Venice Decoded: Uncovering the City’s Signs and Symbols

Decode the gondola of Venice!

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.

Symbol of St. Mark on a pennant in Venice

In Venice, winged lions even hang from balconies…

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!

24 Comments

  • Heather says:

    The explanation for street names is very interesting. But, I didn’t see an explanation for Fondamenta. I ran across Fondamenta Lombardo in Venice. What is a Fondamenta? I took notice because this was my Grandpa’s last name.

    • Hi Heather,

      Yes, that’s another one to add to the list! “Fondamenta” means “foundation” in Italian, and it describes the stretch of road that runs along a canal. It would have been (and still is today) a popular area to load and unload boats, kind of like a dock. The name comes from the fact that it’s a kind of “foundation” for the buildings.

      Another one we can add is “rio,” which describes a road that’s paved over where a canal used to be.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      • Ciao, in fact, a “rio” is a side canal, so a “rio terà” is the filled-in rio (blame it on Napoleon and the Austrians, mostly…). When you spot how many rio terà there are here, you’ll have a good indication of how much more watery Venice once was.

        Those were the days… 😉

  • When I lived in Italy I was told that when the Bible the lion is holding is open the figure was made in a time of peace. When the book is closed, it was made in a time of war.

    • Emily says:

      Also, for the Venetian symbol, the book is always open,and it has the inscription, or a variant thereof, ‘pax tibi, Marce, evangelista meus.’ The phrase is taken from the myth perpetrated by the Venetian state to give them a legitimate claim over Mark. The myth is that after leaving Peter in Rome, Mark traveled across the Venetian lagoon before going to Alexandria. On the lagoon he was said to have had a dream in which Christ told him that he would eventually come to rest on that very spot (where St. Mark’s Basilica was built).

      As for Venice choosing Mark as their symbol because of the miracle when returning with his body, that’s a little misleading, as Venice had already appropriated him by supporting Grado’s claim to him and the bishopric founded by his disciple Hermagoras over Aquileia’s claim. The state was actively seeking to replace their Byzantine patron saint, Theodore, with Mark. As an evangelist, Mark was the superior saint and allowed Venice to claim equal status with Rome. The merchants went to Alexandria to steal St. Mark after the state had already decided to take him on as patron saint. You can still see Venice’s homage to their original patron on the other column in the Piazzetta, though most people overlook him for the lovely composite creature that’s supposed to be the Winged Lion of St. Mark.

      Love the information about the street names, though.

      • Hi Emily,
        Thanks for your comments! That’s definitely a much more detailed description of what happened 🙂 We didn’t mean to imply that there wasn’t any reason for St. Mark to be Venice’s symbol before his body was brought to Venice, just that, after they got to Venice with the relics, Venice voted him their patron saint. This is what the St. Mark’s Basilica website itself writes. Is this not the case?

        Thanks for stopping by, and for your expertise!

  • What a beautiful blog and fascinating post – makes me want to travel to Venice NOW! Ciao Francesca

  • Great web site. Maybe you can help solve a mystery. I took an image of a “CE” symbol about 20 years ago in Venice. See about one half way on left of page at http://www.gtwassociates.com/gtw/index.htm/dontfollow

    I recall it was a tile on a sidewalk or street … but maybe on a wall … for sure outside

    What could be its orginal meaning?

    • Seth says:

      YES I was just in Venice and I spotted a number of these tiles all over the streets. I’ve been trying to Google an answer to this mystery but nothing yet so far. Please help!

  • Steve says:

    Great info, this site had the best information on the symbolism of the gondola’s “ferro” and answered all my questions. Thanks!

  • Stella says:

    Hello to all.
    Is there anyone who knows dialetto Veneto?

    • Walks of Italy says:

      Hi Stella, how can we help you?

    • Susan Curcio says:

      Great article! I am living in Venice (32 yrs) now, with my Venetian husband. One addition to it – in Italian, ‘calle’ is pronounced with the ‘ll’ sound (which is a TINY bit different than the ‘l’ sound). But in the Venetian dialect, the ‘ll’ and ‘l’ sounds are replaced (most of the time) with ‘y’ sound like in Spanish. So ‘luce’ (light) would sound like ‘yuce’ .

  • mary crabb says:

    I found a necklace in Venice. It is a hand with a symbol on it that I don’t recognize. Looks like 3 slanted,straight lines with a horizontal line on top. Does anyone know what this means??

  • Graziana Rossi says:

    Love all the info! I am the daughter of Veneto parents, living in Australia. My dad was from Meduna & I will be travelling there soon to throw one of his coins in the river (he passed away last year & always wanted to return). Do you know if Meduna has a special symbol as I would like to buy something special from that region in honour of my dad.. or patron (like the winged lion of venice) Grazie mille!

    • Walks of Italy says:

      Ciao Graziana, we are sorry for your loss. Here’s an image of the coat of arms from Meduna di Livenza and the town’s patron saint is St. John the Baptist. The symbol of Veneto is the winged lion, and souvenirs with the symbol are easy to find throughout the region. Let us know if you have any questions!

  • Ven Et says:

    Hi!

    I have stumbled upon a more in-depth article about iconography of Lion of st Mark, if one wishes to dig deeper:

    https://medium.com/p/of-lions-and-books-and-swords-a0a5dc1f164

    I think it is a nice complement to your fine article 🙂

    V.E.

  • Jan Taylor says:

    Dear Walks-of-Italy~
    I’m staying in Venice for three months, and have seen a number of small decorative plaques on the outside of buildings, besides the large decorations on some of the big hotels, etc. What are these? They’re small, maybe a foot across, and of different subjects: a flower, a tree with creatures beneath it, a bird, etc. Do you know of these have significance other than decoration?
    Thanks for your help.
    J.T.

    • Walks of Italy says:

      Hi JT,

      Sorry, but we’re not exactly sure what the decorative plaques are for… likely they truly are just a decoration, but if you find one near to a hotel, maybe the reception would know! Have a great time on your extended stay!

  • Emy says:

    What is the origin of the Venetian street name “piscina” – as in Piscina San Samuele?

    • Walks of Italy says:

      Hi Emy,

      Piscina means swimming pool in Italian. The street name likely represents a small body of water that has been filled in and paved over.

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