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

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    The Grand Canal in Venice, Italy

    Get ready to discover everything about the Grand Canal, the most famous and important canal in Venice, Italy. Let’s start!

    Driving a boat on the Grand Canal in Venice, from Piazzale Roma to Saint Mark's Basin

    The interactive video above has been shot from a typical modern Venetian boat, “a topetta”, while cruising the Grand Canal in Venice from Piazzale Roma to Saint Mark’s Basin.

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

    Venetians cross and cruise the Canal Grande regularly either on public transportation boats or on their work or private boats. A boat ride on the Grand Canal is, even for a Venetian, always an incredible emotion.

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    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, 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 is in the “sestieri,” or districts, of Cannaregio and Santa Croce while the other end leads into the world famous Saint Mark’s Basin.

    Since the Canal Grande in Venice is a natural canal, width and depth vary along its length. The canal, in fact, has a width that ranges between 30 and 90 meters, and an average depth of five meters (16.5 ft).

    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.

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    First settlements in Venice and the evolution of the Grand Canal

    It is thought that the Grand Canal in Venice 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” even before the Roman age. Under the rule of the Roman and then of the Byzantine Empire, the lagoon became populated and, soon, an important player.

    The political and economic power of Venice grew rapidly. As a consequence, in the early 9th century the Doge moved its seat from Malamocco at the Lido to Venice. There, in the safer area of “Rivoaltus,” the Venetian Republic could be safe and thrive. It was this decision that gave birth to the city of Venice.

    Venetians successfully managed their limited assets and focused on trades. In this regard, the Lagoon of Venice was essential as it gave protection from enemies and the Grand Canal was an ideal terminal for Venetian trades over the seas.

    Life on and around the Grand Canal in Venice

    The Canal Grande in Venice has always been and still is a place of great importance in the city’s life.

    Life on the Grand Canal in Venice, in the past

    The Canal Grande in Venice crosses all the city and, halfway through it, leads to the Rialto area.

    The first Venetian settlements started right in that area which immediately became the center of the Venetian trades. Over time, the importance, power, and wealth of Venice grew so much that Rialto soon wasn’t anymore just the center of the trades of the Venetian Republic. In fact, since the Middle Age, Rialto became the most important market in Europe for centuries.

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    Ships filled with merchandise, weighing more than 400 tons, sailed along the Canal Grande to reach or depart from Rialto to other destinations in the Mediterranean area to trade their goods.

    Therefore, it’s unsurprising that the Grand Canal was also the place of birth of the “Fondachi,” big buildings acting as big warehouses and inns for the dozen or hundreds of merchants coming from every part of the world.

    Life on the Grand Canal in Venice, today

    Today, the Canal Grande is the most important and busiest canals in Venice.

    In the morning, it is busy with workers’ boats bringing fruits, vegetables, and fishes to the Mercato di Rialto, or delivering goods and parcels everywhere in Venice.

    During the day, the Grand Canal is buzzing with public transportation,”vaporetti” and “alilaguna”, gondolas and gondola ferries, taxis, and private boats.

    The Grand Canal in Venice, however, is also the place of some local celebrations throughout the year. In fact, it’s here that major events such as the “Regata Storica” and the Rowing Club’s Carnival take place. However, it is also home to minor regattas and social gatherings. For example, the Befana and the Santa’s Regattas, and Venetian frescoes: picnics on boats with plenty of music and food.

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    All the bridges on the Grand Canal in Venice

    Because of its width, only 4 bridges cross the Grand Canal, in Venice. Each bridge was built in different eras and has a completely different style. Let’s discover them!

    The Constitution Bridge on the Grand Canal in Venice

    On one end of the Canal Grande in Venice is the most recent bridge, created in 2008, called “Ponte della Costituzione,” Constitution Bridge in English. However, this bridge is also known by the name “Calatrava Bridge,” from the name of the Spanish Architect Calatrava who drew the project.

    This bridge connects the districts of Cannaregio and Santa Croce. To be more precise, it links the Train Station and Piazzale Roma, the last part in Venice reachable by buses and cars.

    Since its construction, it’s possible to save a few minutes walking time when crossing between these two areas.

    Nonetheless, it is the least liked and most controversial bridge in Venice for three reasons.

    First of all, the bridge costed far more than expected. Secondly, the bridge is not optimized for the soft ground of Venice. As a consequence, it has to be continuously monitored since it’s pushing the two sides of the canal apart with implications on the bridge’s own stability. Thirdly, its design with glass steps makes it extremely slippery and, therefore, dangerous both in the winter and in the summer.

    For all of the above reasons, some Venetians call the Ponte della Costituzione with a much less noble name: “Ponte dea M—a,” or “S–t Bridge.”

    If you have a passion for constructions, here’s a Youtube video which shows how the Constitution Bridge was put up in Venice.

    The Barefoot Bridge on the Grand Canal in Venice

    After the “Ponte della Costituzione” is the “Ponte degli Scalzi“(“Barefoot Bridge”), a big stone bridge located just to the left of the Train Station. Just like the “Ponte della Costituzione” also this bridge connects the district of Cannaregio on one side, and the district of Santa Croce on the other side.

    Until the more recent Ponte della Costituzione, the “Ponte degli Scalzi” was the last bridge to be built on the Grand Canal, in 1934.

    It was built during Fascism in Italy, and it replaced an older iron bridge that had been made during the Austrian domination.

