CHIAVARI, Italy – If you have ever visited Venice you know first-hand that finding your way to a specific street address can be difficult, if not impossible. Even the locals get lost and scratch their heads at the confusion of alleyways and streets as they search for addresses that may or may not even exist. But the reason the buildings are numbered the way that they are is actually very simple. Venice uses a numbering system based on a centuries old concept of the civic number, but let me back up as I’m getting ahead of myself.
|Grand Canal, Venice, Italy|
The reason the buildings are numbered the way that they are is actually very simple. Venice uses a numbering system based on a centuries old concept of the civic number, but let me back up as I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let me start with how Venice is organized which, as you may be beginning to suspect, is quite unlike any other Italian city. First of all Venice is made up of 118 islands separated by a network of 180 canals, and the islands within the boundaries of central Venice are divided into six wards known as sestieri. The six sestieri are: Cannaregio, Castello, Dorsoduro, San Marco, San Polo and Santa Croce.
|Gondolas on the Grand Canal|
Within each sestieri, buildings, parts of buildings, and in some cases even walls and boarded up windows. are numbered in ascending order. In the smallest sestieri, Santa Croce, the numbers run from one to 2359. In Castello, the largest sestieri, the numbers run from one to 6828.
Because everything is numbered in sequence, if you are looking for Number 73 Calle Porta, in Santa Croce, that building could very well be across the street from building number 624. It depends on how long the calle is, (a calle being a street that runs between two buildings as opposed to along a canal or a rio, which is a smaller canal).
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.
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 sound like a good idea, like Calle del Forno 1752, sestieri of Cannaregio. Except that within the sestieri of Cannaregio 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 when the Great Council of Venice decided to impose a property tax on its citizens and that was when they divided the city into the six sestieri we see today. Unfortunately what they didn’t do was take that extra step and establish a fixed numbering system. 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.
It wasn't until 1801, four years after Venice fell under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, 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 new numbers would be written in red with a black border as to not confuse them with the other two numbering systems that were already in place.
|One of Those Red Numbers with a Black Border|
Unfortunately for us, the numbers are still very visible on many Venetian buildings. In fact it is not at all 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 blank walls or bricked over doors with three or four different numbers painted on them. Those numbers represent buildings that have been torn down or buildings that have been consolidated into two or more larger structures. You have to admit it is definitely much easier to paint more numbers on a wall than renumber an entire neighborhood.
Armed with an enlarged photocopy of a map of the ward of Santa Croce where she lives, 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.
|Don't Try Strolling Along This Canal|
She started with number 900, which begins midway along Fondamenta Rio Marin (a fondamenta is the wide sidewalk along a 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. Then, for no logical or apparent reason, number 913 came before 912.
She said the numbers then 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. Moving on, she found number 950 to be a real building, while numbers 951 to 956 are simply stenciled on the wall. A dead end. At that point she gave up. I would have too.
But first time visitors should not despair, for all is not lost. The city father’s understand the dilemma and the city is well marked for those who want to get from tourist point A to tourist point B with the least number of problems. And even if you do get lost, well that’s not so bad, is it? Just smile and be happy. After all, you are still in Venice, aren’t you?