Venetian floors will bounce under your feet, will make you feel you are on rollercoaster with their bumps and hills and will finally enchant you with their harmonious and colourful layouts. You just need to look downwards and you will realise you’ve found magical flying carpets.
Venice is a city built on river silt sedimenting in a lagoon where the Adriatic Sea dribbles in every six hours with its salt water. Land reclamation has been a constant work. Wooden pilings, which petrified throughout the centuries, support the city architecture.
The ground is constantly settling. According to recent analysis, the subsidence in the last century has been ca. 15 cm (6 inches). It should not surprising therefore that Venetian floors are known for their flexible and elastic nature as well as their strict, intimate relation with water —quite conflictual in the recent times.
Venetian Floors using the terrazzo technique
If there is a kind of floor that is typical of Venice, “terrazzo” comes immediately to one’s mind. Terrazzo is a technique used in the ancient Roman customs. Venetians adopted this technique and made it special as they used it not just for the ground floor, but also for the upper stories. Wooden planks laid over wooden beams became the platform where to place mortar —not cement as in modern terrazzo. Colourful marble chips and pebbles were then spread all over. A few months were spent to beat the whole floor, waiting for the humidity to leave.
These floors are one single piece and no structural settlement can affect them, as long as raw linseed oil is used. Moreover, the weight of these floors is evenly spread, so it actually brings stability to the whole structure and to the ceiling below.
Glass mosaics for a special Venetian floor, the Olivetti Showroom
Designed in 1958, the Olivetti Showroom is a masterpiece by Carlo Scarpa. A business card for this Italian company producing typewriters and calculators in the whole world before Silicon Valley, the Olivetti showroom is a real tribute to Venice and its history. Carlo Scarpa’s revisitation of Venetian floors is in particular quite unique.
Floors instead of walls in many colours and under the water lens
As Scarpa eliminated all walls within the space available, it is the floor that defines different areas with its different colourful mosaic tiles. You walk on red tiles at the entrance, on yellow tiles when you move to the backdoor towards the water and on blue or greyish tiles for other areas. The impasto looks like marble.
The floor suggests the presence of invisible walls. A lot of light comes in as the showroom is surrounded on two sides by glass windows that allow for air circulation, too. Like a Venetian “portego”, the traditional passage hall in a Venetian palace.
The tiles are in glass. They look all of the same size and shape, but as Venice is a hand-crafted city, nothing is really the same and even these tiles, cut by hand singularly, are all different. Irregularity and asymmetry emerge. There is no room for industrial standard here —which in fact does not conflict with the idea of design Adriano Olivetti promoted.
What strikes however most is that you feel as if you were walking on a floor covered in water with its distorting lens, rich in reflections.
Venetian floors in marble and corrosive saltwater
Far from adding beauty as in Carlo Scarpa’s vision, the repeated exceptional high water events in 2019 have been devastating for Venetian marble ground floors especially at the church of Santi Maria e Donato in Murano, at the Ca d’oro – Galleria Giorgio Franchetti and of course, in St Mark’s Basilica.
Save Venice has financed the careful restoration work at the Ca’ d’oro and at the Church of Santi Maria e Donato in Murano.
Marble tiles and the stucco holding them were attacked by the corrosive action of saltwater. Rinsing, cleaning, desalinising using a demineralised-water based solution are the steps with which these floors were saved. While walking on the floor at the Ca’ d’oro, I find it so moving.
I think of Franchetti on his knees, protecting them with some shoes for months and months while placing all the marble tiles. Maybe that is when he decided his ashes could not but be buried there.
The restoration work of the marble floor in St Mark’s Basilica
And St Mark’s Church? “Over 60% of the marble floor (both slabs and marble tiles) needs to be restored” said Pierpaolo Campostrini a year ago, when after the pandemics restorers found the floor covered in salt crystals. It looked like snow. Over 2000 square meters of marble (with some pieces dating back to the 11th century), were flooded for two months in a row. The mortar holding the tiles swelled up, the tesserae were scattered all over the floor.
I had the occasion to see the restoration work done with the financial help of Venetian Heritage and Bottega Veneta. The piece of the floor with the motif of the peacocks had been lifted completely to be restored. All the lost tesserae were placed back to where they belonged, on the reverse, one at a time. Once reconstructed, it was kept in demineralised water for long.
If one talks about around 2,8 million euros just for the restoration of the marble floor of the nave of church, 50 million euros are however needed to take care of the whole basilica.
The “Sea” marble floor in St Mark’s church
I felt privileged to enter the church before it re-opened to visitors after a whole year of restoration. Walking on that floor felt almost as a profanation. Thinking of the ancient and rare marble, such as red porphyry or green olive serpentine, admiring the geometry, solid and plane, I finally reached the “Sea”. This is what the slabs of Proconnesian Marmara marble in front of the iconostasis are called.
“Shiny stone” was used extensively in the Hagia Sophia and was also used in the Apostoleion in Constantinople. In St Mark’s Basilica it is a large portion of this floor, which encourages you to stop before the altar and to raise your eyes above, to the dome of the Ascension.
Right there, in the central area of the Greek cross ground plan of St Mark’s church, this ancient marble floor reminds you of the gentle, calm waves of the sea, with its reflections. A moment of conciliation between the sea and Venice, much searched for nowadays.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy