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The Grand Canal

The first settlements

The Grand Canal probably follows the course of an ancient river (possibly a branch of the Brenta) flowing into the lagoon. Adriatic Veneti groups already lived beside the formerly-named “Rio Businiacus” before the Roman age. They lived in stilt houses and on fishing and commerce (mainly salt). Under the rule of the Roman empire and later of the Byzantine empire the lagoon became populated and important, and in the early 9th century the doge moved his seat from Malamocco to the safer “Rivoaltus”.

Increasing trade followed the doge and found in the deep Grand Canal a safe and ship accessible canal-port. Drainage reveals that the city became more compact over time: at that time the Canal was wider and flowed between small, tide-subjected islands connected by wooden bridges.

Fondaco houses
Along the Canal, the number of “fondaco” houses increased, buildings combining the warehouse and the merchant’s residence.

A portico (the curia) covers the bank and facilitates the ships’ unloading. From the portico a corridor flanked by storerooms reaches a posterior courtyard. Similarly, on the first floor a loggia as large as the portico illuminates the hall into which open the merchant’s rooms. The façade is thereby divided into an airy central part and two more solid sides. A low mezzanine with offices divides the two floors.

The fondaco house often had lateral defensive towers (torreselle), as in the Fondaco dei Turchi (13th century, heavily restored in the 19th). With the German warehouse, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (which is also situated on the Grand Canal), it reflects the high number of foreign merchants working in Venice, where the republic supplied them with storerooms and lodging and simultaneously controlled their trading activity.

More public buildings were built along the Canal at Rialto: palaces for commercial and financial Benches (Palazzo dei Camerlenghi and Palazzo dei Dieci Savi, rebuilt after 1514 fire) and a mint. In 1181 Nicolò Barattieri constructed a pontoon bridge connecting Rialto to Mercerie area, which was later replaced by a wooden bridge with shops on it. Warehouses for flour and salt were more peripheral.

The Venetian-Byzantine style

From the Byzantine empire, goods arrived together with sculptures, friezes, columns and capitals to decorate the fondaco houses of patrician families. The Byzantine art merged with previous elements resulting in a Venetian-Byzantine style; in architecture it was characterized by large loggias with round or elongated arches and by polychrome marbles abundance.

Along the Grand Canal, these elements are well preserved in Ca’ Farsetti, Ca’ Loredan (both municipal seats) and Ca’ da Mosto, all dating back to the 12th or 13th century. During this period Rialto had an intense building development, determining the conformation of the Canal and surrounding areas. As a matter of fact, in Venice building materials are precious and foundations are usually kept: in the subsequent restorations, existing elements will be used again, mixing the Venetian-Byzantine and the new styles (Ca’ Sagredo, Palazzo Bembo). Polychromy, three-partitioned façades, loggias, diffuse openings and rooms disposition formed a particular architectural taste that continued in the future.

The Fourth Crusade, with the loot obtained from the sack of Constantinople (1204), and other historical situations, gave Venice an Eastern influence until the late 14th century.

Venetian Gothic

Venetian Gothic architecture found favor quite late, as a splendid flamboyant Gothic (“gotico fiorito”) beginning with the southern façade of the Doge’s Palace. The verticality and the illumination characterizing the Gothic style are found in the porticos and loggias of fondaco houses: columns get thinner, elongated arches are replaced by pointed or ogee or lobed ones. Porticos rise gently intertwining and drawing open marbles in quatrefoils or similar figures. Façades were plastered in brilliant colors.

The open marble fascias, often referred as “laces”, quickly diffused along the Grand Canal. Among the 15th-century palaces still showing the original appearance are Ca’ d’Oro, Palazzo Bernardo a San Polo, Ca’ Foscari (now housing the University of Venice), Palazzo Pisani Moretta, Palazzi Barbaro, Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti.

Renaissance

By the start of the 15th century, Renaissance architecture motifs appear in such buildings as the Palazzo Dario and the Palazzo Corner Spinelli; the latter was designed by Mauro Codussi, pioneer of this style in Venice. Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, another of his projects (now hosting the Casino), reveals a completed transition: the numerous and large windows with open marbles are round-arched and have columns in the three classical orders.

Classical architecture is more evident in Jacopo Sansovino’s projects, who arrived from Rome in 1527. Along the Canal he designed Palazzo Corner and Palazzo Dolfin Manin, known for grandiosity, for the horizontal layout of the white façades and for the development around a central courtyard. Other Renaissance buildings are Palazzo Papadopoli and Palazzo Grimani di San Luca. Several palaces of this period had façades with frescoes by painters such as Il Pordenone, Tintoretto, Paolo Veronese, all of them unfortunately lost. Particularly noteworthy were the frescoes by Veronese and Zelotti on Ca Cappello, overlooking the Grand Canal at the intersection with the Rio de S. Polo.

