Venice – Avenues in the Lagoon

Other articles in “RenaissanceRules” have begun to address the Canali and Rii of Venice in their specific relationship to the core City and its sestiere or districts.

Be not deceived!  Venice is not merely a tightly wound group of densely developed islands with a few major canals and a few score rii.  Some guidebooks even used to claim that there was only one canal in Venice, the Grand Canal, in the face of incontrovertible evidence on the ground, on the water, on maps – in the real world – to the contrary! 

The Venice that most uninformed people (typically non-residents) visualize and visit is a tightly wound, heavily developed group of islands that are within and an integral part of  the Venetian Lagoon, including its water traffic network.

A Watery Circulation System

As critical to an understanding of the physical Venice as campi, calle and chiesa is a comprehension of the “Avenues of the Lagoon” – the channels from the passages leading into the Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea and identified, maintained channels within the Lagoon.  These thoroughfares, major and minor, cohesively link virtually every location and aspect of community within the Lagoon to each other.  There would have been no Venice without them.  Of course, the “modern” railway and highway causeway, the “umbilical cord”, is the “non-water” exception.

Where?  D-5 On Your Map!

An automobile club equivalent of a “Road Map” of greater Venice might best have insets and detail pages for the islands and districts as larger-scale references within an overall “metropolitan area” map showing the complete street map of the City.  Navigational maps are not needed by everyone, just as a motorist does not need a “road map” to show and explicate every sign, lane control change and bump on a major route.  

Speed Limits in Lagoon (by FormaUrbis for Pax in Aqua)

Speed Limits in Lagoon (by FormaUrbis for Pax in Aqua)

However, the routes in the Lagoon, including those within the City core, add two other dimensions not found on city streets – changing water levels over a single day and over time, and changing routes for those not regularly maintained, due to flooding, extreme tidal action, siltation and erosion.

This “Speed Limit” map was developed by FormaUrbis for Pax in Aqua and the Commune (link: )  


Learning the Lay of the Lagoon

When you visit Venice, and are out on the Lagoon – whether via vaporetto to the Lido, Burano, Murano or Treponte, on an Alilaguna line to the Airport, on a water taxi or other water vehicle – pay attention to the landscape of channels around you and how they are used by the pilot of your “boat”!

A few local terms may be useful:

Bricola: Clusters of piles used to mark channels. 

The main routes utilized by virtually all (legally operating) commercial traffic are lined by bricola.  Intersections are posted, traffic control signage relative to speed and direction are displayed appropriately, lights are mounted on them at intervals.  From the air, the wakes of boats using these arteries can often appear to be an almost solid streak of white between major destinations, virtually a famous Italian “white road” on the water.

Many of the most important of these routes are named Canale even when not bounded by “dry land” on one or either side.

Ghebi: Minor channels that drain the sandbanks and marshes.  The traffic on these little ria is not commercial (other than for workers plying their trades, including fishing) because of their unpredictable intermittency, but they are sometimes tempting.  And, in the past, many may have had more importance to the transportation system.

Velma: Mudflats appearing at low tide, drained by ghebi.  Some of the velma, particularly in the immediate proximity to already developed islands in the lagoon, were also reclaimed to be part of the habitable and arable lands of the City.

Barene: Sandbanks and marshy coastal lands submerged only at high tide.  Many of these were “reclaimed” (converted from saturated marshland to buildable ground) during the development of Venice including the outlying communities in the lagoon.  The highest priority for reclamation again went to those barene in close proximity to previously developed land.

Some historians believe that sixty or more separately identifiable velma and barene were reclaimed for use in the growth of the core City of Venice within the lagoon. 

Tomba: Firm islands (Isola) composed primarily of calcareous soil and shells that are almost always above water at high tide (although, obviously, sporadically submerged during one or a combination of events including high tides, wind storms, rivers disgorging flood waters, and the like, known over the past twelve or more centuries as acqua alta). 

