Travels for Engineers to Venice
By David H. Allen
I confess that the first two times I visited Venice (in the 1970’s), I was underwhelmed. In truth, I have found this sentiment to be shared by many of the Americans I know who have visited Venice. Fortunately for me, I persisted, and having now visited Venice more than a dozen times, I have come around to the realization that there is no other place like it on Earth (so far as I am aware!).
What is it that makes Venice so unique? For the engineer in me, I am simply bowled over by the ingenuity that people utilized, not to mention the lengths they would go to, to simply survive during the Middle Ages. To clarify, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD, the part of Italy that was in the most danger from outsiders was the Po Valley, where the only alluvial plain of significance in Italy offered no means of defense from attack. Thus, the indigenous people needed to find a safe haven (especially those in Padova), and the low-lying salt flats within the Venetian Estuary offered not only protection from invasion, but also ready access to shipping – the most attractive means of sustaining commerce in that period of time. Thus arose the greatest island city in history, and eventually it became the richest city on Earth (in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries). When Columbus discovered the way westward to the East in the late fifteenth century, Venice’s monopoly on goods from the East began to fade, but Venice remained a powerful city-state right up to the dawn of the nineteenth century (when Napoleon conquered Venice).
The denouement of this synopsis is that, now that Venice has declined, it has remained more-or-less identical to the jewel that it was five hundred years ago. Thus, when you visit Venice, you are traveling to the Disney World of the fifteenth century, and believe me when I say this – you will be absolutely incredulous at the wealth these people possessed so long ago.
Historic Sites for Engineers
Venice is located at the north end of the Adriatic Sea, not far to the East of its parent city, Padova. There are quite a few must-sees in Venice today, and here I list a few: the Piazza San Marco; the Basilica of San Marco; the MOSE Project; the Rialto Bridge, the L’Accademia Bridge; the vaporetti; the outlying islands; Arsenal; the Campanile; the Palazzo des Dogi; the walkway by the sea; the Grand Canal; and La Fenice.
The Piazza San Marco
As I mentioned above, the islands within the Venetian estuary were inhabited after the fall of the Roman Empire in the late fifth century AD, and by the late ninth century they had established themselves as a great seafaring empire within the Mediterranean Sea. At the epicenter of this empire was the Piazza San Marco (Fig. 1), named after the evangelist Saint who was martyred in the first century in Egypt. Indeed, legend tells us that the Venetians stole the body of San Marco and carried it off to Venice in 838 AD, whereupon his remains were ensconced within the fabulous Basilica of San Marco, located at the Eastern end of the piazza. Thus, this square came to symbolize the omnipotent power of the Venetian Empire, and that power continued to flourish right up to the end of the eighteenth century. Thus, to stand within the Piazza San Marco is to stand not only at the pinnacle of one of the greatest (and wealthiest) empires in history but also a vaunted monument to Christianity.
Within the piazza, make sure to take note of the famous clock tower (Fig. 2) and the Campanile (Fig. 3). And don’t miss the four bronze horses atop the Basilica of San Marco (Fig. 4, they are copies – the originals are inside). Finally, adjacent to the San Marco is the Palazzo dei Dogi, the palace of the leader of the Venetian Empire.
The Basilica of San Marco
Nowadays, the basilica is showing its age, at least in part due to the repeated flooding that has encroached ever more persistently over the preceding centuries. Still, this is one of the truly great cathedrals on Earth. Not only is it one of the oldest, it is blessed with five domes constructed in the Byzantine style, making it a model of the architecture that dominated the Eastern Roman Empire in the Middle Ages.
And there is a little-known treat waiting within – the museum located within the mezzanine on the second floor of the basilica. Most tourists miss this museum, but the interested traveler will find a wealth of important artifacts, assuming you can figure out how to get there!
The MOSE Project
The MOSE (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, which means Experimental Electromechanical Module) Project, now finally completed after multiple enormous cost overruns, not to mention taking more than twice the span of time originally planned to complete the project, will hopefully keep the Adriatic Sea at bay for at least a century. This massive ocean engineering project, rivalled nowhere else on Earth (with the possible exception of the Netherlands), promises to be a model for future coastal projects as global warming causes flooding in twenty-four of the world’s twenty-eight largest cities. My study abroad group was fortunate to be the first U.S. group of students to tour the site in 2019. With luck, this twenty-first century marvel will be open for public tours in the not-too-distant future. Until then you will have to content yourself with viewing it from the Venice to Punta Sabbioni vaporetto.
The Rialto Bridge
Venice is actually a series of small islands that are connected by literally hundreds of bridges. That is, with the exception of the Grand Canal, which divides Venice in half. The Grand Canal is so large that there are only four bridges across it. The Venetians commissioned the construction of the most famous one, the Rialto, in the twelfth century, and although it has been rebuilt several times since then, it is a monument to what at the time was the richest city on Earth. The engineer in me is simply awe-struck by this slender and ingeniously constructed bridge that literally changed the traffic flow within Venice on its completion.
The Palazzo dei Dogi
The Palazzo dei Dogi (Fig. 5) is today a museum, but during the height of the Venetian Empire it was the palace of the Doge (the de facto emperor), as well as the center of Venetian commerce, and it is well worth a visit if for no other reason than to observe the opulence within. As for me, I am taken with the massive government hall located on the second floor, where Galileo first demonstrated is telescope for the Doge in the Fall of 1609. You may also be interested in the famous Bridge of Sighs, which connected the palace to the Venetian prison.
The Campanile announced the time of day across Venice for hundreds of years before the invention of the pendulum clock in the seventeenth century (by Christian Huygens, with a footnote to Galileo). Furthermore, the Campanile was the location wherein Galileo demonstrated to the Doge the importance of his telescope (Fig. 6). Thus, a trip to the top is a must for any self-respecting techno-geek, and fortunately, there is an elevator today.
However, I should caution – there can be very long lines, so that this is one of those times when purchasing an online skip-the-line ticket is well worth the investment. And upon arriving at the pinnacle, you will be treated to the penultimate view in all of Venice, one that emphatically demonstrates the island nature of Venice (Fig. 7). One final point about the Campanile – it collapsed in 1903, but fortunately, a crack formed overnight and propagated upwards somewhat slowly, so that the area was evacuated before the collapse occurred and no one was injured. The Campanile was subsequently rebuilt precisely reproducing the original bell tower.
Except for the Piazzale Roma, automobiles are not permitted in the Venetian Archipelago. Thus, there are only two modes of travel – on foot, and on water. Waterborne travel is normally accomplished via (non-motorized) gondolas or vaporetti (motorized waterbuses). In earlier times gondolas were used for transportation purposes, but nowadays they are employed primarily for the purpose of extracting outrageous sums of money from tourists. By contrast, most water transport is via the vaporetti, which is essentially the Venetian version of a public bus line. There is an enormous and intricate system continuously transporting people and goods anywhere and everywhere across the archipelago. It may seem daunting at first, but if you spend more than a day or two in Venice, you will find it to be convenient and cost-effective. You will also find yourself marveling at the Venetians citizens onboard.
The Outlying Islands
As I mentioned above, the Venetian Estuary (Fig. 8) is an archipelago, with quite a few islands enclosed within the barrier islands that somewhat protect the islands within from encroachment by the Adriatic Sea. Unfortunately, the barrier islands cannot control the tides because there are three large openings to the estuary (which is quite enormous). Thus, the MOSE Project was created to seal off these three entrances during the extremely high tides that occur each year in November and December, an interesting engineering phenomenon in its own right.
Within the Estuary there are a number of significant islands aside from Venice proper. These include Murano, Burano and Lido, all of which I have visited, as well as several others. All can be reached by inexpensive vaporetti, and my favorite of these is Burano, which is well worth a visit.
The Grand Canal
Perhaps the heart of Venice is the Grand Canal, a wide expanse of water that, like a broad river, splits Venice down the middle. There are four bridges spanning the Grand Canal – the Rialto, L’Accademia, Degli Scalzi, and Della Costituzione, all of which are strictly pedestrian bridges. The latter two are near the entrance to Venice (either by car via the Piazzale Roma or by train via Venezia Sant Lucia train station). The former two span the central portion of the city and each year during Mardi Gras celebrations along the Grand Canal hosts waterborne parades that are like nothing else on Earth, so start planning now for your once-in-a-lifetime trip to Venice during February. Oh, and if you find yourself at the edge of the Grand Canal and in need of crossing (with no bridge in site), you can try to get a gondola ride across, but expect it to be quite expensive!
It will take you at least three days to see all of the above important sites, and depending on your organizational skills and the crowds during your visit, it could take twice that long. Venice is extremely crowded, so much so that in recent years the number of tourists in Venice on any given day outnumbers the inhabitants two-to-one. This problem has by now become so pervasive that civic measures have been introduced to limit daily visitors to the islands (especially those arriving on cruise ships).
I have visited Venice every season of the year (and I love it equally in every season), and it is ALWAYS crowded! Finally, I should mention how to get around in Venice. There is only one way – on foot. And frankly, this is my absolute favorite thing to do in Venice – just walk – because you simply cannot get lost. Keep walking in any direction whatsoever, and sooner or later you will come to water! So follow the yellow signs that dot the city, and just have fun!
In future blogs I will give more detailed reviews of some of the other cities mentioned in my previous blogs. Until then, please feel free to contact me if you have questions (email@example.com).
Note: All photos included in this blog were taken by me.