    The Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal in Venice

    The Rialto Bridge, halfway through the Grand Canal, is undoubtedly the most important bridge in Venice.

    It was the only bridge on the Grand Canal at the times of the Venetian Republic. The other bridges on the Canal Grande we see today were built decades or centuries later.

    The Ponte di Rialto on the Grand Canal in Venice connected the heart of the political power of the Serenissima in the district of Saint Mark’s with the heart of the economic power of the city in the district of San Polo.

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    The first structure was built in wood in 1250. It was drawbridge and, therefore, it allowed big sail ships to sail along the entire length of the Grand Canal in Venice and reach Rialto which once was both the market and the port of the city.

    The wooden bridge changed over time but was damaged severely in multiple occasions over the centuries.
    Finally, in 1591, Antonio da Ponte built the Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal entirely made of stone and we are blessed to admire it still today.

    We shot a 360° video about the Rialto Bridge that you can watch here.

    The Accademia Bridge on the Grand Canal in Venice

    The last bridge we meet is the Accademia Bridge, the only wooden bridge crossing the Grand Canal in Venice.

    It derives its name from the nearby Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia, the Fine Arts Academy of Venice, which was founded in Venice in 1807.

    In fact, while this very important crossing between the districts of Dorsoduro and Saint Mark’s had been suggested as far back as 1488, the bridge was never built during the Venetian Republic.

    A first version of the Ponte dell’Accademia, made of steel, was finished in 1854 during the Austrian occupation of Venice.

    However in 1933, during Fascism, the Austrian-made steel bridge was destroyed and replaced by a wooden bridge.

    Since wood needs more maintenance than stone, the Accademia Bridge has to be continuosly renovated and in some cases even to be fully replaced, such as in 1986.

    The last renovation, financed by the Veneto born Luxottica Group, took place in 2017-2018.

    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 its grandeur and immense power.

    The palaces along the banks of the Canal Grande belong to different times and architectural movements. In fact, 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 an 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 Canal stand rows of buildings different not only by their look but also, once, by their function. In fact, buildings could either be palazzi or fonteghi.

    The history of Venetian palaces along the Grand Canal

    The palazzi (singular “palazzo”) were palaces which were – and still are in some cases – the houses of families, usually the most important and rich noble families of the city.

    The spectacular beauty of the Palazzi on the Canal Grande is due to one amusing fact: the competition between the palace’s owners. In fact, families wanted to have the most beautiful, impressive and richest building around.

    This desire and constant work to have the ‘most beautiful palace” was sort of a contest to which all rich Venetian families took part and deeply characterized Venetian life and the aspect of the Grand Canal.

    Several Venetian palaces on the Grand Canal are from the 18th Century. But why?

    After the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, Venetian families lost much of their economic power, and the constant race for renovations of the palaces on the Grand Canal came to an end.

    In some cases, financial shortages at the end of the Republic led to leave some buildings unfinished. Two such examples are the facade of San Marcuola’s church and the famous Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, which later became the home of Peggy Guggenheim and her collection.

    Sadly, after the end of the Republic, several historical palaces were pulled down. Some buildings remained but were converted to other uses. Their appearance, however, was preserved

    Venetian palaces, today

    Today, only a few people live on the Canal Grande. Most of the palaces that can be admired are now either hotels, museums, or public administration buildings.

    Until the late 20th century, most of the more prominent palaces were still owned by the city of Venice, the Italian State, or by Italian institutions.

    The fonteghi along the Grand Canal in Venice

    As we mentioned before, the other typical building that can be found along the Canal Grande in Venice is the “fontego,” or “fondaco” in Italian.

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    A fondaco was a building which was both the warehouse and the home of foreign merchants in Venice.

    As Venice became an ever stronger hub of trade, the number of foreign merchants working in Venice increased and so did the number of “fonteghi.”

    The fonteghi, in fact, were a perfect way for the Venetian Republic to provide foreign merchants with storerooms and lodging while also supervising their trading activity closely for taxing purposes.

    How did the Fonteghi in Venice look like?

    Like many things in Venice, also the “fonteghi” had a structure which was typical and was optimized for their function.

    The curia, a porch, covers the bank of the Canal and facilitates the ships’ unloading. Here, the merchandises could be taken from the boat and brought to a corridor flanked by storerooms or to a courtyard at the back of the building.

    Similarly, on the first floor, a loggia as large as the porch 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.

    “Fonteghi” could also house lateral defensive towers (torreselle), as in the Fondaco of the Turks.

    Famous Fonteghi on the Grand Canal in Venice

    The Fontego dei Turchi, which dates back to the 13th Century, has been heavily restored in the 19th Century and hosts today the city’s Museum of Natural History.

    The Fondaco dei Tedeschi, once the Germans’ lodging and warehouse,  gives a good idea with its impressive size of the number of foreign merchants working in Venice.

    Today the Fondaco dei Tedeschi doesn’t serve its original purpose anymore and has been transformed into a luxury department store.

    Other constructions on the Canal Grande

    Also several public buildings were built along the Canal Grande in Venice. That is especially true around Rialto area, which once was 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, the “Zecca”, where money was coined under the authority of the Republic.

    Since you made it to the bottom of this long article about the Grand Canal in Venice, we believe you’re very interested in Venice. If you want to have a great time when you visit Venice, make sure to check out also the following resources:

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