Today we took a day trip to the island city of Venice. Venice is about an hour train rain ride west of Verona, and as you travel to the city by train you pass over a bridge that was built as recently as the 1800s. Before the train system was put into place when Italy was united as one, the island city-state was only reachable by boat. Venice is famous for its canals. There are 200 canals, separating 120 tiny islands, and 456 bridges connecting the islands together. The Grand Canal separates the mainland city from the rest of the tiny islands, and flows through the city into St. Mark’s Bay. These tiny islands were not ideal for building right away. They needed to be fortified with bricks of a special mixture without any oxygen bubbles in them. After the fortification of the islands, taller buildings could be constructed on top. Because of the canals, these buildings were built with the doors right on the water. Most of these are no longer used today, but for some of the palaces built (now hotels), they still use the water doors. Many of the residents of Venice have left the islands for the mainland because they no longer wanted to deal with the harder lifestyle of the islands. For example, there are very few markets to buy food. Another obvious reason for leaving is the constant possibility of floods in a city where many of the streets are made of water.
The unique geographical setting of Venice offers many different ways of life compared to the U.S. and the rest of Italy. Firstly, movement throughout the area is very different. In the times of the city-states of Italy, there was only one way to get to Venice: by boat. This made it very difficult to maneuver throughout the surrounding areas. This meant that Venice relied on the many merchants that lived on the islands to leave by boat and come back with goods for the residents to use. As I mentioned before, the train bridge was only constructed in the 1800s, and it was later modified to allow cars and buses to pass over as well. It is safe to say the Venetians didn’t leave for leisure that often in the olden days. Another thing that was different due to the geography was the lifestyle. As I mentioned, many people have since left the residential areas because of the difficult lifestyle. One of the most difficult aspects of the lifestyle in the past (it has been fixed as of now) was the lack of fresh drinking water. The canals were salty and not safe to drink. Because of this, the Venetians developed a working well system. They collected rain water, it ran and collected in cisterns under the city. The water then flowed through sand that acted as a kind of filter for the rain water. The water then came up fresh and safe to drink. The only problems arose when there was no rain, which then forced the residents to go to the mainland in order to buy water to drink.
The major thing that was affected by the Venetian geography was trade. As I said earlier, the Venetian people were a large collection of merchants and tradesmen. One thing they specialized in was making boats so they could connect with the outside world. Being right on the ocean, the Venetian people had the opportunity to be exposed to a wide variety of culture from other parts of the world. For example, the Basilica of San Marco (Saint Mark), which serves as a tomb for Saint Mark the Evangelist, is a very oriental building. The design is heavily Byzantine in origin, with very high domes and decorative pillars. During the days of these merchants, they introduced the ancestor of credit cards. Merchants would receive these letters of credit from their banks (they didn’t like to travel with a large amount of gold with them because of the many pirates). They then would exchange these letters at the same banks in the foreign places for cash. This was the first real version of what we use so heavily today. These merchants and workmen formed many collections of “schools” or groups in Venice. These schools offered a place for training and gathering. When Venice was conquered by Napoleon, he shut down many of the schools because he was afraid of a large gathering of people and its consequences for the French rule. There are very few that still remain today, such as the Scuola di San Rocco (School of Saint Rocco). Finally, the industry of Venice has transitioned from the merchant and trade headquarters of the ancient world to a vibrant tourist destination (which has taken over the top industry of the town). Who wouldn’t want to ride on a gondola? It is a once in a lifetime opportunity, that is for sure.