Venetian Baroque

In 1582, Alessandro Vittoria began the construction of Palazzo Balbi (now housing the Government of Veneto), in which Baroque elements can be recognized: fashioned cornices, broken pediments, ornamental motifs.

The major Baroque architect in Venice was Baldassarre Longhena. In 1631 he began to build the magnificent Santa Maria della Salute basilica, one of the most beautiful churches in Venice and a symbol of Grand Canal. The classical layout of the façade features decorations and by many statues, the latter crowning also the refined volutes surrounding the major dome.

Longhena later designed two majestic palaces like Ca’ Pesaro and Ca’ Rezzonico (with many carvings and chiaroscuro effects) and Santa Maria di Nazareth church (Chiesa degli Scalzi). For various reasons the great architect did not see any of these buildings finished, and the designs for all but Santa Maria della Salute were modified after his death.

Longhena’s themes recur in the two older façades of Palazzo Labia, containing a famous fresco cycle by Giambattista Tiepolo. In the Longhenian school grew Domenico Rossi (San Stae’s façade, Ca’ Corner della Regina) and Giorgio Massari, who later completed Ca’ Rezzonico.

The 16th and 17th centuries mark the beginning of the Republic’s decline, but nevertheless they saw the highest building activity on the Grand Canal. This can be partially explained by the increasing number of families (like the Labia) becoming patrician by the payment of an enormous sum to the Republic, which was then facing financial difficulties. Once these families had achieved this new status, they built themselves with impressive residences on the Canal, often inducing other families to renew theirs.

Neoclassical architecture

Neoclassical architectures along the Canal date to the 18th century: during the first half was built San Simeone Piccolo, with an impressive corinthian portico, central plan and a high copper-covered dome ending in a cupola shaped as a temple. Date to the second half Massari’s Palazzo Grassi.

Modern Era

After the fall of the Republic in 1797, much of the palatial construction in Venice was suspended, as symbolized by the unfinished San Marcuola and Palazzo Venier dei Leoni (housing the Peggy Guggenheim Collection). The Patrician families, bereft of their hereditary role in governance and sometimes persecuted by revolutionary forces, sought other residences. Several historical palaces were pulled down, but many found other uses, and some restorations have saved their 18th century appearance. By the late 20th century, most of the more prominent palaces were owned by the city, state, or civic institutions.
Vaporetti (water buses) carry passengers through the Grand Canal

During the era of the Kingdom of Italy, the Napoleonic suppression of the monastic religious orders vacated large sectors of real estate in the city. It also freed large amounts of furnishings and works of art into the antiquarian market or into the possession of the state. Large monasteries changed functions: the Santa Maria della Carità complex became a museum, the Gallerie dell’Accademia); the Santa Croce complex, was converted into the Papadopoli Gardens area; and the Santa Lucia complex (partially designed by Palladio) was razed for the establishment of the Santa Lucia Station.

The Kingdom of Italy accession restored serenity in the city and stimulated construction along the Grand Canal respecting its beauty, often reproduced in Gothic Revival architectures like the Pescaria at Rialto.

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St Mark’s Basilica

The first St Mark’s was a building next to the Doge’s Palace, ordered by the doge in 828, when Venetian merchants stole the supposed relics of Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria, and completed by 832; from the same century dates the first St Mark’s Campanile (bell tower). The church was burned in a rebellion in 976, when the populace locked Pietro IV Candiano inside to kill him, and restored or rebuilt in 978.

Nothing certain is known of the form of these early churches. From perhaps 1063 the present basilica was constructed. The consecration is variously recorded as being in 1084-5, 1093 (the date most often taken), 1102 and 1117, probably reflecting a series of consecrations of different parts.

In 1094 the supposed body of Saint Mark was rediscovered in a pillar by Vitale Faliero, doge at the time. The building also incorporates a low tower (now housing St Mark’s Treasure), believed by some to have been part of the original Doge’s Palace. The Pala d’Oro ordered from Constantinople was installed on the high altar in 1105. In 1106 the church, and especially its mosaics, were damaged by a serious fire in that part of the city; it is not entirely clear whether any surviving mosaics in the interior predate this, though there is some 11th-century work surviving in the main porch. The main features of the present structure were all in place by then, except for the narthex or porch, and the facade.

The basic shape of the church has a mixture of Italian and Byzantine features, notably “the treatment of the eastern arm as the termination of a basilican building with main apse and two side chapels rather than as an equal arm of a truly centralized structure”.[9] In the first half of the 13th century the narthex and the new facade were constructed, most of the mosaics were completed and the domes were covered with second much higher domes of lead-covered wood in order to blend in with the Gothic architecture of the redesigned Doge’s Palace.

