The floating city of Venice, a unique experience of surrealist feelings while traveling, is renowned for its architectural elements. Due to its location, the marshy Venetian Lagoon, building the entire city was a challenge that was built with meticulous details that needed to be carried out intelligently. Venice has unique living experiences between buildings, canals, and bridges. Due to its history, the city includes different types of art and architectural design. While the Gothic influences shine the most, a term became used to describe the city’s unique style as Venetian Gothic architecture. The Venetian building style is a combination of Gothic lancet arch with Byzantine and Ottoman influences. This style is eventually affected by the necessity of constructing buildings and homes above canals.
Venice has iconic images that include canals, gondolas, bridges, buildings, and festivals. The city has a high number of tourists visiting each year, including artists, architects, movie makers, etc. The attraction of the city is not a new subject. Venice’s relationship with its surroundings, people, trade, and art from the beginning of its history created a powerful image for the city. It has an essential role in influencing the country with its unique Venetian Gothic architecture style. The historical background of arousing this style was affected by its political situation throughout.
The city on water offers a distinguished experience with its building methods, architecture, canals, and bridges. Most of the iconic buildings can be historic. However, contemporary touches on them by renowned architects, art and architecture biennales each year, permanent works for these events, and modern buildings and bridges from recent years are contributing to the iconic image of Venice that comes from the combination of diverse features. Here, this article aims to highlight the foremost building features of Venice, a brief history that shapes the city’s architectural style, some iconic historic buildings and bridges, modern buildings, bridges, and modern projects that touch the historical buildings that you must visit in your trip to Venice.
Brief History of Venice
The land of Venice is a compilation of small islands. The city started as a cluster of islands and grew into a small fishing village during the early Middle Ages. Over time, Venice converted into one of Italy’s leading powers due to its major trade network within the Eastern Mediterranean. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE, Germanic tribes began plundering and invading vast parts of Northern Italy.
People used to flee to the Venetian Lagoon and look for shelter on some of the islands after each attack. This shelter-seeking turned into a small settlement and eventually turned into the city of Venice. After the emergence of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire in 553 CE, Venice continued to be controlled by the Byzantines for over a century. The influence of Byzantine architecture started from this period and has created iconic structures such as St. Mark’s Basilica. However, Venice continued as a vassal to the Byzantine Empire until the 9th century, after the selection of the first Doge of Venice in 697 CE, the Republic of Venice was formed. Being sea masters, Venetians contributed to maritime trade, and the city gained wealth. Over time, Venice started to take over several lands. On the Italian mainland, Venice controlled the cities of Padua, Vicenza, Verona, Treviso, and Bergamo which makes it possible to see traces of Venetian-style architecture. Overseas, they had control of various ports and cities such as today’s Slovenia, Croatia, Albania, Crete, and Cyprus so it is possible to see the influences of diverse art and architecture approaches.
The political changes during wartime highly affected the situation of Venice. Venice joined the Italian Unification Movement and contributed major benefits to the economy for the formation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. After this impactful change, the Veneto Region started to modernize rapidly in the Industrial Revolution. The construction of a new railroad for the connection of Venice to the mainland was one of the key points of this period. The city of Venice did not have major destruction during the World Wars. However, railways were affected by the destruction. Starting around 1945, Venice’s stable yet modernizing period began and is continuing today. Today, Venice has a tourism-based economy that is being led by its canals, culture, cuisine, art, and architecture. The constant art and culture events and festivals draw millions of visitors, and it is one of the most popular global destinations. The highly circulated city includes many iconic structures with diverse styles.
How was the Floating City Built?
Venice has a unique situation that separates it from other cities. It is a completely floating city formed by a connection of clusters of islands. To highlight the complexity of the city’s situation, Venice is a network of 116 islands, 177 canals, and 423 bridges. Starting a construction in Venice is not similar to other cities, yet it has had its own methods. The settlements in the land started with the escapes from the attacks to be safe. However, for building a proper shelter, the land was not suitable for regular construction methods. Some of the earliest works of architecture did not survive over a few years because of the mudd ground that causes buildings to sink over time. Venetian engineers came up with a system for driving wooden piles deep into the mud and topping them with stone pavers. This method enabled the creation of a new permanent layer that was suitable for supporting structures.
