Venice – Bold Adaptations with Universal Application

In his seminal history and commentary on the development of Cities – from the first to the “state of the art” in the 1970’s, Lewis Mumford’s great work “The City in History” (Harcourt, Brace, New York, 1981) provides excellent insights into the development of Venice, Italy.  He saw this City as a paradigm for city planning during Medieval times and beyond, including innovations still in effective use today, around the world.  A few short quotes from the chapter “Disruptions and Anticipations”, pages 321+ff, are included in this article.

Why is Venice, the unique, historically important lagoon island city, highlighted for its “Disruptions and Anticipations” in city development?  Let Mumford speak:

“At the close of the Middle ages, one city stood out above every other because of its beauty and wealth…Golden Venice has a special claim on our attention.  No other city shows, in more diagrammatic form, the ideal components of the medieval urban structure.”

From the earliest days, protection was one of the most critical parameters of City form and construction.  Venice, protected by its Lagoon, could and did “transcend the walled container“- walled fortress cities of mainlands virtually everywhere on earth until the 17th Century – due to the freedom provided by its Lagoon “water wall” and the barrier islands line of defence between lagoon and sea, the lidi (hence, Lido).  Mumford found scant use elsewhere of what Venice learned and built.  Blinded by the extraordinary uniqueness of the lagoon site, visitors did not see that Venetian innovations in city structure would benefit their hometowns, as well.   Mumford saw what Venice accomplished over many centuries as “a series of bold adaptations” which…had a universal application”.

Planned Communities

Out of necessity during its early history, Venice organized into neighborhoods – each on their own island – and precincts when adjacent island communities joined together.  The early neighborhoods were “offshore” units of mainland towns and cities, built to escape the predation of waves of Trans-Alpine invaders.

Isola San Barnaba - Prototypical Planned Island Community (c)2012 R.D.Bosch

Isola San Barnaba - Prototypical Planned Island Community (c)2012 R.D.Bosch

After awhile, they were planned, maintaining key elements and cultural references to their patron City.  Later infill either followed that pattern or added onto existing neighborhoods, with the approval of the entire consortium of island neighborhoods.

Mumford saw that each island neighborhood had a core consisting of:

  • Campo:  A “field”, open space for communal life and shared ground-based needs;
  • Fountain: Actually a carefully engineered water system with a well-head for potable water collection and harvesting in the midst of the salt-water lagoon;
  • Church: The central religious – and cultural – focus of the community;
  • School: For community education, typically delivered in a convent or monastery attached to the church;
  • Shops: Including food, clothing, staples, and the manufacture of boats, casting of metals…the list is endless, as it is in every City;
  • Guildhall: Confraternities established to dispense healthcare and welfare to the community in addition to that provided from the church – not governmental functions throughout most of history;
  • Canals: Both as boundaries between communities and as connecting transportation links, waterbelts and arterial highways, with Fondamente, waterside promenades, for shipping.

Many of the planned island communities also had a structured street (calli) system, with a main “high” (often actually “high and dry”) street leading out from the core, intersected by a ladder of side streets, with a plan view image similar to a fish skeleton.

A Millenium of Land Use Zoning

As the City grew and “industry” intensified, perhaps the first post-Roman system of functional zoning was implemented.  Mumford felt that such a system was more readily set up in Venice versus mainland cities because of the plenitude of islands in varying degrees of development and in-place specialization of functions.  Some “zoned uses” pre-dated the rational development of the idea, Isola di Cypressi (now San Giorgio Maggiore) for a monastery, for example.
Isola San Giorgio Maggiore (c)2012 R.D.Bosch

Isola San Giorgio Maggiore (c)2012 R.D.Bosch

Other zoning separated functions for efficiency, control and safety, ranging from the vicinity of Piazza San Marco for general governance, the Rialto for commerce and banking, the Ghetto for foundries.  Over time other specific use zones were mandated – the Arsenale for ship-building and provisioning; Murano for glass-making, to reduce devastation from furnace-caused fires in the City.  As late as the Napoleonic era, cemeteries were consolidated onto Isola di San Michele.

“The nuclear but open plan of Venice (overcame) the tendency to provide for extension (of uses) by solid massing and overcrowding and sprawl.”

Craftsman and merchants often clustered along a street (calle) renowned for specific wares — goldsmiths, sword-makers, silk-weavers, leather-workers, butchers, candlemakers, and many others.

City life was blessed by a natural separation of “heavy traffic” – waterborne from pedestrian and light cart traffic on the narrow calli, along with horses for the wealthy until population density and health mandated their removal.

Venice - Streets of Water (c)2012 R.D.Bosch

Venice - Streets of Water (c)2012 R.D.Bosch

“Venice was the first pedestrian-friendly City”.  Lewis Mumford

Even governmental rule was for a millennium or more based upon the neighborhood concept, with ruling council members required to live in their own parish or precinct.  Since the “ruling class” consisted of long-term, often very (or pseudo-) wealthy merchant families, the required residency not only associated them with their business enterprises and workers, but prevented creation of a “rich” quarter and separate “workers’ quarter”.  As Mumford opined, “Overconcentration of upper-class housing…so often leads to the toleration of disorder in other parts of town.”!

Help Me, I’m Lost!

With such an orderly structure – despite the natural vagaries of the – one might ask, “Then how come I become lost in the City so often?”.  Other than unfamiliarity, the disorientation is often rooted in how the islands are connected together.  Very few bridges existed between semi-independent adjacent island communities over much of Venice’s history.  Many of the current 400+ bridges were not built until the 17th and 18th Centuries.  With each island built independently, bridging even the narrow canals (ria) was not anticipated.  When finally agreed-upon, one or both sides of the best bridge-points were often occupied by buildings. If one side had a direct connection to street, campo or fondamente, the other was often a house wall.  Think of the negotiations for easements to construct tunnels under such buildings to connect to streets beyond and to a bridgehead!  A straight path was quite rare.  The resulting “sottoportego” or under-passage through a building is often dark, dank, twisted and turning, while bridge approaches and bridge spans were far from symmetrical and straight.  Perfect sense!

Doesn’t help, does it?  Just get lost and enjoy the experience!


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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3 Responses to Venice – Bold Adaptations with Universal Application

  1. Yvonne says:

    What a city! What a history. I have spent nearly 4 hours in the Naval museum, much of the time was used in trying to puzzle out that Arsenale.

    • randysrules says:

      There are a bunch of good, short histories of the thought behind, original development of, and expansions to the Arsenale. The surrounding community (what was left of it after expansion) was also largely closely related to it, providing provender for ships and crews, housing workers of all trades. It is fascinating, and what a wonderful venue for exhibitions!

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