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 ï¿½”.
“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 faï¿½ades 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 foreigners”.
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 and goods.
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.