The Ultimate Guide to Cruising the Venetian Lagoon and its Islands
The Venetian Lagoon is an ambiguous area that is neither land nor sea. Stretching some 34 miles (56km) in length and 7 miles (11km) wide, it takes a crescent shape along part of the coast of northeastern Italy.
The lagoon was formed some six thousand years ago, emerging from the mud, silt and debris that came down into the Adriatic from seven rivers. The principal amongst them, the Brenta, Sile and Piave, carried material from the Alps and Apennine mountains. The shallow waters of the lagoon are protected by a line of sandbanks, or lidi, whose three gaps, or porti, allow passage of the 3-foot tides and the city’s maritime traffic. On the sandbanks are many small settlements, some of them centuries old; the best-known is the Lido itself, which has been a fashionable seaside resort since the 19th century.
There have always been inhabitants. From the earliest of times, small pockets of fishermen and fowlers have taken advantage of the abundance of wildfowl and marine life, as well as the autumnal migration of fish from the rivers to the sea. The marshes, too, are a natural place for the harvesting of salt, which has always been known as a valuable commodity.
Connected to the Adriatic by three inlets at Lido, Malamocco and Chiogga, the lagoon is sited at the end of a largely enclosed sea and is subject to high variations in water level, the most extreme being the spring tides known as the “acqua alta”, which regularly floods much of Venice. The nearby Marano-Grado Lagoon is the northernmost lagoon in the Adriatic and is sometimes called the “twin sister” of the Laguna Veneta.
The Venetian Lagoon is the most important survivor of a system of estuarine lagoons that, in Roman times, extended from Ravenna north to Trieste. In the 6th century, the Lagoon gave security to Romanised people fleeing invaders such as the Huns, and later provided naturally protected conditions for the growth of the Venetian Republic and its maritime empire.
Venice is a city in northeastern Italy and the capital of the Veneto region. Built on a group of 118 small islands in the shallow Venetian Lagoon, an enclosed bay lying between the mouths of the River Po and Piave rivers, the city is separated by canals and linked by over 400 bridges.
A port serving Murano in the 8th century, the island of Sant’Erasmo is today known for its market gardens. Forts have existed on the island as early as the 16th century, and today the so-calleld Torre Massimiliana (Tower of Maximilian) lies in ruins. Built by the Austrians after Napoleon’s defeat, the tower was used by the Italian army until the First World War.
Initially settled by the Romans, the island of Murano prospered as a fishing and trade port, through the harbour it controlled on Sant’Erasmo and, unlike the other islands in the Venetian Lagoon, even minted its own coins. From the 11th century, commerce on the island declined as islanders moved to Dorsoduro, one of the six neighbourhoods that make up the city of Venice.
However, in 1291, fearing fire and the destruction of its mostly wooden buildings, the Venetian Republic ordered that all the glassmakers in Venice were required to move to the island of Murano. Shortly thereafter exports began and the island became famous initially for glass beads and mirrors.
While the glassmakers benefited from certain statutory privileges, they were forbidden to leave the Republic, however many took the risks involved and established glass furnaces elsewhere in Europe – with some as far afield as England and the Netherlands. Murano’s glassmakers held a monopoly on high-quality glassmaking for centuries, developing or refining many technologies. Today, the artisans of Murano still employ the centuries-old traditions and techniques, crafting everything from contemporary art glass and jewellery to Murano glass chandeliers and wine stoppers. The oldest Murano glass furnace still active is that of Pauly & C. – Compagnia Venezia Murano, founded in 1866.
In the 15th century, the island became popular as a resort for Venetians, leading to the construction of several ornate palaces. Its countryside was known for its orchards and vegetable gardens until the 19th century, during which time more housing was built on the island. Landmarks on the island include the Church of Santa Maria e San Donato, which is said to house the bones of a dragon slain by Saint Donatus in the 4th century and the Palazzo la Mula, which was painted by Claude Monet during his trip to Venice in 1908. A museum of Murano’s glass, founded in 1861, is housed in the large Palazzo Giustinian.
Historically an area of large palaces with gardens, the island of Giudecca became an industrial hub in the early 20th century with the development of shipyards and factories. Much of the industry went into decline following the Second World War, and it is now once again regarded as a quiet residential area of largely working-class families.
It is a commonly-held belief that settlements and islands, such as that of Mazzorbo in the north of the lagoon, were built by refugees either from the nearby coastal town of Altinum, when it was destroyed by Attila the Hun in 452. It has also been suggested that they may have been populated from inland areas of the Veneto and Friuli regions when they were conquered by the Lombards in the 6th and 7th centuries, however in 1881 archaeologists discovered Mycenaean pottery on the island, suggesting that commercial activity on the island had already been established from 1600 BC.
