THE FOUNDING AND CONSTRUCTION OF VENICE - How Venice was built

The first fierce invasions of Veneto's territory by populations coming from north-east, caused temporary migrations of people from the mainland to the Lagoon islands which provided both the poor and the rich with temporary shelter.

Alaric, king of the Visigoths, invaded Italy in 401 and 408. On their way to conquer Rome, the Visigoths stormed and ravaged Veneto’s territory.

50 years later Attila, king of the Huns descended into Italy and laid waste several town of Norther Italy among which Padua and Aquileia.

Venetians move to the lagoon islands

People from the mainland seek shelter in the lagoon islands to escape Attila, king of the Huns (452)

Venice Lagoon

Venice lagoon.

The lagoon is a peculiar expanse of shallow waters with swampy lands and hundreds of small islands.

The surface area is about 550 sq Km, the land is just 8%.

Three strips of land separate the lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. 

The lagoon was formed about 7000 years ago, by sediments delivered by the large Po river. Over millennia such sediments of silt and soil have created several embayments that were then transformed into a large lagoon due to the formation of thin strips of land. 

The inlets of Lido, Malamocco and Chioggia connect the lagoon to the Adriatic Sea.

 

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Early temporary houses

First venetian houseEarly refugees built their temporary houses in the higher small islands of the lagoon, as far as possible from the mainland to run away from the invaders.

Walls were made of clay in which they put a woven net of "grollo" yarns (a weed that grows in the lagoon swamps) to make it more consistent.

The structure of the roof was made with tree branches on which they put bundles of swamp reeds covered in straw.

As the invaders moved on, the refugees would come back to their hometowns in the mainland to rebuild their houses and re-settle there.

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The invasion of the Normans and the permanent settlement

Everything changed during the Lombards domination (starting from the VI century AD): then it was mostly the Veneto's noble and rich families to migrate to the islands as they could not bear to be subject to the Lombards.

The invasion of the Lombards (VI century AD) was actually the great event that caused the long-lasting migration of the Veneto population from the mainland to the islands of the lagoon. Unlike previous invaders like the Goths and the Huns, the Lombards (or Longobards) had come to stay. Through many years of violence and battles, having the Lombards on one side and the Roman world, represented by the Byzantine authority on the other, populations and institutions moved to the Lagoon Islands, close to the mainland but protected by the water.

2nd migration to the islands of Venice lagoon

People from Altino, Concordia and Opitergio find a new homeland in the lagoon island of Torcello and Burano

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The rich families brought with them their status demands and their habits: they could not adapt to the simple huts and small houses like the first refVenice reclamation systemugees and little by little they tried to rebuild the environment of their customary life. They began to build 2 floor houses: the ground floor, made of clay, was used as warehouse and the first floor, made of wood, was their actual household.

The large number of new refugees called for more room in the lagoon small islands; the settlers had to raise the swampy lands and reinforce the shores to build piers and smal harbors

In this below picture you can see the system of reclaiming the swampy land that was used in the 6th century: the early settlers used to drive large poles of wood and link them with wicker to create pockets that were then filled with stones and earth.

Later early settlers developed different tecniques to win land from the water and reclaim the swampy soil.

In the below picture you can see how they made a barrier of wooden poles to create a large area that was subsequently filled with stones and
earth. 

At a later stage, the refugees of the second migration began to build houses and churches made of stone.

Venice was originally a cluster o 124 islands on which the refugees built their independent settlements. They had to expand the available land over the water and fill water pockets and loops with earth. As time went by, each main settlement developed more and more the construction of stone buildings and a form of urban planning: a central square sorrounded by buildings, a collection rainwater well and a church.

As the settlers managed to conquer more and more land from the water, the islands became to be linked by bridges.

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Rivoaltus

The central island of Rivoaltus "high bank" (present day "Rialto", Central Disrict of Venice), was the safest place that the enemies had never managed to invade and became the capital of the Confederation in 810 AD.

The Government Headquarters were transferred from Malamocco to Rivoaltus and as a consequence Rivoaltus underwent a dramatic town planning / hurbanistic transformation to adapt to the new political activities.

In the past the early refugees who migrated to Rivoaltus during the II and I century BC, were humble and desperate people who were merely trying to escape from wars and devastation perpetrated by the invaders, but in this case it was a permanent migration which entailed the transfer of Magistrates, officers, Military Force etc. There was a need to build new arsenals, warehouses for goods and food, new houses, the residence of the Doge as the newly born State extended from Grado to Cavarzere and had also dominions on the Dalmatian shores.

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The construction of Venice

Barena

How did the first settlers manage to build houses, churches and large buildings on such a swampy and unstable land? How was Venice built?

The ground was composed by different layers; the first layers were soft and loose, therefore not suitable to carry the weight of buildings and foundations.

The builders had to come up with solutions that could allow for resilience and lightness.

Using manual pile drivers and handrammers, the builders drove larch or oak poles into the underwater ground. The poles were 3 meters long, with a diameter of 20 cm and were driven underground until they reached the harder "caranto" layer composed by clay and sand. On top of the poles they put 2 layers of wooden beams to support the actual foundation of stones (still underground / water level) and then the brick walls or columns on top of the stones.

The poles were driven along the ground line (building perimeter) that had to support the walls; but if the "caranto" layer was too deep, the poles were then driven into the mud layer along the entire area that had to support the whole building, starting from the outer perimeter towards the center, following a spiral pattern.

This procedure was always used to support very heavy buildings such as churches and bell towers.

The stones were the only parts to have contact with air and water; the wooden beams and poles stayed within the mud and "caranto" layers and as time went by they were affected by a mineralization process that made them actually even harder and more resistant.

