Ten facts about Venice

By Region News North-east Italy Travel in Italy

There are lots of misconceptions around the city of Venice.  Here are ten interesting facts, you may not know about the ethereal city.

Venice is made up of 118 islands

Venice has over 400 bridges
Photo by Mitja Juraja:

The islands and lagoon of Venice were created by silt, salt and rock making its way via rivers from the Dolomites into the Adriatic Sea. Over time these deposits became islands. The island of Lido acted as a form of barrier to the Adriatic, thereby helping create the lagoon.

118 islands, connected by over 400 footbridges, form Venice. It is in fact an archipelago. There are also other islands and archipelagos in the lagoon, such as Murano, Burano, Torcello and San Michele.

Venice is built of wood

These islands were not very substantial. As Venice became rich from the proceeds of salt and wanted to build fancy houses, churches and so on, it needed better foundations than just silt and stone.

Between the Dolomites and the lagoon stood forests. Now, those forests are upside, fossilised and holding the islands together. The trunks were rammed into the shallow lagoon, creating a more substantial foundation for the impressive buildings we now see. In all, it took 5 centuries to consolidate the islands of Venice.

Only two workshops still make Venetian gondolas

Squero in San Trovaso, Venice

A squero is where gondolas are made in Venice. There are only two squeri (plural of squero) that still produce the boats.

One of those squeri can be found in San Trovaso. The buildings around the ‘dry dock’ are different in materials and design to the general Venetian property. This is because the makers of gondolas originally came from the Dolomites, so they used materials and design they felt at home with. The houses look more Alpine, made of wood, with balconies and fretwork.

Carnival masks had a purpose

Venice was wealthy, and when you have money and there’s ‘downtime’ what do you do?

You party.

Sometimes, partying can get out of hand, which is why the Venetians wore masks; that way they could not be recognised if they were a bit naughty. The men had a white mask which covered their whole face, except for a mouth opening to allow, eating, drinking, talking and smoking. It was all held in place with a tricorn hat.

The women, however, did not want to wear hats which would cover their beautiful hair or fancy wigs. Instead, their mask was held in place by a button sewn onto the inside of the mask which they held in place with their teeth – these were known colloquially as ‘muta’ (mute). So, if a woman removed her mask to talk to you, she must have been keen!

Why some masks have long noses

Plague doctor mask during Carnival in Venice

You may have seen masks with really long noses, these had nothing at all to do with partying. These types of masks are in fact doctors’ masks. The nose was to prevent disease from getting into the doctors’ bodies.

They would also hold mint, thyme and a sponge soaked in vinegar as a form of pomander. Those who were sick and dying from the plague did not always smell sweet!

Rialto Market is over 900 years old

One of the big tourist attractions is the Rialto Bridge. Along with the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, and Venice’s small Bridge of Sighs, it is probably one of Italy’s most famous bridges. On one side of the bridge is the Rialto market. It has been there since 1097 and is an important part of Venice’s cultural landscape.

In Venice’s trading days, the Rialto market was one of the most powerful in the world. Spices, jewels, food, cloth, and more went back and forth from the east to west. Today, you can buy your fish, fruit and vegetables there, and many of Venice’s residents do just that.

Arsenale is the world’s oldest working shipyard

Entrance to Arsenale in Venice

Construction of the Arsenale began around 1104. It became the largest industrial complex in Europe before the Industrial Revolution, spanning an area of about 110 acres. It was here that the new barrier to prevent flooding in Venice during very high Acqua Alta was constructed.

Traghetto – a very short trip

There are only 4 bridges crossing the Grand Canal, which could make it a very long trip to get back and forth. A short boat trip from one side to the other is known as a traghetto.

You could go crammed on a vaporetto, but a gondola is often quicker – less queuing (though a little more hair-raising).

It costs €2 each way. If you’re lucky and the first of two people on board, you get to sit in relative comfort beneath the gondolier. Otherwise, you sit on the sides of the boat before being rowed across the canal.

Venetian chimneys look different

Chimney pots on Venice rooftop

If you look to the rooftops, you’ll find there’s something odd-looking about the chimney stacks – some appear to be upside down. There’s a reason for that.

Venice is built on wood – see above – and the houses are full of it too. Wood within, bricks on the outside, the houses are essentially ovens. They are also very tightly packed together. What each of these ornate chimney stacks does is stop sparks from flying out of the chimney and catching fire. The design extinguishes them and keeps the sparks within. Not just attractive but essential.

Venice doesn’t have natural fresh water sources

The Venice lagoon is salt-water. Indeed, there are no fresh water sources for the city. As a result, the enterprising Venetians created a system to collect rainwater for use by the inhabitants.

“Venice is in water, but doesn’t have water.” Marin Sanudo, historian.

There were 8000 cisterns in Venice, around 600-800 remain. You’ll find them everywhere you go. The wellhead was fairly monumental and opened at 8am when the women would come to collect the water for the day. In four corners around the wellhead were marble drains known as pilela beneath which was a bell-shaped brick construction which encouraged the flow of water to the main cistern.

Amazingly, there was no running water in Venice until 1884, and these wells remained the primary source of water.

Water well and cistern in Venice now

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