Canals, bridges, campi and calli, the strange topography of Venice

White swan of cities slumbering in thy nest… White phantom city, whose untrodden streets Are rivers, and whose pavements are the shifting Shadows of the palaces and strips of sky.- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Venice doesn’t have streets and roads and not even squares and alleys. Venice consists of Calli, Campi and Campielli. The only things that are called as all Italians do, are bridges (i.e. Ponti.) Bridges in Venice are just called Ponti. But as Venice likes to stand out, there are more than 340 of them throughout the city.

However, Venice urban asset reserves many other surprises. For example, it has Fondamenta, that is, the roads (but don’t ever call them that) on each side of the canals. Then there are the Piscine, which despite being translatable into “pools” are not tanks for swimming, but roads resulting from landfill operations. And if you say Rio, in Venice, you’re not referring to a Canal. Indeed Rios are water courses (many are actual waterways) in the historical centre of Venice flowing between the “insulae” islets with houses; the Canals wend their way through the city traversed by boats and water buses, which are the main means of transport in Venice. And how can we fail to mention the Sotopòrtego, the passages between the several Calli obtained by removing portions of houses: a Sotopòrtego leads to a Corte (a square enclosed by buildings), or links Campi with Fondamenta, or flows directly into a Riva. And here is the Riva: the landing dock along the banks of Canals and Rios.

And if you think these are oddities you haven’t seen the rest. Because it’s in naming these Calli, Campi, Campielli and Bridges that the Venetians gave the best of themselves. Really far from normality indeed.

What is the difference between Rio and Canal in Venice?

For tourists who visit Venice every watercourse is a Canal. But this is not correct. Indeed, there are less than a dozen Canals in Venice, all the others are actually Rios. The real Canals are in fact only the Grand Canal, the Cannaregio Canal, the Giudecca Canal and then some streams outside the city where the track is limited by marker poles, called brìcole, or others that have been incorporated in the course of landfill interventions over time. Canals are all navigable, whereas Rios are not necessarily always so. The Grand Canal flows through the city splitting it in two parts, and flows into St, Mark’s Basin; the Cannaregio Canal is a waterway connection between the Grand Canal and the northern area of the city; the Giudecca Canal separates the island of the same name by Dorsoduro district.

When referring to Rios, instead, we are talking about dozens of natural and artificial canals: the smaller ones are called Riello. How to distinguish a natural Rio from an artificial one? The latter is straight and narrow, the former has a more natural course, with a few bends too.

Tidbits: the traffic of boats and vessels moving through the canals is regulated by specific rules. Of course, watching from the banks it seems that much is left to chance, but navigation in Venice is regulated by specific signs instead, with one-ways, access restrictions, parking limits, and so on. The legislation provides that a motor boat must travel on the right side, unless they are moving along Rio Nuovo, in Dorsoduro (one of the longest in the city) in which case they must keep left. But the really curious thing is that rowing boats must always travel on the left, so to allow them to maneuver with ease, as the stern holds its oar on the right. Until a few years ago, the only traffic light in this city was installed on Rio Nuovo, or Rio Novo, now it’s turned off.

Venice Calli: Callesèlla, Salizada, Ruga and Ramo

Venice Calli are roads, streets and lanes of the city. Smaller Calli (meaning narrow) are called Callètte or Callesèlle, while larger ones (meaning wide) are correctly referred to as Calli Larghe. The width of Venice’s Calli varies from just over 50 cm to 5-6 meters. The narrowest Calle in Venice is Calletta Varisco: it’s just 53 cm wide and overlooks Campiello del Pestrin. “Prestins” were old private mills moved by cows: Prestins were therefore also milkmen. A few centimeters wider are Calle Stretta (65 cm wide) and Calle Ca’ Zusto (68 cm), both in the Santa Croce district.

There are about 3 000 Calli in Venice. The main ones are also called Salizada: these were the first to be paved in gray cobblestones, as was the case, later after, for all the streets of the city. Wider Calli, where trade proliferates, are called Ruga: the best known include Ruga Giuffa in the Castello district and Ruga Rialto in San Polo’s market area. blind Calli, used only by residents to reach their homes, are called Ramo.

The most famous Calle in Venice is Mercerie, or Merzierie, which connects St. Mark’s Square to the Rialto Bridge in a 10-minutes’ walk. Along the Mercerie are shops, boutiques and souvenir stalls.

Tidbits: the names given to the several Calli often originate from facts related to the life of the city. Some are dedicated to famous people, some others take their name from a nearby church or convent, while others have names deriving from crafts practiced in the area: indeed, it was very common in the past that several workshops of the same kind were concentrated in specific areas. Finally, some Calli boast very popular origins and are simply called by a person who lived or worked in the area. So for example, Callesella della Fruttarola in San Polo is so-called because there was a greengrocer there.

Venice Campi and Campielli, Small and Big Squares in the City

At one time, almost all of Italy’s squares were called Campi. Nowadays, only a few of them have endured out of Venice (Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, Piazza del Campo in Siena), all the others have had their names changed in piazza. Conversely, Venice has no squares (piazzas) – except for Piazza San Marco – but there are lots of Campi, which become Campielli when are small in size.