Later construction

The basic structure of the building has not been much altered. Its decoration has changed greatly over time, though the overall impression of the interior with a dazzling display of gold ground mosaics on all ceilings and upper walls remains the same. The succeeding centuries, especially the period after the Venetian-led conquest of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade of 1204 and the fourteenth century, all contributed to its adornment, with many elements being spolia brought in from ancient or Byzantine buildings, such as mosaics, columns, capitals, or friezes. Gradually, the exterior brickwork became covered with marble cladding and carvings, some much older than the building itself, such as the statue of the Four Tetrarchs

The latest structural additions include the closing-off of the Baptistery and St Isidor’s Chapel (1300s), the carvings on the upper facade and the Sacristy (1400s), and the closing-off of the Zen Chapel (1500s).

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Rialto Bridge

The first dry crossing of the Grand Canal was a pontoon bridge built in 1181 by Nicolò Barattieri. It was called the Ponte della Moneta, presumably becauseof the mint that stood near its eastern entrance. tyy

The development and importance of the Rialto market on the eastern bank increased traffic on the floating bridge, so it was replaced in 1255 by a wooden bridgeThis structure had two inclined ramps meeting at a movable central section, that could be raised to allow the passage of tall ships. The connection with the market eventually led to a change of name for the bridge.

During the first half of the 15th century, two rows of shops were built along the sides of the bridge. The rents brought an income to the State Treasury, which helped maintain the bridge.

Maintenance was vital for the timber bridge. It was partly burnt in the revolt led by Bajamonte Tiepolo in 1310. In 1444, it collapsed under the weight of a crowd watching a boat parade and it collapsed again in 1524.

The idea of rebuilding the bridge in stone was first proposed in 1503. Several projects were considered over the following decades. In 1551, the authorities requested proposals for the renewal of the Rialto Bridge, among other things. Plans were offered by famous architects, such as Jacopo Sansovino, Palladio and Vignola, but all involved a Classical approach with several arches, which was judged inappropriate to the situation. Michelangelo also was considered as designer of the bridge.

The present stone bridge, a single span designed by Antonio da Ponte, was finally completed in 1591. It is similar to the wooden bridge it succeeded. Two inclined ramps lead up to a central portico. On either side of the portico, the covered ramps carry rows of shops. The engineering of the bridge was considered so audacious that architect Vincenzo Scamozzi predicted future ruin. The bridge has defied its critics to become one of the architectural icons of Venice.

Today, the Bridge is one of the top tourism attractions in Venice.

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Murano

Murano was initially settled by the Romans and from the sixth century by people from Altinum and Oderzo. At first, the island prospered as a fishing port and through its production of salt. It was also a centre for trade through the port it controlled on Sant’Erasmo. From the eleventh century, it began to decline as islanders moved to Dorsoduro. It had a Grand Council, like that of Venice, but from the thirteenth century, Murano was ultimately governed by a podestà from Venice. Unlike the other islands in the Lagoon, Murano minted its own coins.

Early in the second millennium hermits of the Camaldolese Order occupied one of the islands, seeking a place of solitude for their way of life. There they founded the Monastery of St. Michael (Italian: S. Michele di Murano). This monastery became a great center of learning and printing. The famous cartographer, Fra Mauro, whose maps were crucial to the European exploration of the world, was a monk of this community. The monastery was suppressed in 1810 by French forces under Napoleon, in the course of their conquest of the Italian peninsula, and the monks were expelled in 1814. The grounds then became Venice’s major cemetery.

In 1291, all the glassmakers in Venice were forced to move to Murano due to the risk of fires.[2] In the following century, exports began, and the island became famous, initially for glass beads and mirrors. Aventurine glass was invented on the island, and for a while Murano was the main producer of glass in Europe. The island later became known for chandeliers. Although decline set in during the eighteenth century, glassmaking is still the island’s main industry.

In the fifteenth century, the island became popular as a resort for Venetians, and palaces were built, but this later declined. The countryside of the island was known for its orchards and vegetable gardens until the nineteenth century, when more housing was built.

Attractions on the island include the Church of Santa Maria e San Donato (known for its twelfth-century Byzantine mosaic pavement and said to house the bones of the dragon slain by Saint Donatus), the church of San Pietro Martire with the chapel of the Ballarin family built in 1506 and artworks by Giovanni Bellini, and the Palazzo da Mula. Glass-related attractions include the many glassworks, some Mediaeval and most open to the public, and the Murano Glass Museum, housed in the large Palazzo Giustinian.