In Venetian history

The story of the first airport of Venice started before the Marco Polo International airport was founded in 1961.

The Patriarch Angelo Roncalli by the groundbreaking ceremony of the Marco Polo International Airport, 29 March 1958

Much before, in fact: the first time an airplane took off in Venice was on February 19th, in 1911. This story involves much inventiveness and advanced technology, courage and military strategy, politics, art and tourism. But especially it presents Venice in an unusual perspective.

Futurist movement against traditionalist Venice

The year before that historical event in 1911, artists who belonged to the Futurist movement threw ca. 800,000 leaflets from the top of the Clock Tower onto St Mark’s square. The content? They proposed to fill in canals with the ruins of the rotten palaces and burn gondolas, described as “poltrone a dondolo per cretini” (rocking armchairs for idiots), praising factories and large metallic bridges reaching out to the sky… In other words, they complained about the past-oriented nature of Venice, dreaming of a dynamic city projected towards a luminous industrial future.

How airplanes started to take off by Venice Lido Beach

Flying over Venice would mirror this new vision. No more gondolas, but real airplanes!

However, it was not easy to bring an airplane to Venice. The place chosen for the first take-off in the history of Venice was the Lido beach, in front of the Excelsior hotel. The H. Farman II airplane was transported by train and then by boat to the Lido island. And just as if that was not hard enough, that first flight was arranged on a foggy day. The pilot, Umberto Cagno, was an expert car driver.

Alessandro Umberto Cagno (on the left) at the 1914 French Grand Prix

He flew near the Adriatic Sea shore not to get lost. He wore a heavy fur coat. Can you imagine how cold it must have been up there… the flight didn’t last longer than two minutes, but eventually even Venice would be “viewed” from above — well, fog permitting.

Alessandro Umberto Cagno flying over Lido Beach on Feb. 19th in 1911 on his H. Farman II

Alessandro Umberto Cagno flying over Lido Beach on Feb. 19th in 1911 on his H. Farman II

Maybe because of the fog, two weeks later Cagno tried again and flew over St Mark’s square with no warning. No fog this time, instead some instants of utter silence of people watching with their noses up in the sky and then the flight was even welcomed by the band playing the royal march!

The profile of the ideal tourist in Venice in the early 1910s

Pietro Lando in his “Le ali di Venezia”, narrating for Il Poligrafo publisher the history of aviation in the lagoon (2013) points out how that first flight was thought to attract more wealthy visitors to Venice Lido. If you keep in mind that the only way to land at that time was to turn the motor off and no safety belts were available, it really depicts the profile of tourists Venice would have loved: young and adventurous, wealthy and sportive. The year after, again in Venice, Gianni Caproni flew with his airplane — the first ever designed and built in Italy! — on the day of the inauguration of the newly reconstructed bell tower in St Mark’s square. That day, April 25th 1912, the Art Biennale also opened.

The story of the first airport in Venice connected to WW1

The military exploitation of such technology soon became clear. During WW1 Venice was very close to the border with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its strategic position explains the investments in the area. 

How would you otherwise explain the reason why Venice was the city where a night flight took place for the first time in the whole of Italy? On April 11th in 1914 two men were able to fly from Venice to Chioggia and then back, water landing at the Arsenale. Not to mention that already in 1912 seaplanes were designed and built in the Venetian Arsenale, where they opened the first school in Italy to learn how to fly with these hybrid machines.

Near the Arsenale, by the island of Le Vignole you still find an artificial canal that was designed for a torpedo firing range of nearly 900 meters of length. At the end of the war, that was the largest hangar in Europe, with the possibility to host up to 78 airplanes. Lando lists the results of WW1 in Venice: 36 air raids, 786 grenades from 209 airplanes, over 1000 bombs with 52 victims.

The Giovanni Nicelli airport in Lido: the years of Fascism

In 1926 a real airport was built on the Lido island with a 1000-meter long airstrip in grass. It was the first commercial airport in the whole Italy, before Rome and Milan. It was entitled to Giovanni Nicelli, a flying ace during WW1. The Nicelli airport would help you reach Vienna in five hours, with a stop in Klagenfurt — still better than the train which would take 16 hours. And then the year after you could reach Rome, too, and, once in Vienna, you could then fly to Berlin, Warsaw, Budapest, Belgrad and Munich.

Details of the inscription at the Giovanni Nicelli Airport with the blue swallow symbol, designed by Lido resident artist Amelia Venturini

The story of the first airport in Venice: architecture, painting and Fascism

The construction of the first airport in Venice was completed in 1935. Felice Santabarbara and Mario Emmer were the architects, while the inner decoration was designed by Giovanni Nei Pasinetti. Paintings by Guglielmo Sansoni, aka Tato, can be seen on a wall in the foyer. Tato was part of the team of artists who, stemming from futurism, re-launched the artistic project and founded in 1929 the so-called movement of aeropainting (aeropittura in Italian). 

Tato, Il 6 motori su Monti-mare, 1934, oil painting

If once more politics would use the airport and the airplanes for its propaganda, it is interesting to notice that the airport went beyond the fascist years. It was eventually replaced, after long discussions, by the Marco Polo airport you use today only because airstrips needed to get larger as airplanes got much larger, too.

One versus 11 million flying into Venice

And today? The Nicelli airport has been recently restored and given a new life. It looks to me like an interesting return to “tiny is beautiful”. It is currently used by small airplanes and helicopters, with a great restaurant I was told, called Fly. Elegant and classic.

A private jet at the Giovanni Nicelli airport at Lido and the grass airstrip behind

Landing by the lagoon at the Giovanni Nicelli airport at Lido and the grass airstrip behind

From one to 11 millions flying to Venice

By the way, in 1826 a French woman, named Èlisa Garnerin, parachuted from an air balloon over St Mark’s piazzetta.

Èlisa Garnerin (1791-1853). French balloonist and parachutist. She learned to fly balloons at the age of 15. Following her aunt Jeanne-Genevieve Garnerin, she became the second woman to make a parachute jump. She parachuted from an air balloon over St Mark’s piazzetta in 1826.

She was the first person flying in Venice. In 2019 before Covid19 over 11 million people reached Venice by plane. Not all of them were tourists, of course. In the same year, Marco Polo International Airport was the fourth largest in Italy. It is always a matter of how you envision the future of Venice.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

Note about the picture header: the mark by the Calle dell’Ascensione in Venice where water taxis picked you up to take you to the Giovanni Nicelli airport

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