13 June 2010

ON THE ROAD: Lost in Venice

This is another in the series of monthly travel articles inspired by a New York Times article on 31 places to see in 2010. All of the towns on my list are in Italy, most are small, rich in history and art and for the most part off the beaten track except for this month which features Venice, a city whose track most definitely has been beaten.

VENICE, Italy – If you have even visited Venice you know first-hand that finding your way around is difficult. Even the locals get lost and scratch their heads at the confusion. But the reasons why the city is the way it is are simple: it’s the illogical way the city is numbered. They use a system based on a centuries old concept of the civic number, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Venice, Grand Canal
Let me back up and start with how the city is organized. There are 118 islands that make up central Venice divided into six wards known as sestieri. Within each ward, buildings, parts of buildings and in some cases even walls and boarded up windows are numbered in ascending order. In the smallest ward, Santa Croce, the numbers run from one to 2359, in Castello, the largest, from one to 6828.

Because everything is numbered in sequence, if you are looking for Number 73 Calle Porta, in Santa Croce, the building could very well be across the street from building number 624. It depends on how long the street is. To add to the confusion, if you are looking for a business most of them have two addresses: the street address and the post office address. For example, the building at Castello 5138 and the one at Calle Lunga S. Maria Formosa 5138 is actually the same Venetian mask shop.

Venice, High Water on the Grand Canal

In addition to sequential numbering and two addresses many of the city’s three thousand streets have the same name. For example there are at least fifteen Calle del Spezier and twenty-three Calli del Magazeri. Adding the name of the sestieri might be a good idea, like Calle del Forno 1752, sestieri of Canaregio. Except that within the sestieri of Canaregio there are nine separate Calle del Forno, each one as independent as a sassy three-year-old, not to mention fourteen separate Calle Del Spezieri, and thirty-one Calle Della Chiesa.

During the 12th century the Great Council of Venice decided to impose a property tax and divided the city into the six wards we see today, but a fixed numbering system was never established. When city managers wanted to take a census, they would simply assign temporary numbers to the buildings. You can still see traces of these numbers, in the form of Roman numerals, carved on many doorframes throughout the city.

Venice, No. 2566 Calle ?

It wasn't until 1801, four years after Venice fell under the rule of Napoleon, that the city was mapped and the names of canals, streets and alleys were stenciled on building walls and at street corners. The French organized the city on the basis of two numerical progressions, one for each side of the Grand Canal, and the numbers were written on the buildings in black. Each ward was then assigned a separate progressive numbering system with no regard to street names. That system was consolidated in 1841 and at that time it was decided that the numbers would be written in red with a black border.

Venice, Is this Really 1552?

You can still see those numbers on many of the buildings. In fact it is not unusual to see buildings that have all three: Roman numerals, black numbers with black borders and red numbers with black borders. You will also see three or four different numbers painted on a blank wall or above a bricked over door. Those numbers represent buildings that have been torn down or buildings that have been consolidated into two or more larger structures. It was much easier to paint numbers on a wall than renumber the entire neighborhood.

Venice, No 2822. Is this the place?

Armed with an enlarged photocopy of a map of the ward of Santa Croce, a friend of mine decided to test the French system. On paper the ward looks like a rectangle and initially she thought it would be a fairly straight forward challenge. Here’s her story.

She started with number 900, which begins midway along Fondamenta Rio Marin (a fondamenta is the wide sidewalk along a canal, a rio is an internal canal). The numbers 900, 901/a and /b were followed by 901/c, 902 and 903 which she found after a right turn onto the Calle dei Squartai. At the end of the street, the numbers crossed the calle, backtracked down along the opposite side and returned to the fondamenta where they continued. For no apparent reason number 913 came before 912.

Venice. This Way To the Train Station

She said the numbers continued in more or less a straight line until Campo Santo, the smallest of the two church yards of the Church of San Simeon. At this point the numbers went around the church yard and then down a nameless street which opened onto the larger church yard, Campo San Simeon. From there the numbers continued around that church yard until they reached the Hotel ai Due Fanali, which has number 946 on the front door and 949 on the back door. Number 947 is the right-hand window of the hotel lobby and she said she never did find 948. While number 950 is a real building, numbers 951 to 956 are simply stenciled on a wall. A dead end. At that point she gave up. I would have too.

Venice, Bridge of Sighs

But not all is lost.The city father’s understand the dilemma and the city is well marked. And if you do get lost, well half the fun of Venice is wandering through the church yards and over bridges, finding yourself in a maze and finding your way out again, isn’t it?

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