Jacopo D’Antonio Sansovino said that “some argue that the word Venice could come from Veni Etiam, meaning return again, and again, because no matter how many times you visit, you’ll always see new things and new beauties”.
For this architect, Venetian by adoption, the city was a crowded and beautiful canvas with white margins, inviting the courageous to complete the work. It was an imperfect place perfectly built on the most imperfect land.
Venice is situated in the middle of a lagoon, surrounded by coastal ridges that act as a natural barrier against the sea, while the waters of the Adriatic flow into the lagoon through openings along the coast. On the surface, there lies a multitude of small islands, 400 bridges and 177 canals with not one centimetre of land wasted.
The bottom of the lagoon is pure mud. It goes without saying that mud is not an architect’s dream foundation. Dig down, and you will find no rock substrate. Only mud. But Venice has more than managed. Giants with clay feet.
In the 5th century AD, the Venetians were forced to flee from the mainland and they settled on the lagoon’s numerous islands. Looking to reclaim land from the sea, they called upon their ingenuity and tenacity to enable them to build on firm foundations. And wood was the answer.
A certain 17th century book explains in detail the procedure involved in constructing Venetian buildings. To begin with, a large amount of wood from the forests of the north, Slovenia, Montenegro and Croatia had to be brought to Venice by sea. The trunks were cleaned and driven up to 7.5 metres into the sandy subsoil, with the aid of large mallets. A substrate (mainly consisting of wood, oak, pine and birch, and later on, large pieces of stone) was laid over these stakes. Finally, the buildings were constructed on the resulting platforms. According to this book, the Church of Santa Maria della Salute stands on the far from negligible number of 1,106,657 tree trunks.
The use of wood underwater may be surprising, but the secret to the longevity of this material in Venice consists, precisely, in the very fact that it is completely submerged. Not being in contact with oxygen, microorganisms that affect wood, such as bacteria and fungi, cannot survive. In addition, the constant flow of saltwater around this material petrifies it, turning it into a very durable hardened structure. When the Bell Tower of San Marco square collapsed in 1902, many of the tightly-packed logs in its foundations were found to be undamaged after more than 1000 years of doing their job.
It is said that under the water of Venice lies the densest forest in Italy: a secret and fascinating grandeur. Tenacity, ingenuity, perseverance and an invisible monumentality that is even greater than the monuments that we can see.