Venice – Knowledge Base for the “New City”

The new city of Venice, Italy in the Lagoon was not built from a zero-base of resources or experience.  Sophisticated communities located on the mainland near the Lagoon were thriving for hundreds of years up to a millenium earlier than the earliest period of migration to escape from the threat of Trans-Alpine invaders.

To the north of Venice, about 8 kilometers beyond the far northern reaches of the Adriatic Sea in the Gulf of Venice on the navigable Fiume Acquilea (now Fiume Natisone on a modified course), the Roman city of Aquileia was a very substantial and renowned metropolis that featured a major seaport.  The history, culture, laws, standards and architecture of Rome were instituted and continued there for hundreds of years until around 452 when the community also decamped to the island of Grado in the Gulf, just off-shore.  Those who returned and rebuilt were routed again and the mainland city again destroyed in 590 by the Lombards.

As noted in a previous article in this series, northwest of Venice on the Lagoon shore another Roman city with a port, Altinum, had a similar history, and was also destroyed in 452.  The by-then Catholic Bishop fled to the new Lagoon island community of Torcello in 638, apparently under dire circumstances.   A brief summary of recent photogrammetric studies revealing the extent of Altinum was published in Science magazine, and can be read at

Many Altino residents, and those from other mainland cities and villages further south or inland, became the core of one of the waves of immigration into the Venetian Archipelago.

The civic leaders and citizens that initiated and followed through on these intentional exits from an increasingly and seemingly continuously dangerous mainland would have brought with them systems of government, commerce, institutions, technology, culture and construction that had been founded and proven during the Roman Empire era. 

That era included an orderly design of street grids, fora, public spaces and temples for garrisons and cities.  Over time, the migrant communities also transported substantial quantities of “previously owned” stonework from some of those edifices for their “New City” along with their art, furnishings, libraries and industries.  Some scholars have opined that, in some cases, major portions of mainland stone buildings, particularly facades, were shipped to the new city. 

Owner's Marker - San Giacomo Dell'Orio (c)2009 Randy D. Bosch

Owner's Marker - San Giacomo Dell'Orio (c)2009 Randy D. Bosch

Communities and their leaders would have attempted as orderly an evacuation and reestablishment as possible, using proven systems and rules of governance, commerce, property ownership and community formation.  Regulations and procedures for running a major shipping port, trans-shipping from sea-going craft to river craft and vice versa, transporting and processing mainland produce and lagoon seafood, commerce regulation, religious and other eleemosynary institutions, and government itself, building standards, street and other infrastructure construction and maintenance, constabulary and healthcare (of the day), and so forth, not only existed, but had been in use and modified for scores of generations.

The islands in the Lagoon certainly had formidable challenges to development, including lunar tides and storm surges from the Mare Adriatico into the Lagoon.  Residents of Altinum, Acquileia and other mainland communities were very familiar with these challenges from life in their mainland, lagoon-side port cities.  River surges from the Spring thaw in the nearby mountains as well as storm-induced flooding affected the lagoon were all too familiar to them.  The Lagoon’s marshy and brackish soils became 100% of the new city’s concern, versus the dual interface with riverside freshwater marshes with which they had also dealt on the mainland. 

The need for dependence upon sea-borne transportation – a continuation of the previous Roman merchant and war fleets, as well as the river craft enterprises they had utilized on the mainland, was magnified exponentially in the lagoon, but did not require a new generation of technology.  Disease, pests, human frailities remained sadly intact, with only differences in concentrations due to population patterns and the ecology of the Lagoon.  

In other words, the leaders had coped with and mitigated very similar effects in nearby areas for many centuries, and brought those skills to the Lagoon for further education and practical application in that new development arena.  They could easily have hoped that the migration would be successful, major old challenges would be met, and new challenges were already defined enough to yield successful responses to them.

The significant issues to newly resolve in the Lagoon appear to have been:

  • The efficient and economical provender of fresh food in addition to fish and shellfish;
  • The provision of adequate quantities of fresh water amidst the brackish-to saline sea-water circulating Lagoon.  
  • The extension of supply lines for the acquisition and transport of building materials from the mainland – whether for orderly reclamation from existing cities, scavenging, or extension of existing systems from mountain quarries and forests further down the rivers that emptied into the Lagoon at the time.
  • The development of a wooden pile supported foundation system for major structures at a far greater scale than used on the mainland, and transport of the piles (tree trunks) from the mountains by the millions!
  • Creating, staffing, financing and running the administration of this massive effort (even though over several centuries, but including compressed bursts of energy prior to invations) — while still administering mainland enterprises and cities.
Venice Infrastructure (c)2009 Randy D. Bosch

Venice Infrastructure (c)2009 Randy D. Bosch

As with most city-building and sustaining efforts, including “infrastructure” planning, engineering and materials acquisition and implementation, was critical!

What has changed since then?  Outboard motors, electric cranes, wireless communications, pension plans…

Do you suppose that they had lunch boats with musical horns?



(This article is Part IV of the new 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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