The Architecture of Venice

Anything but Italian

On the surface, Venetians fit the Italian profile. They speak the language, eat pasta, dress impeccably and love opera.  And yet, they are different. They are less religious, have built no walls around their old city, have sacrificed cars for gondolas and generally look outward rather than inward for artistic inspiration (the Venice Biennale is a modern-day continuation of this mindset). In some respects, Venice is quintessentially Italian, but in others, it’s a world apart and the Venetians like it that way. This island city has always kept mainland Italy at arm’s length.

Venice’s original settlers abandoned the mainland of Italy and relocated to the remote islands of an Adriatic lagoon in order to evade barbarian invaders — Goths, Huns, and Lombards — in the fifth and six centuries. The lagoon’s 550 square kilometers / 210 square miles of salt water (the largest wetland in the Mediterranean) offered protection and an opportunity to found an independent republic, unhindered by the instability ashore.

By the 9th century, the islands’ inhabitants were ready to unlock another advantage of their new location. The lagoon’s vast waterways, punctuated with deep channels suitable for the passage of large sailing vessels, set the stage for Venice’s economic and military ascendancy as a maritime trading powerhouse. Over its 1000-year history, the Venetian Republic would leverage this natural asset to become a powerhouse in maritime trade. By the 13th century, Venice was the principal supplier of the Mediterranean link in the spice trade, controlling nearly 70% of the spices brokered from the Far East into Europe.

The vast cities of primary trading partners — Byzantine Constantinople and Islamic Cairo — were the showplaces of the world and played a critical role in shaping the Venetian aesthetic. After all, you are what you see. As a result, the Venetian architectural style is a fusion of both Byzantine and Islamic forms overlaying a Latin Christian foundation. The Eastern influences on the architecture of Venice are often overlooked; you just have to look in the right places to find them.

St Mark’s Basilica – Byzantine & Islamic influences

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1.The oldest mosaics in St Mark’s Cathedral, Venice 2. Mosaics in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (Constantinople).

Byzantine: floorplan and mosaics. Venice’s famed St. Mark’s Basilica was modeled after the Church of the Holy Apostles, built in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian in Constantinople. This Byzantine church was destroyed by the Turks in 1453, so now the Venetian “copy” is the real thing.  In accordance with its’ model, it’s based on a classic, centralized Greek cross design with five domes, one over each arm and one over the central crossing all resting on pendentives.  Plus, St Mark’s famed mosaics are the quintessential Byzantine decoration.  The oldest mosaics in St. Mark’s were executed in the late 11th century by Byzantine mosaicists from Ravenna.  From an artistic standpoint, these are the most important mosaics in the church and are certainly worth attention.  To see them, just look up before you enter the main body of the church, since those most easily visible are located in the narthex, technically the lobby of the church, just above the main entrance doorway. The mosaics are positioned in mini niches, flanked by colonnettes and consist of the Virgin Mary flanked by the apostles and four evangelists. Watch our video on the mosaics in the domes of St. Mark’s Basilica.

Islamic: Dome lanterns. Even in this definitively Byzantine inspired church, there are Islamic influences, for example, the ribbed lanterns topping the domes have a distinct feel of those topping minarets in Mamluke Cairo. Watch our video to explore further Eastern influences on St. Mark’s Basilica

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1. Domes of St Mark’s, Venice 2.Minarets of the Mosque of Emir Altunbugha Al- Maradani, Cairo.

Ca’ D’Oro – Islamic Influences

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1. Madrasas of Sultan Al-Malik Al-Salih Najm Ad-Din Ayyub Minaret, Cairo 2.Ca D’Oro Façade, Venice.

Doge’s Palace Façade, Venice.

Islamic: inflected arches. This masterpiece of Venetian architecture clearly employs some Islamic elements.  The inflected arches of the façade’s windows give the palazzi a distinctive Islamic feel.  While the narrow profile of the windows and their arrangement is derived from Christian precedents, their inflected nature has Islamic inspiration. Also the stone or marble frame around the main floor windows – used for the first time in the Gothic period to highlight the importance of these central windows – might have been borrowed from the Islamic alfiz.

While the Venice of yesteryear is gone, the legacy remains. Keep in mind when touring this city, the voice that echoes is not that of Florence’s Dante Alighieri, that famous Italian pre-Renaissance poet, but rather Venice’s Marco Polo.   A walk through Venice is really a walk around the world, a city that truly bridges East and West.

