Venice Decoded: Uncovering the City’s Signs & Symbols

August 17, 2011

On the surface, Venice is beautiful — but, thanks to the fact that the city is filled with signs and symbols, there’s way more to it than meets the eye! From gondolas to flags, almost everything in Venice has a hidden story to tell. Here are three of our favorites.

The symbols of the gondola

It’s a truism to say that the Venetian gondola is a symbol of Venice. But there’s way more to it, because the gondola itself is loaded with symbols and meanings, too!

First of all, there’s the size of the gondola. Every one is exactly 35′ 6″ long and 4′ 6″ wide, but each has one side 10 inches longer than the other. The reason is simple physics: The longer side balances off the weight of the gondolier. As well as being uniform in length and width, all gondolas are black. The reason? By the 16th-century, there were so many gondolas in Venice, each of different colors, that the canals were starting to look chaotic… so the city passed a law saying they all had to be black!

So the mere shape and color of a gondola is a clue to how important these boats were to Venice, if even laws were passed to control them! But there’s even more to the gondola than that: Symbols are hidden in its very design.

We'd say so!

We’d say so!

Just take a look at the prow, or ferro, of a gondola. See that metal decoration on the front? It’s not random. In fact, the metal band running down the front has an “S”-shaped curve to it, echoing the shape of the Grand Canal as it cuts through the island of Venice. The six prongs sticking out the front represent Venice’s six sestieri, or districts — and the prong that’s facing backwards symbolizes Giudecca, an island just south of the main Venetian island that’s always been part of Venice.

Meanwhile, the flourish on the top of the six prongs echoes the Doge’s cap. And the little arch that’s made between the flourish and the top of the six prongs? That’s the Rialto bridge.

Cute, huh?

The hidden meanings of Venetian street names

Once, streets like this one didn't exist -- homes only had water entrances instead

Once, streets like this one didn’t exist — homes only had water entrances instead

In lots of Italian towns, street names begin simply with “Via,” like Rome’s famous Via Veneto. In Venice, it’s a little more complicated. Why? Partly because Venice used to have even more canals than it does today. After the train station was built in the 19th century and visitors started coming without their own boats, the city decided to fill in canals and pave them as streets to create more access. And today? You can “read” that history through the hodgepodge of words Venetians use to refer to their streets.

First, in Venice, the word “calle” is used instead of “via”. Pronounced with the “l” (not as it would be in Spanish, making the “ll” a “y”), a calle is a street that runs between two sets of buildings.

So… what the heck is a “ramo”?

But many streets aren’t called a calle. Another one to look out for: “salizada.” Salizada means “paved,” and these streets are those that used to be the most important in Venice — so, when Venice’s few streets were paved in brick, these streets were the first to be paved with the more expensive, gray paving stones that you now see almost everywhere.

Then there is ramo. If you see a sign saying “Ramo —-,” then beware: a ramo was built as a blind alleyway, solely to allow access to homes whose main entrance used to be a canal.

So you’ve got calle, salizada, and ramo. On top of it, there’s ruga. “Ruga,” which literally means “wrinkle,” refers to those streets that were some of the longest in Venice. Ruga Rialto might be the best-known.

The most famous Venetian symbol of all: the winged lion

The ubiquitous winged lion — this one watches over the Arsenale

Another symbol that you simply can’t get away from in Venice is the winged lion. On palaces, statues, and the city’s flags, that lion is just everywhere. But here’s the big question: Why a lion for the maritime republic, and not a fish or seagull?

The reason goes back to the ninth century, when Venetian merchants stole the body of St. Mark the apostle from his tomb in Alexandria, Egypt. When a storm almost drowned the graverobbers and their precious cargo, it’s said that St. Mark himself appeared to the captain and told him to lower the sails. The ship was saved, and the merchants said they owed their safety to the miracle.

Once they got to Venice and told the story, it didn’t take long for the city to vote him their patron saint. (It helped that another tradition held that St. Mark had himself once stopped on the Venetian coast to avoid a storm — and that an angel then appeared to him, saying the locals would one day venerate him).

What’s usually used to represent St. Mark in Christian iconography? A winged lion.

So keep your eyes open while you’re in Venice. Even the smallest details of what you see have a story to tell.

And stay tuned for a future post on how to decode Venice’s beautiful palaces — each of which have a lot to say about not only Venetian architecture, but also about its history, its residents, and its values!

Any other symbols or mysteries you’ve been wondering about? Ask us in the comments!

Want to take a gondola ride while you’re in Venice? We offer 35-minute gondola rides and a 60-minute gondola ride, too!

by Walks of Italy

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