Even in Italy, a nation filled with wonders from antiquity, Venice stands out as a city that defies time. Still, global travelers who make the pilgrimage to this UNESCO World Heritage city are often unaware of the mysteries, milestones and curiosities that compose the Venetian fabric. Here are seven little-known facts about Venice, starting with its nickname of the Most Serene Republic.
The Most Serene Republic title didn’t originally refer to the city itself. Tourists love the nickname. But during the era that birthed this moniker (697 to 1797 A.D.), the Venetian territory also contained Cyprus and Crete, along with the Peloponnesian Peninsula and the Dalmatian Coast in modern day Croatia. What’s more, the word “serene” didn’t mean then what it means now. Instead of meaning “tranquil,” it was an official title meaning “supreme” or “grand.”
It’s home to perhaps the narrowest street in the world. Got less than 2 feet to spare? Then you can squeeze through the Calle Varisco. According to the Italian website 2venice.it, it measures 53 centimeters wide, or just a hair under 21 inches.
The “ghetto” originated in Venice. The world’s first ghetto — a word that’s spelled the same way in Italian — was created in Venice in 1516 as an area where Jews were forced to live. This restriction was the continuation of a pattern of mistreatment: Jews had been expelled from the city in 1394 and prohibited from owning land starting in 1423.
Not every bridge is public, nor designed for humans alone. Venice has 417 bridges, 72 of which are private, 2venice reports. Many of the older bridges are smoothly sloped and have no steps, in order to allow people to cross on horseback — something that was legal until the 16th century.
No one knows for sure when Venice was founded. Though Rome’s founding can be dated with surprising precision (April 21, 753 B.C.), Venice’s moment of origin is unknown. As a result, it’s been assigned the date March 25, 421 A.D.— the day of the opening of San Giacomo di Rialto church. Though there is no evidence for it, tradition also holds that a shipwrecked St. Mark founded the city — hence the name of the city’s most famous piazza, St. Mark’s Square, and the accompanying basilica.
Some of the timber supporting Venice is more than 1,000 years old. Venicethefuture.com, an Italian website, recounts that when the St. Mark’s Square bell tower collapsed in 1902, pilings underneath from 1,000 years previous were still in perfect condition. Many of the oak, pine and larch supports elsewhere in the Venetian islands are more than 500 years old.
Venice has about 7,000 chimneys. The number comes from Veneto-explorer.com, which adds that the chimneys — from the funnel-shaped to those that resemble a twisted pasta noodle — come in 10 different styles. If you’re wondering why anyone would count them all, it’s because they’re part of Venice’s fascinating architectural heritage: The chimneys are designed to allow sparks to safely cool, rather than threatening any of Venice’s many wooden structures.
— Lou Carlozo, Brand Publishing Writer