Most commonly, the buildings in Venice were built using four materials: wooden piles, limestone, brick, and Istrian stone. The typical construction process in Venice was the first step is driving the wooden piles deep enough to reach solid land, the second is layering above these tiles with limestone to create a solid base for structures, the third is the construction of the actual building that mostly consists of bricks, and lastly the fourth is to create a facade with Istrian stone and decoration with marble. One of the other unique approaches to architecture in Venice is that the main facades of the buildings mostly face the grand canal since the canal acts as the main street of the city. The canal has made a huge contribution to the aesthetics of the city and the buildings. However, as unique aura as Venice has with the influencing canal, it is facing a lot of challenges, especially sinking with the rising water level. Therefore, the construction method and the system does not only carry importance for the past also for the future to develop solutions against upcoming challenges.
The political changes throughout Venice’s history had a great influence on Venetian architecture. Besides the different circumstances and influences, architecture is also affected by the changing design movements. The significant movement that influenced Venetian architecture was the Gothic style. With a blend of different styles throughout history, Venetian Architecture started to arise as a unique combination. It is possible to distinguish Venetian architecture with some common elements and period influences. The Gothic approach in Venetian architecture can be seen in almost every historic building in Venice. Venetian Gothic almost serves as a subtype of Gothic architecture. Some of the unifying characteristics are pointed arches, pinnacles, tracery stonework, and stained glass. An example of this period can be given as the Ca’ d’Oro.
One of the most common influences in Venetian architecture is from the Byzantine Empire. This period includes buildings such as St. Mark’s Basilica, which has a resemblance to several other domes, and the shape of a Greek Cross Plan in Byzantine Architecture. The Renaissance was another architectural movement that was significantly traceable in Venice. The movement originally began in Florence and affected Venice. It is possible to see a variety of Renaissance works throughout the city, such as Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge. Venice was a home to various talented architects of the Italian Renaissance, such as Andrea Palladio with his famous San Giorgio Monastery.
Some common elements feature in Venetian architecture. One of them is the white Istrian marble. Istria is a region known for its abundant marble deposits. The pure whiteness was making the material special. Istrian marble is also one of the most robust materials when it comes to erosion. Therefore, it was a common material for foundations as well as facades that created a recognizable image of Venetian architecture. Another common element is the Venetian Lion. The lion was the symbol of the Republic of Venice, and therefore, it was widely used around the city in addition to formal crests and banners. It is possible to encounter lion sculptures at the tops of columns within city walls and gates. It is possible to see the Venetian lion on St.Mark’s Clocktower at the famous Piazza San Marco, which also represents the Venetian-style belltower.
In light of all this background information about the history and significant elements of Venetian architecture, here are 8 iconic structures to your route for a trip to Venice:
1. Saint Mark’s Basilica
Reconstruction Year: 1063
Architect: Domenico I Contarini
St. Mark’s Basilica is one of the most recognized churches in Italy and the symbol of Venice. Located in the Piazza San Marco, it consists of distinguished ornamentations and colors. It is one of the best examples of Byzantine architectural influences in Venice. The first version of St. Mark’s Basilica was constructed in 828 with the order of that time’s Doge to house the body of St. Mark. The current formation of the basilica was a redevelopment around 1063-1094. The redevelopment was intended as the Doge’s Chapel. In 1807, the basilica became the seat of the Patriarch of Venice. With the nickname ‘Church of Gold, ’ the church gave a huge influential aesthetic and became a symbol of Venetian opulence and power.
In contrast to the numerous Latin Cross Plan Churches found across the rest of Italy, St. Mark’s Basilica was built on a Greek Cross Plan. The structure’s layout, the domes, and some of the other exterior details are all clear examples of the building style’s strong Byzantine influences. Various kinds of Byzantine-style mosaics, other relics, and art pieces are exhibited inside the church. A similar manner of decoration can also be seen in the famous Byzantine buildings located in Istanbul, such as the Hagia Sophia and the Hagia Irene. More than 500 columns and capitals make up the basilica, the majority of which date from the sixth to the eleventh century. The entire 12th-century marble floor is covered in geometric patterns and animal-themed decorations. A total of 8,000 square meters of vibrant mosaics are used to embellish the top levels. The majority of these mosaics use gold glass tesserae, which produces a shimmering look.
