a rich historical place is not only sinking physically, but culturally as well having become mainly an island of tourists. The population of Venetians 100 years ago, for example, was around 160,000 and has now dropped to 55,000 – and of those 55,000 Venetians only about 10,000 are young people under the age of 18. High unemployment (12%) in Italy combined with the high cost of living on the island, at least compared to mainland Italy, forces young people to leave Venice in favor of making a more affordable and practical life on the mainland. Given Venice’s unique culture, lifestyle, and history, it’s an unfortunate reality to think that its people and its land are slowly disappearing.
So for anyone reading this post who has visited Venice in the past or wants to visit in the future, I urge you to spend some time reflecting on your travels. Be a traveler, not a tourist – get away from the gondolas, out of the tourist shops, and into the authentic streets and local artisan stores and restaurants of this charming and distinctive city. It truly is one-of-a-kind.