Venice is one of Italy’s blockbuster cities, visited by over 13 million people every year. But how much do you really know about this iconic city? From the world’s oldest market to some seriously deep canals, these interesting facts about Venice might just surprise you.
7 Interesting Facts About Venice
1. Venice is mostly built on wood
Most people know that Venice is basically built on water, but have you ever wondered what the buildings actually sit on top of? Once upon a time, Venice was just marshy, muddy lagoons. Early settlers drained the land, dug up canals and lined the lagoon with wooden logs. They then topped these logs with wooden platforms, covered those with stone and built Venice’s most impressive buildings atop them. These provide the underwater foundations of the city.
2. There’s something sinister behind those masks
Those ornate Venetian masks have become a joyful symbol of the city and carnival, but their history is a little more sinister. The masks were originally introduced to conceal someone’s identity while they were committing ‘unsavoury’ activities that were frowned upon or banned by the church. That could be anything from murder to an amorous encounter to throwing perfume-filled eggs at people (seriously).
The masks date back to the 13th century but reached the height of their popularity during the 17th century. They were so popular that eventually, the authorities had to take action and passed a law that meant Venetians could only wear them for three months a year, from Christmas until Lent.
3. Venice is home to one of the world’s oldest markets
The Rialto Market dates back to 1097, which makes it nearly 1,000 years old. Early records of the city mention a bustling market in Rivoaltus – the first inhabited zone of Venice named ‘high bank’. Located in the heart of the city, the current market was re-built during the 16th century after a fire swept through and destroyed the original buildings in 1514. During the Venetian Empire, it was one of the largest and most powerful markets in the world and an important crossroads for spices, jewels and cloths from the east. Today, it’s Venice’s most famous market.
A few steps away from the market is Rialto Bridge, an equally important monument. The bridge dates back to 1591 and became the first permanent bridge in Venice. William Shakespeare mentions it in the Merchant of Venice, with Salanio enquiring: “Now, what news on the Rialto?”
4. It’s also home to one of the world’s narrowest streets
Venice is one of the world’s most romantic cities, but you won’t want to try to walk two abreast along the Calletta Varisco. Stretching just 53 cem (21 inches) wide, there’s hardly room for one person, let alone two.
It’s not hard to find notably narrow streets in Venice though, since space has always been at a premium. The Calle de l’Ocio Grosso only measures 58 cm wide, the Calle de la Raffineria measures 59 cem wide and the Calle Stretta is still only 65 cm wide.
5. Venetians invented quarantine
Quarantine might only have entered the modern lexicon in the past two years thanks to Covid-19, but the Venetians actually invented the word quarantine centuries ago. The practice began during the 14th century, as the city rose as a great superpower. Ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. This practice, called quarantine, is derived from the Italian words quaranta giorni (40 days).
6. There’s only one female Gondoliera in the whole of Venice
Historically speaking, the gondolier profession traditionally passed from father to son. After almost 1,000 years of exclusively male gondoliering, Giorgia Boscolo became Venice’s first licensed gondoliera in 2010.
Sadly, it doesn’t look like we’ll get to see many more female gondolieras either, since the trade is disappearing too. You need a professional license to become a gondolier, which requires around 400 hours of training. On top of that, only three or four licenses are granted every year.
7. Venice boasts some seriously deep canals
Most of Venice’s waterways reach 1.5 m (4.9 ft) – 2 m (6.5 ft) feep, but it’s hard to tell because of the murky waters. The Grand Canal, known locally as the Canalazzo, stretches 2.5 miles (4 km) long and averages 5 metres (16.4 ft) deep. However, some of Venice’s deeper canals, like the Canale della Giudecca, reach an astonishing 12-17 m (39–55ft) deep. Wouldn’t like to fall in there.