Everything you ever wanted to know about the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy [ IN DEPTH + 360 VIDEO]

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    Driving a boat on the Grand Canal in Venice, from Tronchetto to St Mark's Bassin

    The interactive video above has been shot from one of the most commonly owned boats by Venetians, a “topetta”, cruising the Canal Grande in Venice from Tronchetto to Saint Mark’s Bassin.

    Virtual Reality is a fantastic way to feel like you are somewhere where you’d like to be. On this website, you’ll find many immersive images of places around Venice, as well as of local businesses where you could eat, drink and shop.

    The Grand Canal of Venice is one of the most important ‘streets’ of Venice both for its function and its social importance. 

    The Venetians cross and cruise it regularly by public transportations or on their work or private boats, being to go somewhere or just for the pleasure of the ride. A Grand Canal boat ride is an emotion which doesn’t compare with anything else.

    Morphology of the Canal Grande in Venice

    The Grand Canal, or Canal Grande in Italian,  is the most important waterway of Venice. Stretching on about 3.8 km long, the “Canalasso“ as called by the Venetians, splits the city into two sides. If you look at a view from above of Venice, on a map, for example, the Grand Canal is the large reverse-S shape which passes through the central districts of Venice and divides the typical ‘fish’ shape of the historical center, in two. One end of the canal leads into the lagoon in the “sestiere”, or district, of Cannaregio while the other end leads into the world famous Saint Mark’s Basin. The width and depth of the Canal vary in the city ranging from 30 to 90 m wide, with an average depth of five meters (16.5 ft).

    First settlements and evolution of the Grand Canal

    It is thought that the Grand Canal might follow the course of an ancient river, maybe a branch of the river Brenta, flowing into the lagoon. Data show that groups from the area might have lived beside the formerly-named “Rio Businiacus” as early as before Roman age.  Under the rule of the Roman and then of the Byzantine Empire, the lagoon became populated and an important player, which in the early 9th century moved its seat from Malamocco to the safer “Rivoaltus”, under the impulsion of the doge.

    Successfully mastering the development of their assets, the Venetians of that time, were involved in a growing trade which followed the doge and found in the deep Grand Canal a safe and ship accessible canal-port. The morphology of the Canal evolved between this first settlement and our modern times. Drainages have shown that the city became more compact over time, the canal narrower. It is thought that the initial Canal Grande was wider and flowed between small, tide-subjected islands connected by wooden bridges.

    Living the Canal Grande

    The Canal Grande is also a place of great importance in Venice’s history, as it was the center of the trades of the Republic since the Middle Age. Here ships, sometimes over 400 tons, used to sail by, charged with merchandises from everywhere in the Mediterranean world.  This is why the Grand Canal was the place of birth of the “Fondachi”, buildings acting as big warehouses and inns for merchants coming from every part of the world.

    Today, the Canal Grande is one of the busiest Canals of Venice, frequented in the morning by the boats of workers bringing fruits, vegetables, and fishes to the Mercato di Rialto, or delivering merchandisers everywhere in Venice. During the entire day the Grand Canal is also buzzing with public transportations, such as the water buses, “vaporetti”, and the traghetto gondolas transporting both Venetians getting around as well as countless curious tourists.

    Indeed there are only 4 bridges crossing the Grand Canal, each built in different eras. The most recent one, inaugurated in 2008, is the “Ponte della Costituzione” (the Constitution Bridge), known also as the “Calatrava Bridge” (from the name of the Spanish Architect who drew the project). It links the Train Station Area with Piazzale Roma. Right after it, there is the “Ponte degli Scalzi (“Barefoot Bridge”) just in front of the Train Station. Proceeding towards Saint Mark’s Square we find the Rialto Bridge, certainly the most important and famous one, once made of wood. It used to be a drawbridge that allowed the crossing of the canal to sail ships when Rialto was the ancient port of the city. The last bridge we meet is the Accademia Bridge, still a temporary structure made out of wood. It is a very important link between Dorsoduro and Saint Mark’s district.

