Venice: Cruising Down the Grand Canal
Venice is surely the most remarkable city on Earth, and its lifeblood is its canal system The main artery of that system is the Grand Canal - a four kilometre stretch of water lined with nearly 200 historic houses, mansions and palaces, almost every one of which is an architectural treasure to be cherished.
Consequently a boat trip down the full length of the canal really is a must-do experience for any visitor to Venice - it is an unforgettable experience.
This page highlights some of the most impressive buildings, and looks at what can be seen at various locations along the canal.
Four Articles About Four Days in the City of Venice:
This is the second of four articles I have written about Venice and the surrounding islands; The four pages are:
- Cruising Down the Grand Canal
The Grand Canal
The Grand Canal, which bisects the historic city of Venice from the west side of the city to the southern coast, is approximately 4 kms (2.36 miles) long and 30 to 90 metres (100 to 300 feet) wide. The water averages about 5 metres (16 feet) deep. No other canal in the old city can compare in length, breadth or importance.
Today several different types of vessel are employed to transport goods and people along the canal. The vaporetti are water buses which routinely carry large numbers of people. Water taxis can also be hired. The world famous gondolas are great for romantic rides, and motor boats provide a different and exciting experience. Numerous boats and barges carry fruit, vegetables and fish to the Venice Rialto market, and even the emergency services have to use the Grand Canal - police boats and ambulance boats may sometimes be seen racing along the canal!
The History of the Grand Canal
As one passes along the length of the Grand Canal it is important to appreciate its history - this is not just a collection of old buildings, but a testament to the age when Venice was the richest and most powerful city state on Earth.
It is believed that the canal is as old as Venice itself, following the course of an ancient river which once flowed from the west, over land now submerged in the Venice lagoon. And as soon as the city began to develop 1500 years ago, the benefits of this natural waterway of sufficient breadth and depth to support the shipping of the day, were recognised and harnessed to good effect.
Among the very first buildings were merchants' houses which sprang up on a settlement near the Rialto area. 'Rialto' comes from two words meaning high ground, and this was the first area to be developed, as the most secure dry land on the islands. The earliest buildings are now long gone, but as Venice reached the peak of its prosperity in the 13th and 14th centuries, ornate and beautiful architecture was being created. Several remarkable buildings from this era still exist today along the Grand Canal, and indeed virtually all the buildings which line the canal date to the period between the 13th and 18th centuries. Almost nothing is modern. As such a cruise along this canal is a journey through architectural history, through Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles of design. But as well as history, it's a cruise which should appeal to anyone with a love of culture or a sense of wonder and romance.
How Best to Cruise the Grand Canal of Venice
Vaporetto water buses are the most practical and economic way to travel the length of the Grand Canal - much cheaper than hiring a private boat or riding a gondola, and more practical and accessible too, with about twenty 'bus stations' along the route.
Probably the best service to use is the No 1 water bus. This is because the No 1 vaporetto stops at every station on the canal; as a result the journey is quite slow, but the regular stops allow the tourist to take in all the sights and to get on and off as and when they please. Other services include No 2, which doesn't stop so often and so is better if all you want to do is get from one end to the other. There are also seasonal and night lines, but routes change and it is best to consult up to date time tables for these. During the day time, there's no problem - embark on the No 1 or No 2 vaporetto.
For this ride, we'll start at the western end of the canal at the Piazzale Roma Water Bus Station. From here the canal meanders its way through a broadly reversed 'S' shape until finally arriving at the Venice lagoon and the focal point for most trips to Venice, St Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco), in the south of the island. Along the way the most significant and interesting of Venice's waterfront buildings will be featured, and some will be imaged. In truth however, scarcely a nondescript or uninteresting building exists along the entire length of the Grand Canal.
In the text, all buildings illustrated in photos will be emphasised in bold.
Piazzale Roma Vaporetti Station to Ponte Degli Scalzi
There are no roads throughout most of the old city of Venice, and there's no railway either, so no cars or buses or trains can be used to travel through the city. But there is a road link and a railway across the lagoon from the mainland and these both terminate on the western coast of the city. The road link - Ponte della Liberta - leads to a car park close to the Piazzale Roma Vaporetto Station, and the railway comes to an abrupt end at Venezia Santa Lucia, served by the Ferronia Vaporetto Station (Stazione Ferronia).
An incongruously modern structure, the Calatrava Bridge, (Ponte della Constituzione) links Piazzale Roma and Stazione Ferronia, and either of these stations would make a suitable embarkation point for a cruise along the Grand Canal. As can be seen in the image below, the stations are clearly recognisable platforms with yellow livery which reach out on to the canal. One just buys or validates a ticket and waits for the next vaporetto to arrive alongside.
Perhaps the first distinctive building of note as one travels in the direction of St Marks is the green-domed Church of San Simeone Piccolo, which lies almost directly opposite the Stazione Ferronia, and also the Venezia Santa Lucia railway terminus, and so will be the first landmark to catch the eye of anyone arriving by train. San Simeon Piccolo was built in the 18th century.
Also on this stretch of water are several early Venetian palaces such as the 16th century Renaissance style Palazzo Adoldo and Palazzo Foscari Contarini. On the other side of the canal is Santa Maria di Nazareth, a 17th century church also known as the Scalzi Church, which features an elaborate facade, a notable ceiling fresco and numerous 18th century paintings and sculptures. The church is considered to be one of Venice's most beautiful.
Four bridges cross the Grand Canal today, and three of them are of comparatively recent construction - prior to the 20th century, the majority of human traffic from one side of the canal to the other would have been by boat. The most recent bridge is the already mentioned Calatrava Bridge, built as recently as 2008 amidst a great deal of controversy as to whether its glass and steel design harmonised with the ancient buildings which surround it. But just past San Simeone Piccolo, one passes under the second of the canal bridges. Ponte Degli Scalzi was completed in 1934 on the site of a previous Austrian built bridge.
Ponte Degli Scalzi to Rialto
The area between the second and the third bridges on the canal is rich in once opulant mansions and palaces, some restored, some still awaiting restoration, and many renovated to serve new roles in the modern age.
Buildings include the churches of San Geremia and San Stae, and Fondaco dei Turchi (originally constructed in the 13th century, completely restored in the 19th, and now home to the Venetian Natural History Museum). Ca' Vendramin Calergi is a 500 year old mansion which houses a Richard Wagner museum. The composer died here in 1883, and the facade appears exactly as it looked in Wagner's day.
And a photo in this section which depicts a motorboat in front of three buildings perfectly demonstrates the extravagance of this short stretch of water. On the right is Ca' Pesaro, a huge baroque marble mansion which dates to the end of the 17th century, and which now serves as home to two art museums. On the left is the 18th century Palazzo Correggi. But what of the 'little' house in the middle, which seems to suffer by comparison? This is Palazzo Donà Sangiantoffetti. It has been widely reported (rumoured) that actor Johnny Depp bought this 17th century building in 2011. The price he is reputed to have paid? A cool 13.5 million dollars.
A little further down the canal on the opposite bank is Ca d'Oro, one of the most ornate of Venetian buildings, and now home to an art gallery. Built in the early 15th century for an extravagantly wealthy Venetian, the elaborate gothic facade was once covered in gold leaf (the name Ca d'Oro means 'House of Gold').
It should be apparent from the photos here that along much of the Grand Canal there is no pathway. Many of the waterside buildings abut straight on to the canal, and so the front entrance can only be reached by boat.
The Area Around the Rialto
The third bridge on the Grand Canal is by far the oldest and was for a long period of time, the only pedestrian way of crossing from one side to the other. The Rialto Bridge is also by far the most famous. It was built during the three years 1588 to 1591 on the site of the very oldest settlement on the canal. And that is reflected in the buildings here. Just before the Rialto is the 13th century Ca' da Mosto, the oldest building on the Grand Canal.
The area around the Rialto Bridge is, together with St Mark's Square, the area of Venice most densely packed with tourists. the Bridge itself attracts visitors like a magnet and the canal banks here are lined with hotels, cafes and restaurants and also the historic thousand year old Rialto Market.
And many important buildings are to be found here. Adjacent to the Rialto to the north are the impressive 16th century Palazzo dei Camerlenghi, and the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, once home to German merchants. More palaces and mansions grace the banks to the south, such as Palacco Dolfin Manin and Palazzo Bembo, illustrated here.
A little further down the canal on the left side are two 13th century buildings Ca' Loredan and Ca' Farsetti. These two similarly designed buildings now jointly serve as the city's town hall. One recent celebrity event here was the registration of the 2014 marriage of George Clooney in Ca' Farsetti.
And still further down on the left bank opposite the San Toma vaporetto station, is the Palazzo Mocenigo complex, a group of mansions built for the Mocenigo family in the 16th century. Seven members of the family became Doge (Duke) of Venice at various times. And Lord Byron also lived briefly in one of these buildings.
The Canal from San Toma to Ponte dell' Accademia
Soon after the San Toma Station, the canal begins a wide sweep through a 180° bend to the left. As the canal begins to change in direction, a range of ancient palaces line the right bank. First there is Palazzo Balbi, built in 1582 and now home to the president of the Venice Council. A few metres further on is Ca' Foscari, built for the Doge Foscari in 1453, and now a university building. And next to Ca' Foscari is the 15th century Palazzo Giustinian, at various times home to a French princess, a Duchess of Parma and the aforementioned composer Richard Wagner.
Ca' Rezzonico is a later design than most of the buildings described on this page - a mere 250 years have passed since its completion in the 18th century. One famous later resident was songwriter Cole Porter who rented Ca' Razzonico in the 1920s, but today the edifice is a museum dedicated to 18th century Venice and its artwork.
Further on the left bank very close to the San Samuelle Station, is Palazzo Malipiero. In a building close to this, Venice's most infamous citizen - Giacomo Casanova - was born in 1725. Casanova then lived in Palazzo Malipiero for several years from 1740.
On the opposite bank to Palazzo Malipiero is a late 15th century Gothic palace which has at various times served as a residence for ambassadors from both Rome, and the Austrian Empire. The building is called Palazzo Loredan dell'Ambasciatore, and near here the bend in the canal reveals the fourth and final bridge over the Grand Canal, the Ponte dell' Accademia.
