VENETIAN GOTHIC ARCHITECTURE
Through trial and error, the Venetians learnt to transform the barren lands of the lagoon into a dynamic hub. Their biggest challenge was subsidence, or the tendency for the muddy sticky surface to shift and sink deeper. Up until today, evidence of the problem can be seen in bell towers visibly leaning to one side. They lean because the bed beneath them varies in rigidness, so different sides of the same building sink at different rates. But every possibility has been explored to save the architectural miracles of Venice from collapsing and disappearing. Venetian architecture became a bold statement in the quest to raise the profile of the booming island, with captivating churches, palatial houses and bell towers rising to face the canal front. The Venetians grew wealthy from trade, as their economy changed from one depending on fishing and salt, to one with ties as far as Alexandria, Damascus and Constantinople. So much was the pulse of commerce, they built their palatial homes with the dual purpose of working and living. Their boats loaded with imported merchandise, docked near the canal palaces and off-loaded incalculable treasures of silk, spices, carpets, ceramics, pearls and crystals.
The ground floors of Venetian houses are thus warehouses and shop fronts, while the living quarters are located upstairs. Large span Venetian windows with small balconies and round Gothic arches, open onto the canals. Inside, the courtyards are adorned with intricate mosaics which put together form a rich portrait of Venetian Gothic. Luckily, these grand houses survived the battering of time because on their travels the merchants of Venice discovered a rare and priceless commodity. It was marble, which Venetian engineers used as a waterproofing material to seal the brickwork of foundations from dampness. And while the rest of Europe in the Middle Ages was still building medieval fortified castles, Venetian palaces became a colourful canvas representing the unprecedented wealth and culture of the societies the Italian businessmen encountered on their travels. The façade of these buildings became Venice’s emblem of economic prosperity, and how deeply engrossed they were in relation with the east. It captured the pride and confidence of Venice, which the Venetians were happy to showcase.
Equally, the exterior of St Mark’s Basilica is a showcase of Venetian craftsmanship. It is an exhibition of the treasures brought back from the east. In 1075, the doge announced that the duty of every Venetian ship was to bring back a memento from its voyages overseas to adorn the façade of the basilica. Hence, the most memorable feature of St Marks is its unusual onion domes, which connects back to the prevailing domes of Cairo. Built as the doge’s private chapel, the main axis of the building is in the form of a Greek cross supporting its five iconic domes. The interior is a superb space, with over 8,000 square metres of the finest Venetian mosaics. The altar piece is the famous Pala d’Oro, a masterpiece of Byzantine and Venetian craftsmanship, re-encrusted with jewels brought back from Constantinople. The campanile tower erected at the Basilica of San Pietro Castello, depicts the backdrop of Alexandria’s most famous Pharos lighthouse. Hence, Piazza San Marco is an urban miracle, built at the height of the trade breakdown between Venice and Constantinople, and was completed when Venice was on the verge of a financial meltdown.
[Painter: Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto, (Venetian, 1697-1768)]