Completing the City – Great Lessons from the Form of Venice

In one of his seminal works, “A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals” (Kostof, Spiro, Oxford University Press, New York, 1985), Spiro Kostof (+) addressed “The City Design at Large” (pp. 472-476).

One emphasis was the work of the “Magistry of Waters”, a commission formed in 1501 to direct all matters of planning in the then-mature City.  Since the Lagoon, the rivers that once flowed into it, and all matters of water salt and fresh were the lifeblood of the City including in commerce and defense, a process that kept that core environment “front and center” was most logical.  

Completing the City

The charter from the City leadership was to “finishing off” the City by intention, not by continued laissez-faire development or by personal interventions.  Four of the key elements of the Magistry’s work were identified by the fabulous Kostof (full disclosure, he was my Professor of Architectural History at The University of California, Berkeley too long ago, and a world-renowned teacher for good reason!):

  1. Set the final perimeter of the City in the lagoon;
  2. Organize the layout of interiorcanale and rii;
  3. Clean up the disorganization of Piazza San Marco and complete its development in line with the intent of the putative 1400’s “master plan”;
  4. Set the visible City edges “in stone” (related to #1, but a true “action item”).

Some of these goals were long-held and simply held the government supervision of private and public works to their task of seeing them achieved rather than allowing continued “slippage” over the course of time and across succeeding administrations.

Well-Conceived Goals Recognize the Resources of History and the Present

As a result of Magistry’s efforts, major achievements now taken for granted by residents and observers were newly formed and works previously begun completed to better ends:

Canale and Rii:  The City moved to replace old wooden palisades that formed the “fill line” for interior Canale and Rii with stone embankments, to stabilize both the building and property lines and to finally stop the incessant tinkering with the alignment of the waterways. 

Canale Grande - Hidden Geometry         (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Canale Grande - Hidden Geometry (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

The Magistrate also moved to form a more elegant City by adjusting Rii and Calli to intersect with the Canale Grande at right angles along straight runs of the Canal, and as radials along the curves in the Canal. 

There are notable exceptions found in the implementation of this plan.  First, predecessor communities such as San Barnaba had adopted this scheme in their early development. 

Then, certain alignments apparently could not be perfectly straightened or bent to the will of the Magistrate, perhaps due to powerful influences already in place, but the exceptions are rare!  Another inquiry needs to be made:

How much straightening of Rii and Calle occurred versus how much tinkering with the crooked alignment of the Canale Grande

Cannaregio:  The expansion of the housing areas of the City was to be to the west in Sestiere Santa Croce, but first and foremost by extending Sestiere Cannaregio to the north – the suburbs!  The northwest area of the City housed a number of important institutions, some virtually as old as the City, and expanses of both farmland and marshes dotted with boatyards (squero) and industries removed from the dense core of the City.  Planning solidified the relatively orderly (for Venice) grid of Rii and Calle from Rio de la Misercordia to the proposed – and in this area, yet unrealized – Fondamenta Nova

As to the loss of farmland, access to the goods of empire and international trade was then becoming more and more restricted due to Turkish expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean and Slavic expansion in the Balkan Peninsula.  The Republic turned its eye more toward its own backyard terra firma to meet far more of its citizens’ needs, with reclamation for farmland from the Po north to the Alps a high priority of the State. 

The Arsenale:  Expansion was planned and implemented at the Arsenale, to accommodate changing needs for ship construction, equipage and port protection.  Special consideration, including painful intervention into or along side of existing communities, was necessary to achieve a national imperative.

The Giudecca:  Marshy islands that aligned with the then existing islands southwest of San Giorgio Maggiore, La Giudecca, were reclaimed to create a strong “littoral” edge and a viable suburb(!) protecting the core of the City from the southern Lagoon.

Precise siting and strongly related designs for the churches of San Giorgio Maggiore, Zitelle and Redentore provided a powerful visual connection of La Giudecca to the core of the City and, along with the graceful Fondamenta stretching for its entire length, established La Giudecca as an integral part of the City. 