They are called Campi (that is “fields”) because they were green spaces often cultivated or used to graze cattle in the past. An intense social and commercial activity usually flourished around these fields at that time, even because Campi had a well at their center with the traditional vera, the brick structure on which a pulley was applied to lower the buckets. When wells were closed following the construction of the aqueduct, and when government prohibited the organization of events, ceremonies, games, tournaments, etc. on the fields (as they frightened aggregations of people,) the social function of Campi gradually disappeared.

The most famous and large Campi in the city include: Campo San Polo, the largest Campo in Venice, located in the homonymous Sestiere; Campo Santa Margherita where the Scuola Grande dei Carmini is located; and Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo, with the Scuola Grande di San Marco and the massive Zanipòlo church (this is how Venetians call the Church of San Giovanni e Paolo.) Other important squares (never call them that in public!) in Venice are Campo San Bartolomeo near the Rialto Bridge and Fondaco dei Tedeschi, and Campo San Trovaso in Dorsoduro, near the squero (“shipyard”) of the same name, one of the few workshops/shipyard still constructing Gondolas. Finally, Campo della Salute near Punta della Dogana, which becomes very popular on November 21, due to the procession held during the Festa della Salute.

Tidbits: the Sestiere with the highest number of Campi is San Polo, they are 11 in total. Then there’s Cannaregio with 9, Castello with 2; all the other Sestieri – Dorsoduro, San Marco and Santa Croce – have just one Campo each.

Venice Bridges

There are some 340 bridges in Venice, including those on the large islands. But if you think that the most famous are the Rialto Bridge or the Bridge of Sighs, you are wrong. Kids on a school trip to Venice find Ponte delle Tette in Santa Croce very amusing for example, as the name literally means “Bridge of Tits.” The bridge is located in an area called Carampane, the old red-light district of Venice. Legend has it that the women in the brothels overlooking the bridge tried to lure men showing them their bare breasts, hence the name of the bridge found in the place-names. However, each of the 340 bridges in Venice have their own story to tell.

Venice Bridges: the Most Original

Ponte dei Pugni (Bridge of Fists) in Dorsoduro is the place where the inhabitants of the two villages separated by Rio San Barnaba used to come to blows. Bridge of Beretèri is so-called because in this area there were lots of hats workshops. Ponte Saponella, in Cannaregio, owes its name to the Saponello Family who lived in the area. Ponte Storto, i.e. Crooked Bridge, in the district of San Marco, is not an unsafe or sloppy overpass, but simply a bridge that crosses Rio della Verona at an angle. The name of Ponte della Donna Onesta (“Bridge of the honest lady”) in Dorsoduro, has a rather unknown origin instead. Some say that Onesta was the name of a lady who lived in the area, others refer to a poor violated woman who killed herself after having been dishonored, or to a prostitute who liked to be called “Onesta” just to mock the police.

Venice Bridges: the Most Famous

The list of Venice’s most important bridges certainly includes those that cross the Grand Canal. They are only four, of which three are quite recent: Ponte degli Scalzi between Santa Croce and Cannaregio districts (also called Bridge of the Station) dating back to 1934; Ponte dell’Accademia, between San Marco and Dorsoduro districts is a wooden bridge that was built in 1933 and since then it’s waiting to be transformed into a stone bridge; and the last born: Ponte della Costituzione, a modern work by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, which has been opened in 2008 to join the Cannaregio district to the Tronchetto area.

The fourth bridge over the Grand Canal is the beautiful Rialto Bridge between San Marco and San Polo. The first Rialto Bridge dates back to 1175, but after several renovations and collapses the current version is the one built in 1591. An interesting detail of the Rialto Bridge is on the balustrade. This is very smooth because millions of hands have smoothed it over the centuries, but at the same time it’s particularly resistant to weathering. This is because it is made from a material that in addition to being bright white is also very durable, the Istrian stone, a dense type of impermeable limestones.

But perhaps the most moving bridge in Venice is the Bridge of Sighs. It is located near St. Mark’s Square and links the Doge’s Palace to the New Prisons. On that bridge that crosses Rio di Palazzo, thousands of prosecuted and convicted during the Serenissima era, dragged their chains sad and heartbroken: from the windows of the bridge the poor prisoners looked the sky and the water, for their last time, sighing.

Last but not least, perhaps the most important bridge in Venice – which links the city to the mainland – is Ponte della Libertà (Liberty Bridge.) This is a 3800 meters road and rail bridge dating back to 1846. At the time it was used only as a railway, but since 1933 it is also a pedestrian way and a road (also used as a cycle path.) By crossing this bridge, cars driving from Mestre get to the large car parks in Piazzale Roma and Tronchetto. Trains arrive at Venice Santa Lucia train station.

Tidbits: there are 88 bridges in the Castello district, 75 in Cannaregio, 67 in Dorsoduro, 44 in the central San Marco District, 42 in Santa Croce and 16 San Polo. On the Giudecca Island the bridges over the canals are ‘only’ 12.

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