The Area Around Ponte dell' Accademia
The first Accademia Bridge was built in the mid 19th century at the behest of the Austrian Empire who were in charge of Venice at this time. But by 1932 (just as with the Ponte Degli Scalzi further along the canal) this iron structure was proving too low slung to allow the larger canal boats to pass underneath. In that year the bridge was replaced by a temporary wooden structure. And that still remains, albeit reinforced with steel, as the Ponte dell' Accademia.
The bridge (and an adjacent vaporetto stop) are named for the Galleria dell' Accademia located on the right bank The Accademia is considered to be the finest collection of Venetian art in existence, with works by Canaletto, Titian, Tintoretto and many others.
The first building on the left is the Palazzo Cavalli-Franchett - fittingly in view of its close proximity to the bridge - an academic institution, and surely one of the most attractively restored buildings on the canal. Next door is Palazzo Barbaro, which is actually two adjoining buildings - a Venetian Gothic structure which dates from 1425, and a Baroque building designed in 1694. Several important Venetians, and briefly the French Embassador, have occupied Palazzo Barbaro, but of more interest to tourists may be the artists and writers who have also lodged here at various times - Robert Browning, James Whistler, Henry James, and Claude Monet, among others.
Buildings on the right bank include the similarly named Palazzo Barbarigo, built in the 16th century, but very distinctive today because in 1886 the exterior was extensively decorated with glass mosaics (at the time the palace was owned by the head of one of the famous glass manufacturers based on the neighbouring island of Murano).
Ponte da Accademia to St Marks - the Final Stretch
Just beyond the Palazzos Barbaro and Barbarigo, the canal begins to widen perceptably. On the right bank is another art gallery, although very different to the Accademia. Palazzo Venier dei Leoni houses the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of modern art, which has become one of the most popular visitor attractions in Venice.
Just a few metres further on is the 15th century Palazzo Dario, a small but beautiful building which fans of Claude Monet may recognise from a series of paintings which he did of the palace in 1908.
Eventually the canal widens further into the St Mark's Basin (or St Mark's Canal) which separates the city from the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. But there is one last treat on the right bank. Here stands the Church of Santa Maria della Salute, usually just known as La Salute. Built between 1631 and 1681, La Salute is considered a fine example of Baroque architecture, and its two domes and bell towers are today an iconic part of the Venetian skyline. The church was built in gratitude for the salvation of the city from an outbreak of the plague which had killed a third of Venice's population ('salute' means health), One day every year on 21st November, a pontoon bridge made up of boats linked together, is constructed across the canal, and the city officials progress across it for a service of thanksgiving in La Salute.
And now the Grand Canal comes to an end. It's not the end of the attractions of course. St Mark's Square which lies just beyond, is home to the Doge's Palace, the Campanile and the Basilica of St Mark's. And throughout Venice away from the Grand Canal, there are numerous other interesting buildings and sights. But a trip down the Grand Canal which we have now concluded, is surely the best way to get a feel for this city and its history, and a must-do experience for any first-time visitor.
In Perspective - The Significance of the Grand Canal
The importance of the Grand Canal through history cannot be easily overstated. Without this wide waterway the City of Venice would probably never have come into being, and certainly it could never have achieved the greatness it once enjoyed as the most powerful city state in the Western world. During those Medieval times the Grand Canal was one of the most significant waterways anywhere on Earth.
And it remained of vital importance to the city as the centuries rolled past, reflected in the changes over time in architectural building styles. Byzantine architecture was succeeded in turn by Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque designs, and each now vie for attention as tourists pass along the canal - one could almost become an authority on architectural fashion merely by travelling the length of the Grand Canal!
Almost all current buildings were completed before the 19th century. Over the years since then, some have been restored to fine condition and today serve important functions in the life of Venice, having been transformed into hotels and offices or museums. Other buildings are still in need of some restoration, and many have sadly lost the decorations which may once have graced the facades of the homes of the wealthiest families. But the basic structure of these buildings on the canal remains much as they would have appeared to renouned residents like Titian, Tintoretto, Vivaldi, Canaletto and Casanova. These Venetians would certainly still recognise the city they once loved, and in some cases recorded for posterity through their artwork.
Of course today the international importance of the Grand Canal is much diminished, and yet this remains the main artery of Venice without which the city could scarcely survive. The stretch of buildings which line its banks is a unique historical record of Medieval greatness, of Venice's prosperous extravagence in later centuries, and of its survival and growth as a city tourist destination without parallel in the present day.
The Grand Canal - The Four Bridges which span the Canal
Please feel free to quote limited text from this article on condition that an active link to this page is included
All photos for this article were taken by the author in September 2014
The YouTube video included here is by Cornishpastyman1. It captures the sights and sounds of a trip down the canal and some of the buildings which are not illustrated in my text. Hopefully the video compliments my work and effectively illustrates the character and vibrancy of the canal, in a way which perhaps still photos cannot.
Cruising Down the Grand Canal
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