Where to Eat in Venice

  • Antiche Carampane: (the best overall) Great seafood, focused on home-style preparation with high quality ingredients. Excellent, with a solid, friendly staff and classy, casual atmosphere. Antiche Carampane is a great experience, one of our favorites in Italy.  Closed Sunday and Monday.  San Polo 1911; Rio Terra Rampani; 41-524-0165.
  • Alle Testiere: Excellent seafood restaurant but sometimes overly ambitious. Elegant, with good food, cool vibe, and the best wine list.  With just 9 tables, reservations are a must. 2 seatings: 7:30 and 9:30. Closed Sunday and Monday. Calle del Mondo Novo, 5801 (Castello); 41-522-7220.
  • Al Covo: Delicious, very high quality Venetian seafood. Right up there with Antiche Carampane and Alle Testiere, however, we would argue that the energy level and feel are superior at the other two. Further, prices here are at least 10-20% higher than the other restaurants. However, this is the best option for dining on a Sunday or Monday, when the other top two are closed (Al Covo is closed Tuesday and Wednesday).  Castello, 3968 (Campiello della Pescheria); 41-522-3812.
  • La Corte Sconta: An old-school seafood-oriented trattoria, that has a slightly simpler décor than the others listed here (tables topped with butcher paper and red napkins); the seafood quality is like Antiche Carampane and Alle Testiere, but it’s more casual and offers simpler preparations. They base their daily menu on whatever the Chioggia fish market has to offer. We do find the service rushed, a bit pushy and prices (food and wine) higher than its peers. Although still a good dining experience, the food is the weakest of the top three. Closed Sunday and Monday; also from 7 January to 7 February, and from 15 July to 15 August. Calle del Prestin, 3886 (Castello) near the Arsenale; 41-522-7024.

Don’t Miss: Cicheti e Ombre

Cicheti are the bite-sized “Italian” brethren of tapas (basically, just small sandwiches) and ombre the traditionally tiny glasses that hold a small portion of wine (ombre is translated as “shadow”, apparently where the Venetians drank the wine). Recommended cichetteria:

  • Al Marca – Perhaps our favorite in the city. Good for wine, aperitifs (spritz con Aperol or Campari), and mini sandwiches in the evening and coffee in the morning. Stand outside, it’s just a hole in the wall place. Sestiere San Polo, 213/a; Campo Cesare Battisti, near the fish market, just off the Rialto bridge in San Polo; 41-924-781.
  • La Cantina – Very good, with good wines and probably the best tasty small plates of meats and seafood. Strada Nuova, Cannaregio 3689; 41-522 8258. Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday.
  • I Rusteghi – Around the corner from Alle Botte but a little more upscale and less busy allowing for interaction with the family behind the bar.  Drinks and small sandwiches. The frizzante rose is worth a try. Campiello del Tentor San Marco, 5513, just off the Rialto bridge (on the other side, however) in the corner of a small campo; 41-523-2205.
  • Banco Giro – Good, with a laid-back atmosphere and usually not too busy. You can find this bar after descending from the Rialto bridge behind the markets on the right side. Also serves dinner in the quaint upstairs. Campo San Giacometto, 122, San Polo; 41-523-2061; Open 10:30 a.m. to midnight in summer. Closed Sunday night and all day Monday.

Top Cultural Sights in Venice

  • St Mark’s Basilica: Be sure to visit from 11:30am to 12:30pm. The church turns on all of the interior lights for one hour, making for excellent viewing of the mosaics. If you visit at any other time of the day, the natural light is insufficient to allow for proper viewing and the church’s appearance is very dark.
  • Ca’ D’Oro: The best view of this magnificent façade is from the opposite bank, just beyond the Rialto Fish market.
  • Church of San Sebastiano: Incredibly decorated (don’t forget the sacristy – easily missed if you don’t pay attention). This is where Veronese painted nearly every square inch of space in his high-Renaissance, severely foreshortened “di sotto in su” style.
  • Scuola Grande of San Rocco: Another incredible site, where the walls are lined entirely with Tintoretto’s highly-charged works, dating from 3 distinct periods: 1564-67 (Sala dell’Albergo), 1570-81 (Upper Hall), and 1582-87 (Ground Floor Hall). Highly recommended!
  • Santa Maria della Salute: Constructed by Venice’s master architect Baldassare Longhena (1598-1682), the church is a triumph of the late baroque style (it was constructed to invoke Mary to save and protect Venice from the plague); probably one of the only churches in northern Italy to rival the designs of Borromini and Bernini in Rome.

Get Our Guidebook to Venice

Since the founding of the Venetian Republic in 697, the city of Venice fought to preserve its status as an independent trading center bridging East and West. With this guidebook, we explore the magnificent St. Mark’s Basilica, a symbol of the city’s greatness. Read more about this guidebook.