For centuries the Piazza was the only entrance to the city: in fact,
Venice was linked to the mainland only in the mid-19th century. Whoever
reached it before this, arriving from the port at the Lido, by sea, or
from the river Brenta or the lagoon meeting the Grand Canal of the Giudecca,
had to land here.
Travellers were truly astounded by this incredibly unique city: Philippe
de Commynes, the French ambassador and traveller, held such an unforgettable
memory of the lagoon city that he described it at the end of the 15th
century: "I was truly astonished to see the city's position and its many
bell towers, monasteries and dwellings on the water and the people with
only boats to move about in, which must number at least thirty thousand,
and are so small. Around the city, in an area covering less than half
a French league, there are at least seventy monasteries housing men and
women, all on islands with their extremely beautiful and luxurious buildings,
decorations and splendid gardens. To say nothing of the four mendicant
orders to be found inside the city, seventy-two parishes and numerous
confraternities; and it is a most peculiar thing to see such majestic
and beautiful churches built on the sea".
"They took me along the main and very wide road they call "Canal Grande".
Galleys pass down the middle and you can see ships of four hundred tonnes
and over near the houses; it is surely the most beautiful and the most
well built road in the whole world, crossing the entire city. The tall
large houses are made of stone and the oldest are in all colours, the
hundred-year-old ones here have fašades in white marble, which arrives
from Istria a hundred miles from here, including blocks of serpentine
and porphyry. Most of them have at least two bedrooms with gilt ceilings,
richly decorated fireplaces in carved marble, gilt bedsteads, coloured
and gilt partition doors and plenty of furniture. It is the most wonderful
city I have ever visited, and the one that most honours ambassadors and
The Arsenale was a hive of activity with its thousands of dock workers,
enormous galleys were also built all along as far as the Basin, where
the rounder merchant ships, suitable for transporting goods, alternated
with the galleys.
In the Venetian system the galleys belonged to the State, which had them
built at the Arsenale, equipped them with sailors and soldiers and then
made them available for public auction. This event was held in the Piazzetta,
in the presence of the competent Magistracy and public auction followed.
The pre-determined shipping routes followed well-established lines: to
the Black Sea, Syria, and Egypt and then on to Fianders and England.
The departure and arrival of these convoys (for security reasons the galleys
sailed in convoys to be better equipped in the event of attack) attracted
a great crowd of onlookers, merchants, and the crew's relatives, even
to see the goods that arrived and for the illicit trade that the sailors
probably dealt in on board.
But the entire basin, as depicted in the great canvases by Canaletto,
was always crowded with boats of all types, for both passenger transport
It was a multi-coloured and bustling world, of which only the distant
echo remains for us in the works of landscape painters. The Quay and the
Piazzetta had consolidated the term "between land and water", as water
covered a large part of the area that stretched from the lagoon to St.
Mark's. This border was and has remained ephemeral, since Venice was built
on groups of islands and also because the tide invades the Piazza and
the Piazzetta with increasing frequency, as this is one of the lowest
points in Venice.
Today the places that were the centre of the Venetian State's power, the
seat of the most important activities in the city, are places to be protected
and saved. We should therefore consider these places, keeping in mind
the changed environmental conditions and dangers arising from negligence
and inevitable deterioration that occurs over time.