The Dorsoduro:  Sestiere Dorsoduro was “completed” by relocating industry from its south shore “Zattere” and reconstructing it as a formal stone fondamenta from Punta de la Dogana to San Basegio.  Perhaps plans were also considered to further extend to the west past San Niccolo Mendicante to the far point near Chiesa Santa Marta?

The Northern Limit:   Fondamenta Nova was to be the final north edge of the City, extending the formidable line of the Arsenale wall all of the way to the far corner at the expanded Cannaregio district.  The Fondamenta was constructed west of the Arsenale, except for the reach between Rio di San Giustina and Calle di Orte, as far as Sacca de la Misercordia, but never realized along the edge of the Cannaregio expansion.  The reason for the gaps and incompletion would be the basis for an interesting investigation!

Piazza San Marco:  The evolution of the institutional and cultural heart of the City continued for well over a millennium (why do our planners become uncontrollably anxious over a ten year plan?), including three hundred years after the Magistrate’s efforts, to create the extraordinary space we see today. 

Symmetrical Elements + Assymetrical Whole = Masterpiece!   (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Symmetrical Elements + Assymetrical Whole = Masterpiece! (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Fort became Palace, Chapel became Basilica, Rio became Piazza, Dormitory became Procuratie, Church became Ballroom, Grainary became Garden, and so forth. 

An amazingly disparate and non-orthogonal collection of elements were redeveloped into a composition where that diversity and disorganization became key to a sublime masterpiece.

City Edge + Urban Open Space = Riva degli Shiavoni    (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

City Edge + Urban Open Space = Riva degli Shiavoni (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Adjacent to and part of the Piazza San Marco completion was the perimeter edge action of enhancing the Fondamenta – the Riva – along the Bacino di San Marco from the ex-Giardini Reale to the far reaches of Castello past the Arsenale.

A community final perimeter, a glorious open space, a functional transportation element – nothing is sublimated to anything else, all elements and functions compliment all others, to the benefit of Community!



Those Who Have Ears, Let Them Hear

What happened in Venice over that millennium proposes a profound lesson for our city and suburban planners today.  Places evolve with need, culture and time.  Small marshy villages become great Cities including their special districts and including their healthy perimeter suburbs. 

Big cities are not automatically special – or even potentially “special” due merely to the size of their population.  Most places claimed as “Great Cities” are defined by a purely political/administrative boundary imposed around a collection of what over time became a large core community amidst a vast array of smaller pre-existing communities swallowed up by the powerful core.  

Truly Great Cities require the effort of time, the consent and direction of the governed, and the gentle ministrations of their planner-servants and the willing assignment of resources to reach greatness, or they simply experience entrophy and return to their roots. 

Elitist imposition of academic Utopian schemes seldom enhance a place more than a community-inspired incorporation of good professional planning techniques – including hard and unpopular choices – which creates a synergistic energy that can result in greatness and unity. 

The particularly maligned modern Suburbs can also become Great Places, beginning by substituting a “glass half full” position, blended with a “learning from the past” attitude, and topped off with a  new comprehension of the environment in which each Suburb exists – unique environments of imposition upon the previous natural world (as was Venice, a Truly Great City of never more than 250,000 population) and born from the urban geography of the City each will finally complete! 

Funny, isn’t it – Everything on Manhattan north of Wall Street was once a (shudder) Suburb!

Thus was the work of the Magistrate of Waters to be the grand finale of all that began with a scattering of refuge villages in the vast marshy emptiness of the harsh and demanding environment of the Lagoon of Venice. 

Venice Sets the Bar for Your Challenge

How about your work and your City (including your Suburbs)?  Can you rise to that challenge?   As Larry Peters said,

“Forms are not neutral, they have values and communicate identities.” 


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 Completing the City – Great Lessons from the Form of Venice

  1. ytaba36 says:

    Randallo, I absolutely loved this post! Thank you.

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