Venetian lagoon

Photographer: Edwin Smith, 1961
Copyright: Edwin Smith / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Venice is made of a great number of tiny islands, separated and interconnected by narrow canals. Originally these islands, set in a marshy, desolate region, formed separate clusters but later more and more areas of land were drained and the result was a more compact network of land and water crossed by a major waterway, the Grand Canal.

With the exception of a few larger and firmer islets, the area’s subsoil was unstable and subject to the movements of the tides. Buildings were essentially designed to ‘float’ on large timber platforms over the upper layer of soft clay. These platforms were, in the case of larger structures, supported by foundation piles sunk into a layer of firmer clay. Both platforms and piles remained constantly wet and were therefore extremely resistant to decay. A course of Istrian stone blocks was employed in the foundation walls to prevent rising damp.

The difficult nature of the terrain determined the structural choices available to Venetian builders and stone masons and therefore influenced the forms of Venetian architecture.

The lagoon was on the whole fairly shallow but traversed by deeper navigable channels whose course was only known to its inhabitants. The city was therefore well protected from its enemies and the resulting sense of security also had a major impact on the development of the city’s architecture, especially on the composition of its façades.

The Venetians responded to the challenging physical conditions of their site with great inventiveness. Their solutions to the technical problems they had to confront also led to remarkable artistic results.


Building materials

Corte Seconda del Milion

Brickwork of Corte Seconda del Milion

Floors & roofs

Santi Giovanni e Paolo

Vaulting in Santi Giovanni e Paolo


Ca' d' Oro

Facade of the Ca' d' Oro


San Barnaba

Bell tower of San Barnaba


Palazzo Centani

Well-head in Palazzo Centani

Shortage of land


High density housing