About ten tomba are believed to have existed in close proximity to what we now know as the Rialto and were the location of the original permanent settlements in Venice.  “Close proximity” means somewhere between and including Isola San Pietro (nee Isola Olivolo), Isola San Giovanni Maggiore (nee Isola Cipressi), and Piazzale Roma (nee Isola Santa Chiara but prior to that in the lineage of the original tomba names, perhaps Luprio).

Caution – Road Work Ahead!

Major changes in Lagoon arteries have occurred in the last century or two, including the stabilization of three entries (boca) into the Lagoon from the Mare Adriatico.  Hundreds of years ago, the Republic diverted entire rivers around the Lagoon to prevent flooding and erosion, including but not limited to the largest – the massive Brenta to the south and the equally massive Piave to the north.  In the Lagoon the Brenta River was most probably located (for a while) in what we now call the Canale Grande, the Grand Canal.  

Those actions were strategic response to climate change, including to the self-inflicted anthropometric climate change of humans imposing themselves into a natural system (the micro-climate of the Venetian Lagoon) that had thrived with characteristics antithetical to the invaders’ urban goals!  Despite some appearances, man has impacted virtually every aspect of the environment of the Lagoon, and in many instances the Lagoon, the Sea and the Rivers have continued to fight back!

Intended and Unintended Consequences

Like a Truck Route Through Town (c)2009 Randy D. Bosch

Like a Truck Route Through Town (c)2009 Randy D. Bosch

More recently, dredging of new channels and re-deepening of others to allow modern ocean-going ships to reach the industrial port at Marghera unburdened the Stazione Marittime at the west end of the City of freighters and tankers, only to have them replaced by cruise ships that seem to grow more monumental in size and effect every year.  The major freight traffic enters the Lagoon through its northern boca (south of Alberoni), while cruise ship traffic primarily utilizes the middle entrance between Punta Sabbioini and Lido di Venezia.  Smaller and more limited traffic enters at the south end of the Lagoon, just north of Chioggia.

The effect of such vast changes in heavy ship volumes and tonnage is not dissimilar to the effect of rebuilding the old two-lane highway through your town into a superhighway, autostrada or autobahn.  Erosion, noise, pollution, vibration damage to shorelines and buildings, congestions – the challenges of how society has approached resolving delivery system infrastructure in favor of delivery, not community.  Even the construction of “bypasses” to hopefully avoid deleterious effects upon a town center bring the impacts to previously unaffected areas and often starve the old core of vitality, leading to another type of decay. 

Similar to such terra firma challenges, debates and action over the impacts of waterborne commerce in Venice are not new, but date back to how and by whom the Grand Canal could be utilized, with what types of vessels, also where and by what route the ria between tombe and reclaimed barene would be constructed and what uses would be allowed.  Centuries ago, the consolidation of construction, maintenance, provender and docking for vessels of the Republic at the ever-expanding Arsenale addressed a portion of this challenge.

Road Rage?

Early in the morning in Venice, stroll both your favorite calle and fondamente and a few that will bring new surprises, to observe the “vehicular traffic” in the rii and canals.  The many delivery boats jostle for right-of-way and search for convenient parking in a strictly regulated boat parking regime, sharing the avenues and byways of water with taxis, trash barges, private watercraft and, on the main routes, larger vessels ranging from vaporetti to cruise ships (prowling dragons seeking to devour?) that in themselves seem to be the size of, well, Venice.  What an education!

Score One for the Pedestrians?

Venice has a great advantage over every other City on earth for the pedestrian.  Except for utilization of the traghetti, all of the sidewalks have bridges over the “avenues” in the core of the City.  You have no opportunity for collisions with trucks, taxis, cars, buses or Vespas!  Now, if only the people would…

Learn how to walk!



(This is Part X of the 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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1 Response to Venice – Avenues in the Lagoon

  1. gtramblings says:

    Randy, as always, enjoyed the post!

    God’s blessings,
    Garry Trammell

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