Why you get lost in Venice: a praise to wanderings

Dec 6, 2019architecture, art, churches, history0 comments

 

When even technology cannot help find your way in Venice

Venice is a city where you will get lost. It happens (rarely, of course) to residents, too. Even technology gives up. Your GPS signal may lose you or be imprecise and refer to the “calle” next to the one you are crossing that very moment. Also Internet maps are not always working well: you digit the address and the exact civic number and they easily point you in the wrong direction.
It will happen that you want to get back to a place you’ve been and you will wander, in circles, but will not find it again. And then you ask, “Excuse me, which way to…?”. Venetians will look at you wondering, if they should tell you the plain truth. Oh no, they all end up saying: “Go straight, sir.” Well, it’s never straight.

Streets’ corners in Cannaregio, Venice

Streets’ corners in Cannaregio, Venice

Is there a reason why Venice was built this way?

So are Venetians cruel or what? Why did they build a city where you get lost? Partially it’s because of the marshland where a lot of the islands composing Venice were built on. A network of meandering canals running around deposits of silt forming naturally could only partially be adjusted. The reclamation of the land followed its rules, but, due to the peculiar nature of the lagoon marshes, it could not result into a perfect grid.

Also, Venice was not a small town that became bigger. Instead, there were several settlements which, while growing, eventually merged together. So bridges were built later on and are often crooked to help streets connect whenever streets on different islands didn’t meet up. In Venice, therefore, you will see the idea of a multi-centred city. And you cannot see where you go.

The bridge at the Miracles, Cannaregio, Venice

The bridge at the Miracles, Cannaregio, Venice

But there are different reasons why you get lost, too. Let’s consider for instance that place where the Strada Nuova and Campo Santi Apostoli meet. It is indeed a space where frustration and sense of being lost seize many visitors.

The Strada Nuova

Venetians call it “Strada Nuova”, even if officially only a part of this street is named that way. It connects the train station of Venice to the area near Rialto. Or rather, to a square, called Campo Santi Apostoli. Many canals were filled in so everyone could walk along a relatively straight and wide street and reach the centre of the town. The project was started once the Santa Lucia train station in Venice was built in the middle of the 1800s. It looks easy!

The Strada Nuova, completed in 1872, Venice

The Strada Nuova, completed in 1872, Venice

However, the Strada Nuova gets abruptly interrupted in Campo Santi Apostoli. And then the eyes of the ones who, coming from the train station, have been window-shopping for around half an hour, suddenly desperately look for a direction sign. Help! Where is St Mark’s Square? Where is the Rialto bridge?

The Strada Nuova had given them the illusion that it’s easy to orienteer yourself in Venice. No way. The Campo Santi Apostoli appears as a cul-de-sac, giving no hint to detect the way to the best-known highlights of Venice. Let’s look at it.

Campo Santi Apostoli, a bizarre and fascinating “mishmash”

The Campo in Canaletto’s work appears in all its beauty.

“Campo Santi Apostoli” by Giovanni Antonio Canal, Canaletto, private collection, Milan

“Campo Santi Apostoli” by Giovanni Antonio Canal, Canaletto, private collection, Milan

You can see the side of the Church of Santi Apostoli, likely founded in the 11th century. There, for a long time, the body of Caterina Cornaro, the Queen of Cyprus, rested in the family chapel after her death in 1510 till her remains were transferred to the church of San Salvador.

The bell tower stands with its peculiar dial, featuring Arabic numbers. With a special permission you can enter and climb its steep stairs. Up there, brave visitors can enjoy a spectacular view of the city from above.

The bell tower and its beautiful dial of the church of Santi Apostoli, Venice

The bell tower and its beautiful dial of the church of Santi Apostoli, Venice

To the right you can then admire the Scuola dell’Angelo Custode, an ancient devotional brotherhood designed by Andrea Tirali in 1713 and dedicated to the Guardian Angel. Since 1813 the beautiful building has served as the Church for the Evangelic Community, the most ancient Lutheran community in Italy. Go in, if it’s open. You will pleasantly be surprised by the art works and the fascinating history of the Protestants in Venice.

The main façade of the Scuola Angelo Custode, now the seat of the Lutheran Evangelic Church, Campo Santi Apostoli, Venice

The main façade of the Scuola Angelo Custode, now the seat of the Lutheran Evangelic Church, Campo Santi Apostoli, Venice

On the other side of the campo, finally, you can see the house of the Doge Marin Faliero, who was decapitated for treason against the State in 1355.

The house of Doge Marin Faliero, Campo Santi Apostoli, Venice

The house of Doge Marin Faliero, Campo Santi Apostoli, Venice

So why do you get lost in Campo Santi Apostoli? Basically because coming from the train station you have experienced Venice as the city was planned in the 1800s and then you suddenly switch to an earlier historical time, when boulevards and avenues were not the typical Venetian streets. The Grand Canal was.

Getting crammed into busy Venetian alleyways

Recently however, Campo Santi Apostoli and the street towards Rialto have become a privileged observation point to see a different phenomenon. The number of people reaching Venice by train for a one-day long trip is increasing. What happens in the campo is that, excuse my expression, sheep-like tourists end up following each other along the shopping street towards Rialto. That street becomes a funnel with a claustrophobic effect, augmented by the presence of cheap, junk food stores attracting (or annoying) any passer-by. Sounds you ended up in the wrong street, correct?

So, there are different reasons why you get lost in Venice and different ways to be lost in the city. Which one will you choose? My advice is to let yourself drown in aimless wandering, take your time and, no matter how contradictory it may sound, plan your visit ahead. No rush, but a thoughtful approach. It’s the drama and beauty of Venice.

Luisella Romeo
Best Venice Guides
www.seevenice.it

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