Like other settlements on islands in the northern part of the Venetian Lagoon, Mazzorbo was one of the earliest communities and predates the development of Venice. These communes thrived from the 14th century, when they were the hub of maritime trade with the Adriatic and Mediterranean seas. Mazzorbo’s native population declined with the urbanisation and development of Venice and soon after many religious institutions were established on the island. Despite not being a large settlement, Mazzorbo had five monasteries and five parish churches. With the further decline of the island in the 19th century, and with the dissolution of churches and monasteries, with the exception of the Santa Caterina church, the churches were demolished and no trace of them remains.
Situated on a small island at the southern entrance to the Venetian Lagoon, Chioggia is believed to have once been part of the Byzantine Empire – as documents from the 6th century AD attest. Until the 19th century, the women of Chioggia wore an outfit based on an apron which could be raised for use as a veil. Like Pellestrina, Chioggia is known for lace-making. A miniature version of Venice, Chioggia has several medieval churches, many of which were reworked during the town’s golden age in the 16th and 17th centuries. The 12th century bell-tower of the church of Saint Andrew houses one of the world’s oldest working clocks.
First settled in 452, Torcello has been referred to as the parent island from which Venice was populated, and housed a cathedral and bishops before Saint Mark’s Basilica was built.
In the early Middle Ages, the island was a more powerful trading centre than Venice and thanks to the Venetian Lagoon’s salt marshes, the salines became Torcello’s economic backbone. Its Harbour quickly developed into an important re-export market in the profitable east-west trade route, which was largely controlled by Byzantium.
After the swamp area of the lagoon around Torcello increased in the 14th century, partially due to the lowering of land level, navigation in the laguna morta was virtually impossible and traders ceased calling at the island. As aresult, by the late 14th century, a substancial number of people had left the island for Murano, Burano or Venice. In 1689, the bishopric transferred to Murano, and by 1797 the population had dropped to around 300 people. Today, the island has a full-time population of only 10.
The main attraction on the island is the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, founded in 639. Constructed in the Roman basilica form, it consists of much 11th and 12th century Byzantine work, including mosaics depicting the Last Judgement. Other attractions include the 11th and 12th century church of Santa Fosca, built in the form of a Greek cross.
The Venetian island of Sant’Elena lies at the eastern tip of the main island group and forms part of the sestiere of Castello. The original island was separated by an arm of the Venetian Lagoon from Venice itself, and was centered on the Church of Sant’Elena and its monastery, originally built in the 12th century. In the 1920s, the island was expanded to fill the gap and is linked to the rest of the
city by three bridges.
La Certosa housed a community of Augustinian friars starting from the 1199, but after two centuries the island had been ceded to the Carthusians. After the Napoleonic conquest of Venice, the island became a military installation. The 17th century Castello delle Polveri, the only historic edifice remaining on the island, was restored in the 1990s.
While the island of Burano was probably first settled by the Romans, in the 6th century it was occupied by the people of Altino, who named it after one of the gates of their former city.
The first houses of Burano were built on palafittes, with walls made with woven canes and plastered with mud. Later, these primitive structures were replaced with brick buildings, and the inhabitants began painting them with bright colours. While the origin of the colours is unknown, tradition states that years ago, when the fishermen returned from the sea, they couldn’t recognise their homes through the fog and so had them painted in different colours. It is said that the colours of these houses have been associated with the families for centuries. Over time, a specific colouring system has developed and if someone wishes to repaint their home, they must first send a request to the government, who will respond by making notice of the colours permitted for that lot.
Burano’s importance rose only in the 16th century when the women on the island began making lace with needles. In 1481, Leonardo da Vinci visited the then Venetian-run village of Lefkara in Cyprus, also famous for its lace-making. Here, he retrieved a Burano-made cloth to place on the altar of the Duomo di Milano.
Burano lace was soon exported across Europe, but trade began to decline in the 18th century and the industry did not revive until 1872, when a school of lacemaking was opened. Lacemaking on the island boomed again, but few now make lace in the traditional manner as it is extremely time-consuming and therefore expensive.
Along with neighbouring San Cristoforo della Pace, the island of San Michele was a popular place for local travellers and fishermen to land. Mauro Codussi’s 15th century church of San Michele in Isola, the first Renaissance church in Venice, and a monastery lie on the island, which also served for a time as a prison.
San Cristoforo was selected to become a cemetery in 1807, designed by Gian Antonio Selva, when under French occupation it was decreed that burial on the mainland and prominent Venetian islands was unsanitary.
The canal that separated the two islands was filled in during 1836, and subsequently the larger island became known as San Michele. Bodies were carried to the island on special funeral gondolas and among those buried on the island are Igor Stravinsky, Joseph Brodsky and Sergei Diaghilev. The cemetery is still in use today.
A small island located between Venice and the Lido, Poveglia was first recorded as having been inhabited in 421, when the people of Padua fled barbarian invasions following the collapse of the Roman Empire.
