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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of the Grand Canal in Venice

What is the Grand Canal?

The Grand Canal is Venice’s famous, principal waterway, it divides the city into two unequal parts.

Grand Canal

Grand Canal History

‘In a few minutes we swept gracefully out into the Grand Canal’, recorded the American writer Mark Twain in the 19th century, ‘and under the mellow moonlight the Venice of poetry and romance stood revealed. Right from the water’s edge rose long lines of stately palaces of marble; gondolas were gliding swiftly hither and thither and disappearing suddenly through unsuspected gates and alleys; ponderous stone bridges threw their shadows athwart the glittering waves… Music came floating over the waters – Venice was complete’.

For only a few euros you can follow Mark Twain’s journey on a public vaporetto (or waterbus). Venice’s great artery, known by locals as the Canalasso, gets busy, so the No. 1 takes its time, proceeding slowly up and down; if you’re a tourist at leisure, this just prolongs the enjoyment. Unlike many of the city’s other waterways, the s-shaped Grand Canal that splits Venice into two unequal halves is not the result of human endeavour. It stretches for more than 3 kilometres (its narrowest parts just 30 metres across and 90 metres at its widest) following an ancient river, possibly the Brenta, all the way from Trentino in the north of Italy. It culminates at the Rialto Bridge, where since the 12th century there has been some kind of crossing: a wooden bridge was built in the 1200s, and the final single span stone bridge was completed in 1591 – it remained the only foot crossing for the next 250 years.

Today’s tourists tend to get lost walking around Venice’s maze of streets and alleys. Yet for most of its history citizens and visitors alike moved around the city by water, lessening the need for many bridges. If a walker wanted simply to cross, they would climb aboard a traghetto (or ferry). Operated by two oarsmen – one at the front and the other at the back – the traghetto looks like a gondola but eschews luxury decorations and charges a tiny amount to journey across the canal. Today, there are only a few traghetti and can be found most often between the Pescaria and Santa Sofia or San Tomà and Sant’Angelo.

Although Twain was writing lyrically in the 19th century, his account captures the ostentatious display at the heart of the Grand Canal’s realist function in commercial Venice. Ambassadors and other dignitaries would have entered the city via St Mark’s basin, seeing Venice’s greatest buildings – the Doge’s Palace, St Mark’s Basilica, the Marciana Library – on arrival. Merchants and more humble visitors would enter the Grand Canal en route to their warehouses or the Rialto market, and witness a sequence of 170 exquisite buildings, varyingly refined and sumptuous. These include the opulent structures now called palazzi; historically these were referred to as Ca’ grande (ca for casa (or house) and grande for big). Wealthy families possessed ‘big houses’, not ‘palaces’, because the Doge’s Palace was considered the only palazzo in the city. Whatever their name, they were designed and decorated with little expense spared.

A journey along the Grand Canal presents you with a distillation of Venice’s architectural history, with each of the three main styles on show: the Veneto-Byzantine; the Venetian Gothic; and the Sansovinian ‘Roman’. The first, identified by curved and narrow arches with carved paterae (or ornamental discs) recalls Constantinople and dates from the 10th to the 13th centuries. As the arches grow pointier and buildings take on parapet crenellations and pinnacles, the Venetian Gothic – with its intriguing Islamic influences – begins to appear; its apex came during the 14th and 15th centuries. Finally, the architect Jacopo Sansovino brought his classical knowledge from Rome in the 16th century and changed the cityscape into more ordered lines and shapes, showing how magnificence could be realised, not through extravagant embellishment, but through unity and harmony.

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