Venice – Form, Function and Environment

In his monumental work, “The City in History” (Harcourt, Brace, New York, 1981), renowned historian Lewis Mumford provided an outline of what he referred to as a “Typical Parish Island” in Venice, listing and defining its essential components.  They are,

A Community Open Space, a Campo (translated as “field”: often incorrectly referred to as a “piazza”.  It is a Campo!)  

  • Open to a canal on one side (with few exceptions)
  • Church on one side of the Campo with a campanile adjacent
  • Wellhead with underground fresh water cistern in the Campo for community use
  • Houses of leading parish citizen(s) facing the Campo
  • Originally partially “grassed” or tilled for gardens (some larger ones with a cemetery)
  • Other shared community functions adjacent to the Campo.
Campo San Agostin   (c)2007 Randy D. Bosch

Campo San Agostin (c)2007 Randy D. Bosch

Of course, most campo-based churches have a campanile – the symbol of the community, a guidepost for travelers, and the keeper of that community’s time.

The positioning of the Campo adjacent to a canal allowed community waterborne transit access to key community functions, including providing goods for the normal marketplace in the Campo, and a formal entrance for visitors.  Private access via watergates into properties around the perimeter of most islands occurs for convenient private residential transportation (private garages!) and family businesses housed below their domiciles. 

Additionally, a fondamente will often be found on the opposite side of the island from the Campo access, to service the local squero (boatyard) and other industry.

A Distinctly Planned Street System: Many of the not-necessary-oldest, but usually well-established “parish-islands” have an intentional distinctly planned street system, perhaps originating from “day one” for that community, with:

  • Central axial “street”, often along the higher “spine” of the island, running from the “Campo” at one end or side of the island straight to the far end (usually long axis);
  • Campo (see above – “parish” square) at one end of the axial street and open to a main canal;
  • Parallel secondary streets at right angles to the axial street, running out toward the island edges;
  • The “Axis” street developed as the main retail and “professional services” center, the “Main Street” of the community. 

Mumford referenced San Lio and San Barnaba “fishbone” street patterns as key examples of that “standard” plan.

Now, whenever anyone announces the existence of a “typical plan”, quantum leaps to either universal application or scornful refutation soon follow!  A more robust application of Mumford’s thesis does less to stipulate an undemonstrable universal application than to provide a template with which to compare and contrast Lagoon island communities. 

The town planning elements of those communities that developed at different times, with different lagoon and neighbor-island exposures, varying soil and tide conditions, different “sponsor” leaders or key families, and different artisan and trade specializations can be compared.  Differing “community” specializations may have been brought from mainland communities, and also may have been combined for economy of scale at an early date. 

Certainly, economy of scale, resource use and safety entered into specialization by area and function later in the life of Venice, such as at Murano (glass), Burano (lace), Arsenale (military), San Michele (cemeteries), and others as a form of “land use zoning” compelled by civic leadership where commerce and tradition did not impel such a move.  Those later specializations often resulted in “redevelopment” that in itself modified and may obscure the earlier layouts. 

Imposition of a new monastery or its expansion often caused major impacts and relocation of other existing functions.  As new trades developed, new scuola were founded to support the practitioners and teach new skills.  When these became beneficial social organizations, their new homes changed patterns in a community even when the scuola‘s reach was City-wide.

These physical parameters of “community” did not originate in Venice, of course, but through millenia of application in Minoan, Greek, Etruscan and Roman communities throughout the Mediterranean.  The mainland communities from which Venice developers migrated had these features (except, usually, for canals).  The features were not merely “traditional”, but had proven their worth.

No, It's Not the Venice Wal-Mart    (c)2009 Randy D. Bosch

No, It's Not the Venice Wal-Mart (c)2009 Randy D. Bosch

Think about how the addition of a new subdivision, construction of a new housing estate or expansion of an existing major enterprise affects the physical patterns of your own community and how you use it. 

Someone’s intentional intervention in the community may have, for you,  unintended impacts that enhance, degrade, re-position or seamlessly integrate into it.   

With a nod to Nassem Nicholas Taleb’s newest area of pursuit, how do you determine if your community is…

Fragile, Robust or Anti-Fragile?


(This article is part of the continuing 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 visit previous articles and discover upcoming segments. 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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