2. Procuratie Vecchie
Architects: Mauro Codussi, Bartolomeo Bon and Jacopo Sansovino
Architects: David Chipperfield Architects
The Procuratie is a group of three interconnected structures that surround Saint Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy. Saint Mark’s Square, one of Venice’s most recognizable locations, is a clear example of a well-organized public area. The Procuratie Vecchie façade, which was built here as residences for the public prosecutors and was started by Bartolomeo Bon in 1517 and completed by Jacopo Sansovino in 1538, occupied the entire north side of the plaza and served as an inspiration for later construction on the south and west sides. By serving as a mediator between the civic and the private, the formal and the organic, the building established the language of this public place. The Procuratie Vecchie was the city of Venice’s first significant structure built in the style of classical models. Even though many elements of the earlier Veneto-Byzantine structure were preserved, such as the decorative crenellation along the roofline and the succession of two window bays over each of the ground-floor arches, the elongated stilted arch that was typical of the Veneto-Byzantine tradition in Venice was updated with Renaissance semi-circular arches, supported on fluted Corinthian columns. Additionally, square Doric pillars replaced the columns on the bottom level that were reminiscent of the Doge’s Palace.
After Generali began its life in the Procuratie Vecchie, it set a goal to create more engagement between Procuratie Vecchie and the public. Through the activities of The Human Safety Net, Generali made it accessible to the public. David Chipperfield Architects commissioned the restoration project. Rather than a single concept or architectural gesture, they proposed a project that was defined by a more flexible approach that highlights the complexity of sixteenth-century structure, its historical changes, and practical adaptations while integrating them with various new interventions to create a more unified whole. The project consisted of overlapping tasks: historic recovery, restoration, and renovation. The renovations included restoring the first and second floors, which house Generali’s top-tier offices, rearranging accessibility through new vertical circulation, and renovating the third floor, which provides access to the gallery, event spaces, workspaces, and auditorium for the general public.
3. Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale)
Architects: Filippo Calendario and Giovanni Bon
The Doge’s Palace, a masterwork of Gothic architecture, is an outstanding complex consisting of various building materials and ornamentation, ranging from its initial foundations from the 14th and 15th centuries to the significant Renaissance and lavish Mannerist additions. The building is composed of three massive sections that incorporate earlier structures. The oldest part of the building dates to 1340 and is located in the direction of St. Mark’s Basin. From 1424 on, the wing facing St. Mark’s Square was constructed in its current design. The Renaissance-era canal-side wing, which houses the Doge’s residences and several governmental buildings, was constructed between 1483 and 1565.
The iconic image with a series of columns, pink and white marbles, ornamentations, and sculptures contributes to a recognition of the city view. The current facade of the palace is from the construction in 1424, and its design was influenced by the decorative motifs of ancient maritime facades. The porch of the palace includes 36 columns with rich capitals and attractive sculptures. The main entrance of the building is called “Puerta della Carta.” It is a flamboyant Gothic-style door belonging to the fifteenth century and designed by the architects Giovanni Bon and Bartolomeo Bon. The main door, along with the portico, leads the way to the Arco Foscari and the internal courtyard. The building includes Museo dell’Opera, Doge’s apartments, institutional chambers, an old prison, and a connection to a new prison. Therefore, visiting the palace that serves as a museum today creates such an experience about Venice’s history.
4. Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri)
Architect: Antonio Contin
The Bridge of Sighs is one of the most known bridges in the city. It is a rare characteristic that it is enclosed and narrow compared to most of the bridges in the city. The main material that can be observed is white limestone, and it has windows with stone bars. Again, unlike most of the bridges that connect two lands, the Bridge of Sighs passes over the Rio di Palazzo and connects the New Prison to the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace. It is a Baroque-style bridge and a very famous location for tourists. Tradition says that if a couple kisses while passing under the bridge in a gondola, their love will be eternal.
One of the famous things about the bridge is its unusual name. The famous name dates back to the Romantic period and refers to the sighs of prisoners. It is the passage from the courtroom to the cell where a prisoner would serve the sentence. Therefore, they took a last look at the freedom from the small windows. The view from the Bridge of Sighs was the last view of Venice that convicts saw before their imprisonment.
5. Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto)
Architects: Antonio da Ponte, Antonio Contino
Rialto Bridge is the most famous, oldest, and most crowded bridge in Venice. It is a stone arch bridge that crosses over the Grand Canal and from the narrowest point compared to the other four bridges that are over the Grand Canal. Today’s version of the bridge was built in the late 16th century and is recognized as an architectural and engineering achievement of the Renaissance. It was designed and built by Antonio da Ponte and his nephew, Antonio Contino.
