The city of Venice / benefiting from divine Providence / was founded in water / surrounded by water / with water for walls. / Thus, whoever might dare / in whatever way / to bring injury to these waters / must be judged enemy of his country / and receive a punishment not less / than that meted out to one who violates his country’s walls. This law has been reckoned eternal.
Inscription of the Magistrato alle Acque in the Palazzo Ducale by Battista Egnazio (1478-1553)
You know how great your walls were, / Venice, now you see their condition; / For if you don’t look to their upkeep, / You will find yourself alone and without walls.
Cristoforo Sabbadino (1549)
What is a wall?
The question takes on a kind of life of its own in the history of Venice: at times a thing with the thickness of the lagoon itself, at times with the thinness of its border, a labyrinth, a chalk boulder or a row of Tamarix gallica, a church.
Sabbadino saw the walls of Venice as “the flesh, bones, and nerves” of the lagoon, which was a body; the salt water was the food, the shores were the head, and Chioggia the liver. It was a body with insides and outsides, but to trace the boundaries in his description is to wind up with something like tetsuo machine man.
A much clearer picture of the wall came from Alvise Cornaro, a rival of Sabbadino’s, known for his love of infilling the lagoon to create agricultural land. In 1566 Cornaro drew up a plan which proposed to build a massive wall 400 paces from the outer limits of the city of Venice that could withstand the storms and tides of the lagoon. Cornaro’s plan is the first to move from Egnazio’s foundation myth of a Venice “with water for walls,” to a Venice besieged by water itself. It would not be until the late 18th century however, with the completion of the Murazzi, and 21st century with the completion of the MOSE barrier, that Cornaro’s fortifications would be realized in any form.
Walls and the many lives they lead in Venice are of course revealing of both what they shelter and what they exclude. In this sense they are always a strategies of enclosure, and disclosures of strategy. The following drawings attempt to sort of pick up the crumbs of this dialectic by tracing them chronologically through a comparison of two iconic sites: the Palazzo San Marco and the storm surge fortifications at Lido.
Until the 11th century the Palazzo San Marco was a dirt patch in front of a private monastery where the monks tended a small orchard. Beginning in the 6th century, the shores of Lido were fortified with plantings of Tamarix gallica and the placement of large chalk boulders on the Adriatic side of the dunes.
In the words of Ed Ford: “St. Marks is really a collage of all the loot of the Venetian empire.” By 1266 the body of St. Mark has been successfully looted from Constantinople, along with other precious artifacts that become part of the urban space of the plaza. This urban space is now taking on a definite shape, and tending towards complete enclosure. The Palazzo is also paved with bricks in a herring-bone pattern. At Lido, willow baskets filled with rock begin to stake themselves into the shore-line.
In the 18th century Canaletto begins painting the plaza obsessively, and his images are strangely familiar. Bourgeois tourists stand around in a space which in 1804 becomes completely enclosed except for the view onto the lagoon from the piazetta. At Lido Zendrini has completed the stone fortification known as the ‘Murazzi,’ and Venice finally has some walls worthy of Cornaro.