When, in 1379 Venice came under attack from the Genoan fleet, its population was moved to another island in the Venetian Lagoon to protect them from harm. The island remained uninhabited in the subsequent centuries; in 1527 the doge offered the island to Camaldolese monks, who refused his offer. In 1776, the island came under the jurisdiction of the Public Health Office, and became a checkpoint for all goods and people coming into Venice by ship.
In 1793, there were several instances of the plague on ships, and thereafter the island was transformed into a temporary quarantine station for those suffering from various diseases. After its role as holding pen for travellers wishing to enter Venice ceased in 1814, its buildings were converted for use as an asylum for the mentally ill. The hospital closed in 1968, and the island has been abandoned ever since. Due to its past, the island is often featured on paranormal television shows and its said to be one of the most haunted islands on earth.
Founded in 42BC by the Romans, Concordia Sagittaria was a strategic outpost at the crossroads of the Via Annia and Via Postumia. The early settlement served as a centre for veterans of the Roman Army and, together with the crossroads of the Via Annia and Via Postumia and the River Lèmene, Concordia Sagittaria was one of the most active centres of commerce in the Empire.
Tasked with the job of repelling barbarian invasions during the final years of the Roman Empire, the city became a centre for the production of arrows, however it was unfortunately unable to withstand the onslaught by Attila the Hun and was destroyed in 452 AD. Today Concordia Sagittaria lays claim to its past by numerous important Roman vestiges, including thermal baths and an amphitheatre. The city also boasts the 15th century cathedral of Santo Stefano. Archeological finds and research, and has recently become an important artistic centre that deserves a visit.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Bibione, which lies at the northern tip of the Venetian Lagoon, fell under the suzerainty of the bishops of Concordia. Over the following centuries, the islands were neglected and pinewoods spread over the whole area. Land reclamation started at the beginning of the 20th century, when drainage canals and embankments were built. When the works ended, around 1950, Bibione was left with its pine forests and its sandy beach. In the following years, the first holiday accommodation was built and Bibione became a tourist resort.
Tourists come largely from Germany and Austria, but also from Italy, Eastern European countries and other parts of Europe. The cityscape is characterised by numerous hotels, guest houses and campsites, which provide a total number of beds that is forty times higher than the number of the island’s permanent inhabitants.
The MOSE Project
In 1987, the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Venice Water Authority submitted a plan to implement a flood barrier on the Venetian Lagoon, in order to safeguard both the city and the lagoon against dangerous flooding. The project, named MOSE (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, or “Experimental Electromechanical Module”) consists of an integrated system of mobiles gates installed at the Lido, Malamocco and Chioggia inlets that alble to isolate the Venetian Lagoon temporarily from the Adriatic Sea during high tides and, together with other measures including coastal reinforcement and the raising of quays, MOSE is designed to protect Venice and the lagoon from tides of up to 3 metres.
Construction was authorised in 2003, and although initially thought to be completed by 2011 multiple delays, cost overruns and scandals have pushed its operational target to 2025. On October 3rd 2020, MOSE was activated for the first time, in occurrence of a high tide event preventing some of the lower-lying areas of the city from being flooded.
As of 2015, the MOSE project was estimated to cost 5.496 billion, up 1.3 billion from the initial cost projections a decade earlier. In January 2019, the last of the 78 gates was installed and by November of the same year the project was 94% completed.
The project has been faced with much resistance during its construction, especially from environmental and conservation groups who made several negative comments about the scheme. Politicians have also been wary of the plan, which are said to be much higher than those for alternative systems employed by the Netherlands and England to resolve similar flooding problems. In addition, according to the project’s opponents, the monolithic integrated system is not “gradual, experimental and reversible”, as required by the Special Law for the Safeguarding of Venice. In all, nine appeals have been presented, eight of which have been rejected by the regional administrative court and the Council of State. The ninth, currently under evaluation by the Administrative Tribunal, was presented by the Venice Local Authority and contests the favourable opinion of the Safeguard Venice Commission on the commencement of work at the Pellestrina site in the Malamocco inlet. Here, part of the MOSE gate housing caissons will be made using processes which, according to the local authority, could damage a site of special natural interest.
MOSE is flexible and can be operated in different ways according to the characteristics and height of the tide. Given that the gates are independent and can be operated separately, all three inlets can be closed in the case of an exceptional event, the inlets can be closed one at a time according to the winds, atmospheric pressure and height of tide forecast, or again, each inlet can be partially closed.
A parallel project, Baby MOSE, is the flood defence system protecting Chioggia from the most frequently occurring high tides, up to a maximum of 130cm. Completed in the summer of 2012, it consists of two moveable sluices located at the ends of the Vena Canal, and which can be raised in just a few minutes, hereby protecting the centre of Chioggia from extreme flooding events.
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