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Building materials: Istrian stone 

As most building materials erode easily when in contact with salt water, early Venetian builders needed a very special stone to be able to build a city on swampy unstable land surrounded by the lagoon; they realized that a type of limestone that was found in Croatia (they called it "Istrian stone") had remarkable properties:

- water resistance: Istrian stone is virtually waterproof thanks to its nonporous surface;

- weathering resistance: Istrian stone is extraordinarily resistant to saline, humid environments;

- excellent compressive strength: Istrian stone can support huge weights without breaking or cracking;

- softness: albeit very strong, Istrian stone is also quite soft and very easy to carve;

- excellent erosion and abrasion resistance: the stones used by early Venetian builders are still supporting the city nowadays; 90% of the stones used in Venice are from the Istrian peninsula;

- good visual effect: Istrian stone has such a nice ebony color that is often confused for marble.

Istrian stone was the perfect material to use as an intermediate layer between the wooden beams, that were laid on top of the underwater wooden poles, and the brick masonry of the walls of the buildings. The layer of Istrian stone is essential to preserve the bricks  of the buildings from erosion; the whole city of Venice lies on a base of Istrian stone. Nowadays Istrian stone is still mined in Croatian quarries and shipped to Venice for the maintenance of old buildings and the construction of new ones.

Building materials: Wood

As  there are no forests in Venice, the wood needed to build the city foundations was collected in the mountains of Croatia and Slovenia; large quantities of larch and oak were then shipped to Venice via sea. Many people wonder how the foundation posts could resist underwater without rotting: the explanation is that wood rots only when exposed to both water and oxygen; the microorganisms that cause wood degradation are mainly bacteria and fungi (basidiomycetes) and they need oxygen to survive.

The foundation wooden posts were always driven very deeply underwater, they were totally submerged and never exposed to oxygen, therefore wood degrading microorganisms could not survive.

As a result, not only the wooden posts do not rot but they actually get harder and harder:  year after year they are subject to the flow of mineral rich water and absorb the sediment of silt and soil of the lagoon until they sort of petrify.

As the ground of Venice was very unstable, the early Venetian builders came up with solutions that could provide buildings with lightness and resilience. Wood was therefore normally used also as a structural element of the brick masonry: stripes of wood called “reme” were placed horizontally at regular intervals into the bearing walls in order to evenly distribute the load of the roof beams. The internal walls also contain wooden beams placed vertically called “scorzoni” so that the building could be as light as possible..

In 754 the Franks defeated the Longobards and Doge Obelarius went to Diedenhofen in 805 to pay homage to Charles the Great, the new restorer of the Western Empire. Pepin, Charles son, tried in 809 to siege Malamocco, capital of the Venetian Confederation, but the Venetians who had meanwhile temporarily moved the Government headquarters to Rialto, managed to resist and Pepin had to give up. When Pepin died, Charles the Great signed the Treaty of Aachen (812) through which he acknowledged the domination of the Venetians along the town of the Dalmatians shores and on the Lagoon islands and also renewed the treaty granted by Liutprand to the Venetians merchants. The moving of the Government headquarters from Malamocco to Rialto became permanent and originated the so called "Civitas Rivoalti" (city of Rialto) that would change its name into VENICE in the XIII century.

Why did the Venetians chose Rivoaltus as the new Headquarters of the Government? During the first migrations the small islands of Rivoaltus were inhabited by humble and poor refugees, only later people from higher classes had settled there, whereas other islands further north already had an advanced urbanistic organization with mansions and buildings worth the status of a capital of the Confederation. For example the island Torcello was bigger and dry with villas, vegetable gardens, big churches and buildings that prove the existance of a relatively large population; Rivoaltus islands were rather small and had a primitive building industry instead.

Rivoaltus was chosen mainly because of the higher level of safety it could provide: Rivoaltus was surrounded by very deep waters that the locals knew and managed very well, but were difficult and dangerous for foreigners and made it extremely hard if not impossible for big ships to land there; whereas emerging lands around Torcello could indicate the water ways to be sailed by the enemies to attack the island. In the beginning of the IX century, when Rivoaltus became the capital of the Government, there were at least 14 churches and obviously around them there must have been some already developed urban center.

The following map highlights how Venice was before 1141 AD and how it is today: before 1141 the town already had an urban configuration very similar to present day Venice.

Venice Map 1145

Venice Map 1145

The extension of Venice town was built during the first 3 centuries after Rivoaltus was chosen as the capital of the new State. During these first 3 centuries the urban structures changed dramatically: the frequent violent fires that often took place in the higher wooden stories of the houses, led builders to stop using wood and start using bricks and stones instead.

In 1124 the Venetians conquered Tiro and gained trade dominance on the eastern seas; such conquest brought wealth resources that could be used to pay for the expenses of the new safer buildings. Thanks to the defence provided by the deep waters, the danger of raids of Slavians, Croatians, Saracens and Normans had disappeared and the population of Rivoaltus lived safe and peaceful times. The town planning style was therefore very peculiar: there was no need of defense towers, castles, town walls as in the mainland. Venetian buildings did not need any military structures and could be built with decorations, wide openings, direct access to canals, gardens, columns, statues and other decorative elements. 

In 1501 the Magistrates of Waters (nowadays still functioning) was established in order to enlarge the town and manage hydraulic works. The Administration would grant concessions to privates, groups of citizens and religious bodies: such concessions (gratiae) specified the precise extension of the working area, delivery times, indications on the suitable protections to be implemented in order to avoid debris to be disposed of into waters and also obligations, such as the construction of a bridge or foundations that would be used by the population for the common good. If deadlines and criteria could not be met, the property would have been transferred to the Municipality.

 

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