Venice – Laissez Faire Sprawl or Planned Communities?

Over a period of  350 years from its “founding” date, between the 450’s and prior to 810, the “new” Venice matured as much as or more than  did most intentionally founded cities in America over a similar span of years, differences in technology not withstanding.

Venice 1557 - C.Sabbadino (Archivio Di Statii venezia)

Venice 1557 - C.Sabbadino (Archivio Di Statii venezia)

If that development, at least in its early years, was solely laissez-faire, one might expect to find that the City layout was a pre-Medieval Medusa-like tangle of byways and total integration of diverse functions throughout communities.  If that development was fully planned, one might expect to find the construction of regimented community cores, early use-related zoning of major functions and a pattern of community layout similar to the classical Roman plan found in larger communities of the mainland.  Perhaps, one could find quotations from or adaptation of portions of the layout of the nearby precursor city of Altinum itself. 

In either case, the substantial constraints of existing Lagoon island shapes, sizes, accessibility, resources and physical environment would be a major modifier.  Then impacts would likely be more noticeable with adaptation of a “regular” mainland city plan or its “pattern book” elements than with visually “free-form” agricultural villages.

On-the-ground observation has intended to ascertain which approach, or which collection of disparate approaches, were followed in the early years of urban development.  One and a half millenia of development and redevelopment has obscured not just traces, but entire generations of evidence.  Even the oldest publicly accessible “maps” dating from the 14th Century, some remarkably detailed with many still identifiable features, are mid-course snapshots after many major decisions were made and much construction or reconstruction had occurred.  Some artistic license, and obscuring of features due to the drafter’s viewpoint also affect identification of many features recorded on the old maps. 

Photogrammetry and GIS tools have spoiled us! 

The lack of easily available documentation precludes any chance for painless and accurate determination of chronological progression in many areas of the City.

Based upon early archived maps and recorded accounts, however, we can at least pare away major land additions on the perimeters of the City, calle, canal and bridge additions, sottoportico construction, neighborhood destruction for the railroad station, and canal infill (Rii Terra) that do particularly blur the line between memory and history.

20th-C Interdiction - Strada Nova  (c)2008 Randy D. Bosch

20th-C Interdiction - Strada Nova (c)2008 Randy D. Bosch

Major building programs are also well recorded, including the massive changes around Piazza San Marco and the Arsenale, and the later imposition of other major institutions such as the Dominican and Franciscan compounds, let alone more modern “interdictions” that occurred during the Napoleonic administration, under Austrian rule and during the Mussolini era.

A variety of studies have been completed that work to recreate a chronology, including attempts to identify “proto-island” communities – the early communities in the archipelago.  One very well thought out study, “Evolution of the Forma Urbis”, was accomplished by undergraduate students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Christopher Baker, Jose Brache, Samantha Dakin and Cem Saracel, working on-site at the WPI Venetian Project Center led by the extraordinary Professor Fabio Carrera, under Venetian governmental and institutional supervision.  (Interested readers can enjoy the summary documentation from 2004 on-line at: ).

The “peeling back” of layers to identify precursors to current form is a worthwhile approach, focusing heavily upon the correct identification of former canals that were infilled sometime during the City’s history.  Some can be identified by name, “Rio Terre“, or earth-filled canals.  Others without a “Rio Terre” name can be identified by the existence of sottoportico arcades open on one side to calle or campo, and still extant “waterdoors” modified to meet infill pavements.  Still others can be identified by the curving facades of buildings, including the tangential placement of columns, that most likely indicate early construction along a bulwarked natural waterway.  The authors leave us open to an inference that much of the demi-grid, straight-line development may have occurred at a later date than the island perimeters they have worked to identify, or that it may have occurred contemporaneously in the interior of some proto-islands.  This is an issue that may impact developing a reliable chronology of original island development, expansion and melding.

The offset axis of many bridges helps identify construction later than that of the calle on adjoining islands to which they connect, as does connection of a ponte to a sottoportico burrowed through buildings sometimes centuries after their construction.  The proliferation of bridges in the 19th Century raises questions about how closely the now-connecting islands collaborated prior to the bridge, connecting a sottoportico or new calle, or rio terra construction.  Instances occur where adjoining islands have a remarkable congruency of layout with each other but not with other adjacent islands.  Elsewhere, similar patterns exist across the rii, but offset so that no intention of common neighborhood efforts seems likely – on the surface. 

Some of the island communities have a modern mirror in adjacent gated communities in the United States. 

Did the developers and inhabitants of proto-islands, however you identify them, come from particular mainland communities, or districts within an Altinum or similar city?  Can the early patrician families be traced to specific onshore locales, or are those links muddied by later establishment (re-establishment?) of on-shore summer villas and farms, such as along the Brenta Canal?  Tracking that socio-cultural history is very difficult and certainly not as visually rewarding as tracking and recording physical artifacts!

One intention of this series of articles is to explore a number of these issues, as the author is inspired to do so, to identify patterns, textures, recorded linkages and barriers, that help inform how the theoretical line between laissez-faire sprawl and planned community development might be drawn in Venice.

As with so many studies that try to establish where history ended and memory began through centuries of documentary fragments applicable to dozens of city fragments in order to respond to such multiple-choice questions, the answer may be found in…

Neither “all of the above” nor “none of the above”!

(This article is Part III of a series, “Venice – The Intentional City” on RenaissanceRules!  Part One, the Introduction, was posted on November 8, 2010, and can be accessed via this link: .  Please stop in again to discover upcoming segments, and always, enjoy the journey! Buon Viaggio!)


About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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