    The Grand Canal is, finally, also the place of local celebrations such as the “Regata Storica”, but also several “regate” all through the year.

    Architecture on the Canal Grande

    The Canal Grande is worldwide famous for the centuries-old palaces which stand on both sides of the water, most of which date from the 13th to the 18th centuries, at the time of the “Serenissima“ Republic. The magnificent buildings which can be seen today demonstrate the welfare and art created by the Republic of Venice, testifying this way of its grandeur and immense power. The palaces along the banks of the Canal Grande belong to different times and architectural movements. Palaces and elements from Venetian-Byzantine style, Venetian Gothic, Renaissance, Venetian Baroque or even element from Neoclassical architecture, or closer Modern era can be spotted in an eclectic mix and impressive display of architectural and artistic know-how.

    What are the buildings that can be seen on the Grand Canal?

    On the banks on the Grand Canals stand rows of never-ending buildings, different not only by their look but also their function. The buildings which can be seen are two main types: the palaces and the fonteghi (singular ‘fontego’).

    The palaces of the Grand Canal

    The palazzi (singular “palazzo”) were – and still are in some cases- the houses of families, usually the most important nobles families of the City. The spectacular beauty of the Canal Grande is due to one amusing fact: the competition between the palaces owners. Everybody wanted to have the most beautiful, the most impressive, the richest building, turning the ‘most beautiful palace’ contest as a way of living for the Venetians, who were constantly embellishing their home. It’s only after the fall of the Republic in 1797, after a last dispendious race to glory, that much of the palatial construction in Venice was suspended, leaving behind few unfinished constructions. One such example is the facade of San Marcuola’s church and the famous Palazzo Venier dei Leoni , home of Peggy Guggenheim and her collection. As the noble families were usually involved in governance, some found themselves persecuted by revolutionary forces and had to leave their palace on the Canal Grande for a safer residence. Sadly, several historical palaces were pulled down, but many found other uses than and some restorations have saved their 18th-century appearance. Today, rare are the people who live on the Canal Grande and most of the palaces you can admire have either been turned into hotels, museums or public administration buildings. Indeed, by the late 20th century, most of the more prominent palaces were owned by the city, state, or civic institutions.

    The fonteghi of the Grand Canal

    Another typical building of Venice and of the Canal Grande is the “fontego”, or “fondaco” in Italian, buildings combining the warehouse and the merchant’s residence. As Venice became a stronger hub of trade, the number of foreign merchants working in Venice increased and so did the number of “fonteghi’, which were a perfect way for the Republic to provide the merchants with storerooms and lodging while simultaneously controlling their trading activity. Like many things in Venice, the “fonteghi” also have a typical structure optimized for their function.

    The curia, a portico, covers the bank of the Canal and facilitates the ships’ unloading. The merchandises can then be taken from this portico to a corridor flanked by storerooms and reaching a courtyard at the back of the building. Similarly, on the first floor, a loggia as large as the portico illuminates the hall into which open the merchants’ rooms. The façade is thereby divided into an airy central part and two more solid sides. A low mezzanine with offices divides the two floors.

    The “fondaco” house often had lateral defensive towers (torreselle), as in the Fondaco dei Turchi, the current Museum of Natural History, which dates from the 13th century and has been heavily restored in the 19th. The German warehouse, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, which has recently been converted into a department store, by its impressive size gives a good idea of the high number of foreign merchants working in Venice.

    Other constructions on the Canal Grande

    More public buildings were built along the Canal, especially in the area of Rialto, the hub of the commercial activity in Venice. These palaces aimed at facilitating the trading activity of the city and were as diverse as commercial and financial Benches (Palazzo dei Camerlenghi and Palazzo dei Dieci Savi, rebuilt after 1514 fire) and even a mint, a place where money was coined under the authority of the Republic.

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