The current version with Istrian marble dates back to 1591, but the first construction of the bridge was much earlier. It was initially erected in 1181 as a pontoon bridge and transformed into a wooden marvel in 1255. However, the need for a sturdier version led to today’s design with the marvelous marble of Venice. The bridge includes three walkways. Two of them are along the outer balustrades, and one is a wider central walkway leading between two rows of small shops that sell jewelry, linens, famous Murano glass, and other items mostly for tourists. It is a popular attraction point of Venice, and it is hard to miss to see.
6. Fondaco dei Tedeschi
Architects: OMA, Rem Koolhaas, Francesco Moncada, Silvia Sandor
The original building of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi was built in 1228. It is located at the foot of the Rialto Bridge therefore it is very suitable for the route from Rialto to San Marco Square. The building is one of the most recognized buildings in Venice. It included functions such as a trading center for German merchants, a customs house, and a post office throughout its history. It contributed to the images of Venice while the city was in the mercantile era. However, its population decreased with the depopulation of the city. The original building was destroyed twice by fire and rebuilt in its current form in 1506. The Fondaco represents Venice’s hidden brutality. During the 1930s, the building was renewed almost entirely with modern concrete technology. Throughout all these changes, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi serves as a monument in the city, and its preservation spans five centuries of construction techniques.
The latest renovation was completed in 2016 by renowned firm OMA. OMA’s renovation program was based on strategic interventions and vertical distributions to the existing structure. The project opens the courtyard piazza to the public while maintaining its historical role. A new rooftop was also created and opened to the city while making it a public venue. New entrances to the building are created from the Campo San Bartolomeo and the Rialto. While protecting the existing entrance into the courtyard used by locals as a shortcut, a new public route was also added with escalators. As iconic as the image of the building from the exterior, modern touches in the interior and the courtyard are also worth seeing and experiencing.
7. Olivetti Showroom
Architect: Carlo Scarpa
The work of one of the most famous Venetian architects, Carlo Scarpa, needed to be on the list of architectural must-sees in Venice. The well-known work of his, Olivetti Showroom, was completed in 1958. Adriano Olivetti commissioned Scarpa to design a display space for his Olivetti products. The resulting building also became a showroom for Scarpa’s successful architectural details.
Scarpa started by cleaning the existing space, introducing two balconies on the sides, and designing a new, now iconic, staircase in the center of the place. His addition of multiple windows and the creation of a new pavement with irregularly shaped glass tiles created a more open and defined place. The detailed works of Scarpa can be seen in his selection of materials, too. He used Aurisina marble slabs to cover the pre-existing pillar and the floor of the mezzanine landing. Rosewood shelves, stainless steel braces, African teak, and glass mosaics are from the pallet of his material selection. One of the most distinguished details in the showroom is the walls with a combination of different materials such as concrete, Venetian plaster, steel, glass, and fluorescent lights. Every corner has inspiring details from Scarpa, and it can serve such a pleasant experience for architecture-lovers.
8. Constitution Bridge (Ponte della Costituzione)
Architect: Santiago Calatrava
The Ponte della Costituzione, commonly known as the Calatrava Bridge, was completed and opened to the public in 2008. It is the fourth bridge over the Grand Canal in Venice, and it was designed by Santiago Calatrava. It is one of the most known contemporary structures in the city. It is an arched truss bridge. The stairway is paved with a traditional stone, alternating with tempered glass steps illuminated from below by fluorescent lights. The parapet is also created from tempered glass with a bronze handrail with concealed lighting. The selection of materials gives the modern and elegant look of the bridge.
As modern and unique as the Calatrava Bridge has seen, it also has had heated criticism. The absence of wheelchair accessibility, the argument that it is not necessary, and the argument that the bridge’s modernist-minimalist design clashes with Venice’s ornamental medieval architecture are the three primary complaints about the bridge that have led to vehement criticism, delays, and walkouts at its official opening. There are also very positive views for its modern look and the balancing contrast with the city’s traditional look. It is one of the must-see structures in Venice while wandering around the historical context of the city.
Bonus: Giardini della Biennale
The list would not be completed without including the renowned International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. The 18th International Architecture Exhibition is currently being held in Venice until the 26th of November. Giardini della Biennale is one of the locations that hosts some of the countries’ pavilions and one of the main exhibitions. The pavilions in this location are permanent and serve unique architectural values from renowned architects. Such as the Nordic Pavilion by Sverre Fehn, the Venezuela Pavilion by Carlo Scarpa, the Swiss Pavilion by Bruno Giacometti, and the Finland Pavilion by Alvar Aalto. Even if your visit is outside Biennale’s date, the pavilion buildings in the Giardini della Biennale are worth seeing.