In Venetian history

The remains of a Roman Villa in the northern Venetian lagoon, near Lio Piccolo, have been under investigation since the archeologist Ernesto Canal started in the 1980s. 

Ernesto Canal, a portrait of the archeologist who discovered the Roman Villa at Lio Piccolo, photo taken from the website of the University of Venice Ca’ Foscari:

Every year new discoveries, further research and digging make this archeological site very fascinating. Anyone intrigued by the history of Venice and its lagoon is invited to join the “archeological aperitifs” for an update:

The fun part is the more you investigate, the more questions rise!

A Roman villa in Lio Piccolo

In June 2024 I attended one of these events, too, reaching the site with my wooden “sanpierota” boat. Lio Piccolo, literally “small lido, sand beach” is a favorite of ours on our lagoon wanderings.

Our sanpierota Còcola in the lagoon of Venice

It lies by the crossroad of two major canals, the canal of San Felice and the canal Riga running around Valle Olivari fish farm. Not too far, the island “Salina” and a lovely trattoria, called “Le saline” are nearby reminding you that not just beaches used to be there, but also salt marshes as the name “saline” refers to “salt”.

Near Lio Piccolo, by the San Felice Canal, northern Venetian lagoon

The Venetian lagoon: not just Torcello

The canal San Felice is one of the deepest canals in the lagoon and it connects to the open sea. During our sailing races, its currents can be pretty challenging. You immediately wonder what it must have been like during the 1st century AC. In fact, you wonder what the lagoon looked like 2000 years ago. 

Let’s start saying the lagoon is a natural environment which has always been artificially modified by human presence. Its liminal, frontier position between rivers and the open sea has brought the lagoon to constantly change. The diversion of rivers which used to empty out in the lagoon was one of the major interventions to prevent the lagoon to silt up or to avoid malaria.

The islands of Torcello, Santa Cristina, San Lorenzo di Ammiana, Costanziaca or La Cura and the lagoon of the Sette Soleri north of Lio Piccolo site are (or rather used to be) all located along a main canal leading to the ancient Roman port city of Altino.

Remains on the island La Cura, northern Venetian lagoon

Now the landscape is mainly marshland, shallow water where some swans or shell ducks linger lazily, or where silver herons stand still.

Shell ducks lingering on marshland, northern Venetian lagoon

Some fishing nets are zigzagging the water between March and November.

A canal, once the Sile River

A Roman Villa was therefore built at Lio Piccolo during the 1st century AC. The idea archeologists have developed is that the Roman villa was built there because the canal Riga was not a canal, but it was the Sile river, which now no longer empties out in the lagoon. What makes this river interesting is that the Sile is not of a torrential kind, which makes it hard to navigate. In fact, it is the longer karst spring river in Europe, calm, gentle water. Perfect for transportation and for grain ships.

Sile River, near Cortellazzo, Venice

A Roman villa in the Venetian lagoon was in fact built along the route where the sea met with the Sile river. But when was it built? What did it look like?

A Roman villa in the Venetian lagoon and its two lives

The villa seems to have had two lives. A first period, dating back to the 1st-2nd century AC and, after a contraction during the 3rd century, a second period to the 4th-5th century AC. These two periods seem to have been differently characterized. 

Between the 1st and the 2nd century AC the villa was an elegant, refined mansion, not necessarily a private one, maybe inhabited by some public officer. Similar to the Roman villa in Baia, the Roman villa in the Venetian lagoon at Lio Piccolo likely had a porch, it was beautifully frescoed in the rooms for the guests and for the  banquets. 

Fresco fragments of a Roman villa

Imagine: over 3000 fragments of frescoes have been collected around 1,5 meters below the water level, preserved in anaerobic mud. One fragment shows a villa with a porch facing the water, others show plants and birds. 

Fresco fragments representing a villa with a porch by some water front, Roman Villa at Lio Piccolo, norther Venetian lagoon, 1st-2nd cent. AC, photo taken from Vivere d’acqua project FB page

Stucco fragments: they used to frame a wall fresco in the Roman Villa at Lio Piccolo, 1st-2nd cent. AC

Likely fish, salt and agriculture were the focus of its economic activities.

A second period dating back to the 4th-5th century brought the villa to new life, after a period of decadence around the 3rd century. Just before and maybe right after the Roman Empire was collapsing this villa experienced a rebirth, changing to a more trading focused mission. Import and export. Amphoras coming from Africa or the East witness this new activity.

At the moment of my visit in early June 2024, the part under investigation showed rooms for workers, likely slaves. Small residential rooms, brick walls no longer to be found but it is clear where they were.

An archeologist, part of the Vivere d’acqua team, University of Venice Ca’ Foscari, explaining their work at the Roman Villa at Lio Piccolo, Venice

The Project: Vivere d’acqua

What it’s really amazing is that it’s likely 5% only of what lies under the lagoon water and mud flats which has been discovered. So much lies under at least one meter of water or in land which does not get excavated… Here is the link to the website of the project “Vivere d’Acqua”: and the video clips regarding the area and the villa: 

Since Ernesto Canal started talking to old fishermen who knew where “stones” could be found in the lagoon, the image of a different northern lagoon in the Roman and medieval age has taken shape. 

Shall we imagine a vast area where agriculture, fish farming, salt marshes were of great importance? Canals or rivers with plenty of boats moving around to connect to towns on the mainland? Roman villas with colorful frescoes and people who likely adapted themselves to the water environment?

Well, as long as the University of Venice Ca’ Foscari keeps on working, we can imagine an exciting future of new discoveries and aperitifs 🙂 

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

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Showing 2 comments
  • Jill Kerby

    Another fascinating blog, many thanks. I expect that anyone with more than just a passing interest in Venice (me!) is probably aware of how the marshy lagoon became a sanctuary for the people of the mainland of the Veneto who were fleeing the Barbarian invaders of 5th century Rome. It’s part of the wonderful foundation story of La Serenissima . But what most of those visitors are probably less aware of is that there had been a presence of people in the northern lagoon, ‘ancient Romans’ as we tend to generically describe them, who were probably not the ancestors of the people who actually founded Venice. (I do believe I read this in another excellent ‘foundation’ blog YOU wrote a few years ago! ☘️)

    Anyway, what is particularly interesting about this update is the picture you paint of the rivers and canals of the northern lagoon islands at the edge of the mainland where those ancient ‘Romans’ may have built their lovely villas and later, their busy trading posts (before the Barbarians drove them off.) I even pulled out a good map of the lagoon that I have, to trace all the island landmarks you mention. Thank you for including photos that also show just how peaceful and beautiful this part of the lagoon is today – a far cry from what it must have been in the third and fourth centuries! ☺️

    • Wow, you could not have it said any better! Grazie!!! It’s such a fascinating story, and archeological surveys sound like a detective story mixed with political, economic and even environmental aspects. More to come, I am sure!